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How can chronic stress affect my health?

Several of your bodily organs are affected by the endocrine system when your body responds to stress. Stress can affect your cardiovascular system, it can trigger flare-ups in people with certain skin conditions such as psoriasis, and it may worsen symptoms in people with chronic conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. Stress also causes insomnia and can lower your immune system, making you more susceptible to infections. 
Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, stimulating the release of hormones, such as cortisol. A constant saturation of this results in many physiologic changes including increased heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure. Under normal conditions these changes subside quickly, but chronic stressors, including anxiety, fear, anger, and grief, can keep the nervous system perpetually aroused. Prolonged stress has been found to contribute to illness and immune changes in both human and animal models.
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When we face fear—or even recall a stressful or frightening event from the past--these resulting hormonal changes super-charge the body to a state of high arousal to prepare us for action. However, when this alarm stage happens for days or weeks, it is called chronic stress. If we do not have a healthy way of responding to the chronic stress or counterbalancing the fight or flight response, the constant exposure to stress hormones eventually cause our body to become overloaded, leading to physical and/or psychological problems. Chronic stress causes anxiety, insomnia, depression, gastrointestinal problems, and sometimes alcohol or drug dependency.
We now conclude that when perceived stress disrupts the delicate balance of the human body for a long period of time, we are at higher risk of health problems, including premature skin aging, exacerbations of pimples, acne or rosacea, and even skin cancer and other disease.
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When stress happens for days or weeks, it is called chronic stress. Chronic stress occurs when we face stressors over a period of time. If we do not have a healthy way of responding to stress or counterbalancing the fight-or-flight response, the constant exposure to stress hormones eventually cause our body to become overloaded, which can lead to physical and psychological problems. Chronic stress can cause anxiety, insomnia, depression, gastrointestinal problems, and dependency on drugs and alcohol.
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The body doesn’t distinguish between physical and psychological threats. When you’re stressed over a busy schedule, an argument with a friend, a traffic jam, or a pile of bills, your body reacts just as strongly as if you were facing a life-or-death situation. If you have a lot of responsibilities and worries, your emergency stress response (adrenaline) may be “on” most of the time. The more your body’s stress system is activated, the easier it is to trip and the harder it is to shut off.

 

Long-term exposure to stress can lead to serious health problems. Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in your body. It can raise blood pressure, suppress the immune system, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, contribute to infertility, and speed up the aging process. Long-term stress can even rewire the brain, leaving you more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.

Chronic stress increases the production of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol,  increases your blood pressure, increases inflammation which lowers your immune function to fight illness, increases your blood sugar, impairs your memory and slows your digestive function.  Because of these physical reactions of your body to chronic stress your risk of chronic diseases increases such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, obesity, depression and hypertension.
RealAge
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Chronic, unrelenting stress -- the kind that modern life is too full of -- changes your brain and body in all sorts of ways. Memory slips. Blood pressure rises. You gain fat around your belly, the unhealthiest place to put on pounds. This is called visceral fat because it’s deeply embedded around your vital organs, thus increasing your risk for heart disease, cancer, and other illnesses. Your immune system takes a hit and you become more susceptible to infections. (Which explains why you’re more likely to get a cold when you are overworked or overwrought.) Wound healing slows by as much as 40 percent, oil glands go into overdrive, and inflammation takes off. Plus, free radicals proliferate and run wild, subtly damaging skin and eventually drying it out, creating wrinkles and turning softness to sag. What’s more, some elements within the skin, including the hair follicles, are supersensitive to stress hormones. This may explain why some people lose their hair or grow it in the wrong places after a serious bout of emotional stress as hormones send the wrong message or no message at all. No, stress has nothing to do with the growing shag on your husband’s back -- that’s caused by different hormones!

Unfortunately, the ability to turn off the stress response, and return cortisol levels to normal, appears to decline with age. And, as these negative factors persist, your antioxidant defense mechanism takes a hit, leaving you vulnerable to disease and accelerated aging on the inside and outside.

Few people can weather and wear stress well. While you may not so easily see clogged arteries, high blood pressure, and abdominal fat, for example, in someone, you can usually see the signs of stress in her appearance.

From The Mind-Beauty Connection: 9 Days to Less Stress, Gorgeous Skin, and a Whole New You by Amy Wechsler.

Kelly Traver
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Chronic stimulation of the stress response affects your health in a striking number of ways, so having a handle on the stress response is critical for maintaining a healthy life. When stress continues unchecked, your body starts to display:

  • High blood pressure
  • High blood sugar level
  • High cholesterol level
  • Increased frequency of heart attacks and strokes
  • Increased heart arrhythmias
  • Increased infections
  • Decreased mental acuity
  • Headaches, temporomandibular pain, neck pain, and lower-back pain
  • Irritable bowel symptoms
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Sleep disruption
  • Increased perception of pain
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or heartburn
  • Weight changes
  • Decreased performance
  • Faster aging

A little stress can help you get things done -- but if stress goes on and on, it can cause big problems. In this video, Dr. Oz Show guest and internist Keri Peterson, MD, explains the damage that chronic stress can cause.


How does chronic stress affect my body?

Continue Learning about Stress

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.