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The Harmful Effects of Chronic Stress

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Throughout our lives we are always coming across events and times that can cause us stress. Whether it is our home life, work or trauma, stress is unavoidable. Chronic stress occurs over a long period of time and is the consistent sense of feeling pressured and overwhelmed. When this type of stress goes untreated it can greatly affect your overall health. This affects virtually every system in the body, either directly or indirectly.

In this article, we will learn what causes this severe type of stress, the symptoms and how it can affect each system. We will take a look at different ways we can avoid or receive help for chronic stress. 

Causes of Chronic Stress 

There are many different factors that can go into the reasons behind why someone may experience chronic stress. It can be rooted from a traumatic event that happened in the past, marital problems, the pressure of school and the list can go on and on. When people begin experiencing stressful situations, the normal reaction is to retreat and avoid. 

When you begin to experience constant heightened alertness, or feeling on edge from these situations, this is what chronic stress is. Do you ever get a piercing headache or stomach pains from being put under so much stress in your life? Chronic stress puts pressure on the body for an extended period of time. This causes different symptoms and risks of developing more serious illnesses. 

Symptoms of Chronic Stress

Chronic stress takes a toll not only on the mind but the body. It can cause both physical and psychological symptoms and illnesses. Not every person experiencing chronic stress will have the same symptoms or severity of these symptoms. Sadly, these issues and illnesses brought on by stress can hinder the way people communicate and function in their daily lives. 

Here is a list of potential symptoms that chronic stress can bring upon the body:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Fatigue 
  • Irritability
  • Rapid or disorganized thought 
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Loss of control
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Upset Stomach
  • Muscle tension
  • Nervousness 
  • Changing of appetite
  • Acne
  • Low self esteem

The list can go on and on, but let’s talk about how chronic stress can affect each system specifically in our body.

Muscular System

When your body feels stressed or you find yourself in a stressful situation, the natural response is to tense up or clench your jaw. This response happens when your muscles are trying to protect themselves from injury. When we are constantly stressed, this reaction does not get the chance to relax. This can cause more frequent headaches and body aches and pains. The feeling of being sore after a hard workout, but only brought on by stress.  

When this tension continues it mainly affects the head, shoulders and back. This can bring on other, and sometimes more severe chronic painful conditions. 

Sexual and Reproductive System

Because stress can effect the body and mind, this can cause loss of sex drive and issues with performance for both for men and women. For men, extended periods of chronic stress can cause a decrease in the production of testosterone. This can, in turn, cause erectile dysfunction as well as, in a more severe case, infections in the prostate and testes. 

Men can also experience a decrease in sperm production and maturation, which can affect someone trying to conceive. Chronic stress can also cause difficulties for women who are trying to conceive as well. It can decrease the chances of a healthy pregnancy, and increase the chances of her experienced postpartum depression. 

Women always hear the excuse that their menstrual cycle is late due to stress, but this is not a myth. High stress levels can cause fluctuations or the absence of the menstrual cycle, as well as a more painful or longer cycles. Sexual desire can also decrease for women who are experiencing a more stressful time in their life. 

Immune System

Stress hormones can be a quick fix to immediate situations, like healing wounds and helping avoid infections. If these hormones last for a long period of time, they can actually weaken your immune system. When experiencing chronic stress you are more susceptible to viral infections like the flu or a common cold. Stress can also prolong the time our body takes to heal and fight off these illnesses.  

Digestive/Gastrointestinal System

When we experience stress the first physical place we feel it is in our stomachs. Normally with loss of appetite, nausea and bloating. Stress interferes with the way the food moves through the body, in turn causing constipation or diarrhea. Due to stress affecting digestion and which nutrients the intestines absorb, this can cause an increase in gas production. 

Chronic stress can also affect or worsen pre existing symptoms like ulcer flare ups with someone suffering from ulcerative colitis. Do not get confused, stress does not cause an increase of acid in the stomach or ulcers, contrary to popular belief. It can only affect the severity of the already ongoing conditions.     

Cardiovascular System

Your heart and blood vessels make up this system of your body and work side by side to provide nourishment and oxygen to the organs. Chronic stress causes an increase in heart rate, which causes the heart to pump faster and harder. This also increases the amount of blood pumped to the larger muscles in the body. In an extreme and prolonged period, this can lead to higher risk of hypertension, heart attack or stroke. 

To put it in simpler terms, chronic stress causes the heart to work harder and faster. This can lead to long term issues in the future if help is not provided.

Respiratory System

When stress begins to affect the cardiovascular system it, in turn, affects the respiratory system as well. When your heart begins pumping faster this can cause shortness of breath and rapid breathing. Someone with a pre-existing respiratory disease, like asthma or emphysema, should be more cautious when put in a stressful situation. This can make it even more difficult for oxygen to get into their airway and lungs.

Acute stress, stress caused by a less serious situation, can trigger asthma attacks or panic attacks. This can put more stress on the body, eventually leading to chronic stress and more serious conditions. 

Nervous System

Our nervous system is in charge of our fight or flight response when put in stressful situations. For example, we try fighting off life threatening situations, or flee from something that may harm us. The adrenal gland releases the adrenaline hormone which can cause an increase in heartbeat and send blood rushing to areas of the body such as the muscles, heart and other main organs needed for emergency.  

The nervous system is responsible for triggering these stress responses when we are in potentially threatening situations. Experiencing this prolonged period of chronic stress drains the body and causes much fatigue. The nervous system will continue to trigger these stress reactors which causes more and more stress on the body. This type of stress does not directly affect the nervous system, rather than it continuing to trigger more and more stress reactors.

How Can We Avoid Chronic Stress or Receive Help?

After learning about the way chronic stress can have such negative effects on our bodies, how can we avoid it or at least receive the help to deal with it. Many people don’t know the healthiest way to deal with stress, so they ignore it all together. This can be unhealthy and bring more stress to your life. 

Don’t let this article stress you out more, there are many ways we can better cope with this type of stress. Having a healthy support network around you can help when talking about what is stressing you out. Exercise and regular physical activity is a great way to relieve stress. Sleep is also important when it comes to dealing with stressful situations. 

There are time management courses or workshops on how to stay organized that are there to prevent these issues from stressing you out. People tend to bite off more than they can chew, so allowing yourself time to relax and wind down is important. Everyone should take time to do leisure activities that they enjoy to keep their mind and headspace clear and healthy.

If you feel that you can’t get it under control on you own, talk to a licensed professional to get the help you need.

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