Chronic stress can have a serious impact on our physical as well as psychological health due to sustained high levels of the chemicals released in the ‘fight or flight’ response. Let’s take a closer look at what’s going on.
The Role of the Nervous System
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is a vast network of nerves reaching out from the spinal cord, directly affecting every organ in the body. It has two branches, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic, which have opposite effects.
The sympathetic ANS helps us deal with stressful situations by initiating a ‘fight or flight’ reaction. After the danger has passed, the parasympathetic ANS takes over, decreasing heartbeat and relaxing blood vessels.
In healthy people, the two branches of the ANS maintain a balance — action followed by relaxation. Unfortunately many people’s sympathetic ANS stays on guard, making them unable to relax and let the parasympathetic system take over. If this situation becomes chronic, a whole variety of stress-related symptoms and illnesses can follow.
Mind and body are inextricably linked and the interaction between them can produce physical changes. Our brain notices a stressor, a physical reaction is triggered, and the reaction can lead to further emotional reactions and mental and physical damage. Some problems such as headaches and muscle tension are often directly caused by the bodily responses that accompany stress. Many other disorders, some say most, are aggravated by stress.
The human body is designed to withstand occasional extreme stress, so can survive quite a lot of pressure. It’s important to remember that most negative symptoms can be corrected if you take action. And there’s a lot of help available. If you are at all worried, do not delay in getting expert advice — your peace of mind is worth the effort. The problem will most likely not go away and the worst thing you can do is ignore it.
If you do develop a stress-related illness, at least you will have become familiar with your individual ‘weak point’, and will be able to keep a close eye on it. If similar symptoms creep back, take them very seriously as a warning. Take a close look at your current situation and ease off the pressure wherever possible. Most of the problems below aren’t life-threatening, and controlling your stress levels will help keep them at bay.
Over the long term, people who react more to stress have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. This risk particularly is linked to people who tend to be excessively competitive, impatient, hostile, and move and talk quickly. Of these characteristics, hostility is often pinpointed as the most significant.
The common stress response of eating comfort foods, with their accompanying fat and salt, is not beneficial to the heart either.
High Blood Pressure
Known as hypertension, this is a very common chronic disease which usually has no obvious symptoms. But it raises your risk of stroke, heart failure, kidney failure and heart attack. Stress increases blood pressure in the short term, so chronic stress may contribute to a permanently raised blood pressure. If you have a family history of hypertension and heart problems, make sure you have regular checkups with your doctor, and try to follow his advice.
Susceptibility to Infection
There is no doubt that under stress the immune system is suppressed, making you more vulnerable to infections. Allergies and autoimmune diseases (including arthritis and multiple sclerosis) may be exacerbated by stress. This effect can be partly offset by social support from friends and family. Being stressed also slows the rate at which you recover from any illnesses you already have.
Stress is known to aggravate skin problems such as acne, psoriasis and eczema. It also has been linked to unexplained itchy skin rashes. These skin problems are themselves intensely stressful.
Continued stimulation of muscles through prolonged stress can lead to muscular pain such as backache. Together with our sedentary lifestyles and bad posture, this makes back, shoulder and neck ache extremely widespread.
Stress also is thought to aggravate underlying painful conditions such as herniated discs, fibromyalgia and repetitive strain injury (RSI). Furthermore, most migraine sufferers say that stress contributes to their headaches, which can last for days.
There is some evidence that chronic stress may lead to insulin-dependent diabetes in people who are predisposed to the disease. It could be that stress causes the immune system to destroy insulin-producing cells.
Stress does not normally cause infertility, but the two have been linked many times. People who are trying for a baby are more likely to conceive when on holiday or when facing little stress, and fertility treatment is more successful at these times too.
Carlson N. R. (2004). Physiology of behavior, 8th ed. New York: Allyn & Bacon.