We’ve all been there—late for an important meeting, called to the boss’s office without notice or missed a vital deadline. The brain sends a signal out to the rest of your body, indicating something is wrong. The body then readies itself for “fight or flight”. Your heart races, your breath quickens and your muscles get ready for action. This response is designed to protect you, by preparing your body to react quickly in an emergency. But if the response keeps firing day after day, it can put your health at serious risk.
Central nervous & endocrine system
In a fight or flight situation, the central nervous system activates the endocrine system to ready the body for action. As the nervous system continues to trigger physical reactions, it causes wear and tear on the body. It’s not so much what chronic stress does to the nervous system itself that matters. But what continuous activation of the nervous system does to other bodily systems.
Stress can cause shortness of breath and rapid breathing, as the airway between the nose and the lungs constricts. Some studies show that acute stress can even trigger asthma attacks. Furthermore, shallow breathing, using the shoulders instead of the diaphragm to breathe, disrupts the balance of gases in the body. This can lead to uncomfortable bloating and embarrassing flatulence.
Chronic stress has been shown to increase the heart rate and blood pressure. This makes the heart work harder to produce the blood flow needed for bodily functions. Long-term elevations in blood pressure are harmful and can lead to a heart attack, heart failure, abnormal heart rhythms and stroke.
The brain sends nerve signals to the muscles, telling them to contract in case you need to fight or run. In times of prolonged stress, the brain can continue to send this signal, even when the muscle is no longer needed for movement. This can sometimes lead to a painful condition called muscle rigidity.
Stress increases gut motility (contraction of the muscles that mix and propel contents in the gastrointestinal tract) and fluid secretion. Therefore, you might get a bout of diarrhea or repeated urges to urinate during or following a stressful event. Stress can also both delay emptying stomach contents and speed up the passing of material through the intestines. This combination of activity leads to abdominal pain and altered bowel habits.
Sexuality and reproductive system
In men, long-term stress can cause a decrease in testosterone levels. This can interfere with sperm production and cause erectile dysfunction or impotence. For women, stress can lead to irregular, heavier or more painful periods.
The immune system is made up of of organs, cells and chemicals. They defend us against foreign bodies, such as bacteria, viruses and cancerous cells. When we’re stressed, the immune system’s ability to fight off antigens is impaired. Subsequently, we are more susceptible to infection and illness.
It is important to note that short-term stress can temporarily boost memory, performance, alertness and learning. It’s long-term stress that you need to watch out for. If you do notice chronic stress affecting your physical health, then see a health professional for assessment and advice.