August 13, 2020 6 min read

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We’ve all experienced stress in our lives, probably more times than we can count or than we would like to admit. From miniscule triggers that occur in everyday life to monumental moments, stress is inescapable. Since we know this, it matters not that we try to escape it, but how we choose to face and manage it. 

It’s no secret how stress affects us emotionally and we have a general understanding of the mental toll it takes on us, but how well do we really know the ways it affects our entire bodies? From our brains, digestive system, hormones, and more, stress touches on every single aspect of our lives both outside and inside ourselves. In this article we’re going to get to know the impact of stress on a deeper and more personal level, because by knowing more about it we are better able to manage and prevent it from taking over.

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Effects on the Brain

Brief periods of stress may have us experiencing forgetfulness and out of control; however, long-term periods of stress can take an extreme toll on our memory. Whether it be in a familiar or unfamiliar setting, in our hands or out of them, stress will interfere with our cognition, attention, and memory reports a Harvard article. 

This occurrence can be explained like this, despite the brain being one unit, it is made up of many parts that serve a variety of functions and purposes. When one unit of the brain is being continuously utilized, the overall energy and attention of other parts of the brain is focused on the one specific unit. This diversion is essentially the same as being ”side-tracked”. When one is side-tracked they are focused on one thing and all other obligations fade.

This can cause our memories to become forgetful as our brains are not fully aware of things outside of that which we are focused on.

Long-term stress has been shown to rewire our brains for the worst. Scientists have learned from animals that chronic stress can decrease activity in the parts of the brain dealing with “higher order tasks”, and more activity in parts related to survival mode. When the brain is continuously exercising specific parts that are designed to handle stress, other parts of the brain designed to handle complex thought begin to suffer.

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Effects on Hormones

Many people don’t understand the great role hormones hold within our bodies. We sure didn’t know the full gravity of their importance before now! The main system producing and regulating our hormones is called the endocrine system which is composed of the hypothalamus in the brain, the pituitary gland, thyroid gland, pancreas, and adrenal gland.

According to the American Psychological Association, within our bodies lies the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis which is important for stimulating stress response. This system is responsible for signaling an increase in the production of cortisol, the hormone associated with the “fight-or-flight” response. While this response is essential for human survival and well-being in critical situations, it is dangerous if stimulated in the long-term. 

If cortisol is continuously released regardless of whether one is stressed or not, this can cause miscommunication between the immune system and the HPA axis. This miscommunication can lead to conditions such as chronic fatigue, diabetes, immune disorders, and depression. Consistently high levels of cortisol can alter the production of sex hormones, reduce thyroid function, and create an imbalance in blood sugar levels. 

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Effects on Digestion

Similar to the effect of stress on the brain, when the body is stressed it’s attention goes to the problem at hand and shifts away from other functions such as digestion. According to the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, this action can cause food to remain un-metabolized, therefore the body isn’t harnessing important nutrients from the foods you’ve eaten. The Institute describes 4 effects of stress on digestion: 

1. Heartburn    
  
2. Gut peristalsis, or gastroparesis, is caused by nerve damage to the stomach and is a condition in which the muscles that assist in digesting food in the stomach are slowed or nonfunctional. Gastroparesis can result in nausea, vomiting, heartburn, abdominal pain, and more.
3. Gut immunitycan occur when the body’s natural stress response causes a large portion of the bacteria in our guts to be wiped out. According to an abundance of sources, the tissue in our guts houses 70% of the body’s immunity! The absence of good gut bacteria in our digestive system can lead to a weakened immune system and a higher susceptibility to inflammation, according to the Institute.

4. Weak metabolism occurs when blood is redirected to crucial organs such as the brain, heart, and limbs when the body is in a stressed state. This redirection of blood to vital organs can slow down the process of metabolism as it’s not a crucial function in a “fight-or-flight” state. A slow metabolism is also linked to weight gain as stress has been shown to cause an increase in the body’s storage of visceral fat around the abdomen to have long-term energy storage for vital organs.

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Effects on the Heart

The heart is a great indicator of our bodies experiencing stress as it is one of the most easily felt. We’ve all felt our heart beats quicken in stressful situations, but why does this occur? The impact stress has on the heart is dependent upon the duration, whether or not the period of stress is short or long-term. Short-term stress, such as that experienced by work deadlines or sitting in traffic, can cause the heart rate to increase while also releasing stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Once the short-term moment of stress has passed, you meet the deadline or get through traffic, the body returns to its normal state. 

On the other hand, long-term stress can have lasting effects on the heart. Consistent and prolonged high heart rate, high blood pressure caused by strain on blood vessels, and the release of stress hormones can damage the heart.

The longer the heart experiences stress, the more one is at risk for hypertension, heart attack, or stroke. 

According to an article published by the University of Rochester Medical Center, stress can also increase one’s risk for heart disease. This risk is caused by high levels of cortisol, which are linked to increased blood cholesterol, triglycerides, blood sugar, and blood pressure. These changes can contribute to plaque build up in the arteries over time. 

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Effects on the Musculoskeletal System

Have you ever been so stressed that your muscles seem to feel tighter? Maybe your neck is tense or your back feels achy. However you feel stress in your body, these are likely linked to your musculoskeletal system.

This muscle tension is the body’s natural response to stress, and is often released once the cause of stress passes. 

However, in a period of long-term stress, the muscles live in a state of constant tension. When the muscles are constantly tense this can lead to other stress-related disorders such as headaches and migraines. According to the Cleveland Clinic, stress can also initiate symptoms of fibromyalgia, arthritis, and other conditions due to stress lowering our threshold for pain. 

The American Psychological Association reports studies have shown stress-relieving activities and therapies are beneficial in effectively reducing muscle tension, the risk of developing stress-related disorders, and a general increase in a sense of well-being. 

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How to Reduce the Effects of Stress on the Body

The ways in which we relieve stress are unique to each person. Whether you go for a long run to take your mind off of your worries, or you practice slow and mindful yoga, it’s important to engage in those outlets that bring you peace daily. If you’re looking to try new activities that help to reduce stress, check out our 15 Ways to Reduce Stress article for more ideas!



Resources

  1. https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/protect-your-brain-from-stress
  2. https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress/effects-endocrine#menu
  3. https://psychologyofeating.com/4-ways-stress-impacts-digestion/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2515351/
  5. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352154616300183
  6. https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia
  7. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/7-strange-things-stress-can-body/
  8. https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress/effects-musculoskeletal


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