It’s common to feel stressed sometimes — but chronic stress can lead to health issues such as heart, muscle, and gut problems.
You likely experience some form of stress on a daily basis, whether it’s sitting in traffic, trying to find lost car keys, or rushing to meet a work deadline. As frustrating as these moments can be, they typically pass quickly and you can move on with your day.
If stress becomes regular and severe, it can impact your physical health, career, relationships, and mental health.
That said, there are many coping methods to help you manage stress, promoting calm and even reversing the negative impacts of stress.
The stress response occurs when your body goes into fight, flight, or freeze mode. This physiological response is meant to protect you from danger.
When you’re in a situation your body perceives as threatening, your brain and body move into a stress response and work hard to keep you safe.
Your body responds in the same way when you’re consistently stressed. Chronic stress causes a constant heightened state of arousal that can take a toll on all aspects of your health.
Here’s how long-term stress may impact your body’s systems:
Stress can cause your heart to beat faster and your body to release adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. The amount of blood pumping in your body also increases, which can increase blood pressure.
If these bodily responses occur regularly, you may have a higher chance of experiencing a heart attack, stroke, or high blood pressure.
When you’re stressed, your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) becomes active. This response happens quickly during periods of acute stress. Once the stress subsides, your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) — the “rest-and-digest” system — takes over to help your body recover and relax.
Chronic stress can cause continuous activation of both systems, which can be draining on your body.
In stressful situations, your adrenal glands produce more cortisol. Over time, this can cause fatigue, depression, or issues with your immune system.
When your body’s stress response kicks into gear, your muscles tense. Under chronic stress, your muscles may be in a constant state of tension, which can cause problems like chronic neck or jaw pain.
Stress can cause you to experience chest tightness and shortness of breath, which can be problematic for people with pre-existing respiratory issues like asthma.
There’s a direct link between brain and gut health, so if you’re feeling stressed on a regular basis, you may also experience nausea or digestive discomfort.
Low libido is a common side effect of chronic stress. Males may experience erectile dysfunction (ED) or impotence. Females may experience changes in their menstrual cycles and have trouble conceiving.
In some cases, chronic stress can also affect sperm production.
Chronic stress may also impact your ability to fight off infection.
“Continuous exposure to cortisol suppresses immune function, resulting in protective antibodies being unable to get circulated,” Dr. Sanam Hafeez, an NYC neuropsychologist and director of Comprehend the Mind. “This results in an increase in infections and disease.”
Chronic stress can also cause:
- changes in mood
It may also make it tougher to participate in regular physical activity, which can impact your overall well-being. Consistently high stress levels may also affect your relationships or self-worth.
Prolonged stress impacts all bodily systems and, in some cases, can cause serious harm.
“If our bodies are in a constant state of stress due to trauma, cultural climate, or present life stressors, the impacts of stress can only promote exhaustion for our system,” says Anna Boyd, a licensed professional counselor with Mindpath Health.
“When we are in a chronic state of hyperactivated sympathetic states for too long, the polyvagal theory states that we can drop down into our dorsal vagal response system,” she adds.
This is typically associated with physical and mental exhaustion, leading to burnout, severe depressive symptoms, and an inability to regulate mentally and physically.
“As a therapist, I have seen this lead to issues such as mental disarray, chronic pain, a diagnosis such as irritable bowel syndrome, high blood pressure, poor sleep, disconnection with motivation, inability to access gratitude or joy, and relationship problems,” Boyd explains.
“This is just a small list to add to the never-ending list of how chronic stress can negatively impact our systems.”
That said, reducing your stress levels and building healthy coping mechanisms can allow you to stay healthy and even reverse the negative effects of previous stress.
Numerous tools can help you manage stress effectively. But, it’s important to note that stress management isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach.
You may find it helpful to try out a few different techniques to see which ones work best for you.
Cultivating a mindfulness practice is beneficial for managing stress and maintaining optimal overall health.
A mindfulness routine can help you purposefully regulate your body to regulate the mind, Boyd explains. Mindfulness is cumulative, and every minute aids in allowing you to experience a more relaxed state.
Physical activity might not prevent stress altogether, but it can improve your ability to cope with it.
“Exercising targets inflammation with a correlation to anti-inflammatory responses,” says Dr. Hafeez. “Mood and overall well-being are improved with exercise.”
Interacting with people in your life can help distract you from the lingering feelings of stress. Additionally, having people to talk with can make coping easier when you’re going through a stressful period.
Experiencing stress now and then is typical. But if you’re constantly stressed, it can have adverse long-term effects on your mental and physical health.
The mental effects of long-term stress can include mood changes, anxiety, and depression. Physically, stress affects every bodily system, and when left untreated, it can cause issues like heart problems, poor immune function, and more.
Developing healthy lifestyle habits and learning effective coping strategies can help you better manage stress and prevent it from doing long-term damage.
“When it comes to stress, there is certainly hope for change, and the best way to start is to start to acknowledge some of the symptoms you may be displaying of a hyperactive nervous system. Advocate for yourself, seek support, and find balance,” recommends Boyd.