How does stress affect the body?

Aila Accad
Aila Accad on behalf of Sigma Nursing
Stress triggers responses in the body -- blood pressure-raising, heart-racing, head-aching, muscle-tensing, stomach-churning kinds of responses. When these responses continue for long periods without relief, they eventually become chronic conditions, illness and disease. Stanford Medical School and the World Health Organization agree that stress causes 85-95% of all illness and disease.
During stress, hormones including adrenaline and cortisol flood the body, resulting in:
  • an increased need for oxygen
  • increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • constricted blood vessels in the skin
  • tensed muscles
  • increased blood sugar levels
  • increased clotting ability of blood
  • spilling of stored fat from cells into the bloodstream
  • constriction of bowel and intestinal muscles
All these effects can strain your heart and artery linings. In fact, if you already have coronary heart disease, stress might lead to chest pain (angina). Plus, the increased tendency for blood to clot during stress may lead to a clot in your coronary arteries, causing a heart attack. Other physical dangers of stress include stomach problems as your bowel and intestinal muscles constrict.

While stress doesn't cause mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, it can activate them in people who may already be prone to them.

Too much stress can also affect your immune system, weakening it and making you more susceptible to colds, coughs and infections.

Other symptoms of stress include muscular tension, headaches, gastrointestinal illnesses and sleeping more or less than normal.
Stress causes a hormonal release of catecholamines and steroids. It is a "fight or flight" response to a stimulus. Long-term stress can affect the immune system, can increase blood pressure, and can increase the likelihood of stroke and heart attack. Immediate stress causes immediate reactions, while chronic stress can cause more prolonged and chronic changes. Stress not only affects the way we psychologically respond but also how our body responds physically.       

The hormones released during the body's stress response affect the body in several ways. Short-term stress helps people perform at a higher level, improving memory and the immune system. In fact, the body needs periodic stimulation to keep the stress response sharp. When you perceive stress all around you, however, the stress response never stops. Stress hormones make the body process sugar quickly, and without sugar, the hormones damage tissue and muscle. Over time, constant stress can lead to depression, bone loss, digestive issues, heart disease and sleep disorders.

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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.