It does a lot more than I thought

All throughout people’s lives, we all deal with stress at some point in time. Many of us think stress doesn’t really affect our bodies the thing is, we never really thought about what it could be doing to our bodies and the consequences of never properly dealing with our stress over time. So I decided to do some research on what stress could be doing to the human body. Stress can affect many parts of the body, including the Musculoskeletal system, Respiratory system, Cardiovascular system, Endocrine system, Gastrointestinal system, and Nervous system.

Muscle tension is almost a reflex reaction to stress the body’s way of guarding against injury and pain. Chronic stress causes the muscles in the body to be in a more or less constant state of high alert. When muscles are taut and tense for long periods of time, this may trigger other reactions in the body and even promote stress-related disorders. For example, both tension-type headaches and migraine headaches are associated with chronic muscle tension in the area of the shoulders, neck, and head. Musculoskeletal pain in the low back and upper extremities has also been linked to stress, especially job stress. Muscle tension, and eventually, muscle atrophy due to disuse of the body, all promote chronic, stress-related musculoskeletal conditions. Relaxation techniques and other stress-relieving activities and therapies have been shown to effectively reduce muscle tension, decrease the incidence of certain stress-related disorders, such as headaches, and increase a sense of well-being.

Air comes in through the nose and goes through the larynx in the throat, down through the trachea, and into the lungs through the bronchi. Stress and strong emotions can present with respiratory symptoms, such as shortness of breath and rapid breathing, as the airway between the nose and the lungs constricts. For people without respiratory disease, this is generally not a problem as the body can manage the additional work to breathe comfortably, but psychological stressors can exacerbate breathing problems for people with pre-existing respiratory diseases such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD; including emphysema and chronic bronchitis). Some studies show that acute stress such as the death of a loved one can actually trigger asthma attacks. In addition, the rapid breathing or hyperventilation caused by stress can bring on a panic attack in someone prone to panic attacks.

The heart and blood vessels comprise the two elements of the cardiovascular system that work together in providing nourishment and oxygen to the organs of the body. Acute stress that is momentary or short-term such as meeting deadlines, being stuck in traffic, or suddenly slamming on the brakes to avoid an accident causes an increase in heart rate and stronger contractions of the heart muscle, with the stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol acting as messengers for these effects. In addition, the blood vessels that direct blood to the large muscles and the heart dilate, thereby increasing the amount of blood pumped to these parts of the body and elevating blood pressure. The consistent and ongoing increase in heart rate, and the elevated levels of stress hormones and of blood pressure, can take a toll on the body. This long-term ongoing stress can increase the risk of hypertension, heart attack, or stroke. Repeated acute stress and persistent chronic stress may also contribute to inflammation in the circulatory system, particularly in the coronary arteries, and this is one pathway that is thought to tie stress to a heart attack. The risk for heart disease associated with stress appears to differ for women, depending on whether the woman is premenopausal or postmenopausal. Postmenopausal women lose this level of protection due to the loss of estrogen, therefore putting them at greater risk for the effects of stress on heart disease.

When someone perceives a situation to be challenging, threatening, or uncontrollable, the brain initiates a cascade of events involving the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which is the primary driver of the endocrine stress response. This ultimately results in an increase in the production of steroid hormones called glucocorticoids, which include cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone”. The HPA axis During times of stress, the hypothalamus, a collection of nuclei that connects the brain and the endocrine system, signals the pituitary gland to produce a hormone, which in turn signals the adrenal glands, located above the kidneys, to increase the production of cortisol. Cortisol is normally produced in varying levels throughout the day, typically increasing in concentration upon awakening and slowly declining throughout the day, providing a daily cycle of energy. During a stressful event, an increase in cortisol can provide the energy required to deal with prolonged or extreme challenges. While this is valuable during stressful or threatening situations where injury might result in increased immune system activation, chronic stress can result in impaired communication between the immune system and the HPA axis.

Stress can affect this brain-gut communication,
and may trigger pain,
bloating, and other gut discomforts
to be felt more easily.

The gut has hundreds of millions of neurons that can function fairly independently and are in constant communication with the brain, explaining the ability to feel “butterflies” in the stomach. Stress can affect this brain-gut communication, and may trigger pain, bloating, and other gut discomforts to be felt more easily. The gut is also inhabited by millions of bacteria which can influence its health and the brain’s health, which can impact the ability to think and affect emotions. Early life stress can change the development of the nervous system as well as how the body reacts to stress. More or different foods, or an increase in the use of alcohol or tobacco, can result in heartburn or acid reflux. Stress or exhaustion can also increase the severity of regularly occurring heartburn pain. A rare case of spasms in the esophagus can be set off by intense stress and can be easily mistaken for a heart attack. Bowel Stress can also make pain, bloating, or discomfort felt more easily in the bowels. Furthermore, stress can induce muscle spasms in the bowel, which can be painful. Stress can make the intestinal barrier weaker and allow gut bacteria to enter the body.

The nervous system has several divisions: the central division involving the brain and spinal cord and the peripheral division consisting of the autonomic and somatic nervous systems. The autonomic nervous system has a direct role in physical response to stress and is divided into the sympathetic nervous system, and the parasympathetic nervous system. The SNS response is fairly sudden in order to prepare the body to respond to an emergency situation or acute stress short-term stressors. The central nervous system is particularly important in triggering stress responses, as it regulates the autonomic nervous system and plays a central role in interpreting contexts as potentially threatening. As the autonomic nervous system continues to trigger physical reactions, it causes a wear-and-tear on the body.

After finding all this, it has opened my eyes and has gotten me to think of ways to handle and manage my stress levels. Maybe this can help those who have stress as well.