The Physical Effects of Long-Term Stress
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.