We can all agree that excessive, chronic stress is bad for you. When we think of friends or loved ones who deal with chronic stress, we worry they may someday suffer a heart attack. But beyond the ways that chronic stress affects the cardiovascular system, how does stress affect other bodily systems? The pervasive and damaging effects of chronic stress on the entirety of the body may surprise you.
Six Bodily Systems’ Responses to Chronic Stress
When you are under stress, your muscles reflexively tense. This is the body entering its fight or flight response.
Chronic stress essentially keeps your musculature system in a constant state of agitation. When muscles are chronically tense, you have a greater chance of experiencing a disorder. Tension headaches and migraines are often associated with shoulder, neck, and head muscle tension.
Chronic muscle tension promotes chronic, stress-related musculoskeletal conditions, which can include shoulder, lower-back, upper back, hand/wrist pain, neck, and elbow/forearm pain.
You tend to breathe deeper when under stress. For most, this does not have a damaging effect. However, for people who have asthma or a lung disease such as COPD, deeper breathing can cause problems.
The onset of extreme stress may cause an asthma attack. And stress-related rapid breathing can turn into hyperventilation, or a panic attack.
Your liver manufactures extra blood sugar for a burst of energy when you are under stress. If you have chronic stress, your body may not reabsorb those elevated levels of blood sugar. This may increase your chance of developing type 2 diabetes.
Stress releases hormones, generates rapid breathing, and increases your heart rate. All of these symptoms can affect your digestive system through heartburn or acid reflux. Stress can also create a flare-up of existing ulcers. And of course stress affects food movement, which may lead to constipation or diarrhea.
Short-term stress kick-starts the immune system, which helps you battle infection and heal wounds quickly. However, continual release of cortisol into your bloodstream during chronic stress compromises your immune system. Therefore, those suffering from chronic stress are more likely to catch viral illnesses such as the common cold or flu. Also, excess cortisol release can increase recovery time.
Female Reproductive System
High levels of stress may play a role in irregular, absent, or painful menstrual cycles.
Stress can make the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome—cramping, bloating, mood swings—worse.
Hormone levels fluctuate during menopause. Adding stress to these already fluctuating hormones can increase the intensity of menopause symptoms.
If stress is added to the already highly-demanding lives of women, reduced sexual desire may occur.
Male Reproductive System
The nervous system affects the male reproductive system. The parasympathetic portion of the nervous system causes relaxation. The sympathetic portion causes arousal. In males, the autonomic nervous system produces testosterone and stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which generates arousal.
Stress releases cortisol. Cortisol regulates blood pressure and the normal functioning of male reproduction. Excess cortisol can interfere with the normal functioning of the male reproductive system.
Chronic stress can affect testosterone production and sperm production. Stress may even cause erectile dysfunction or impotence.
Good Stress, Bad Stress
The human body is designed to handle the effects of stress. Stress is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. There are some positive effects of stress, like the heightened alertness that comes with life changes. Stress becomes “bad stress”, or distress, when there is no relief and tension builds. The good news is you can minimize the effects of bad stress through physical and mental exercise.