Chronic Stress and Physical Health

20th April 2017

A bit of stress in life is good.  It gets us out of bed in the morning, motivates us to get things done and in the short term, gives us more energy and makes us more alert, which improves our performance.  But what about consistently high levels of stress?  In some cases, the exact opposite is true.  It can prevent us from getting a good night’s sleep, paralyse us into inaction and inhibit our performance on all manner of things from speaking out at work, to getting the housework done.

The all too common effects of long term stress on our physical health however are often ignored, but can lead to serious health issues. It can be helpful to understand what happens to the body during times of stress.

The Physiology of the Stress Response

As with the emotional effects of stress, there are also short and long term physical effects of stress.  Most people have at some point experienced the short term, acute effects which include an increased heart rate, shaking hands, sweaty palms, feeling sick, needing to go the toilet and on the extreme end of the scale anxiety and panic attacks.  We experience these bodily sensations when we perceive there to be a threat in our environment.  This then triggers the release of hormones including cortisol (the ‘stress hormone’) adrenaline and noradrenaline.

The physical sensations we experience are in fact there to protect us in the face of real danger – to make us faster, stronger, and able to act quickly.  As a result, other non-essential systems such as our digestive and immune systems take a back seat so that our energy can be directed towards the emergency ‘fight or flight’ response.  The only problem is that modern day ‘threats’ are very different to those faced by early humans.  Although we might feel like we want to, we don’t usually need to either stay and fight or escape (flight) like our cave men and women ancestors did when they were faced with a threat, when for example, we have an argument or we have to do a presentation at work or we’re moving house or we’re stuck in traffic.

The Physical Symptoms of Chronic Stress

So you can begin to see how, if we are constantly perceiving threats around us (and remember these ‘threats’ can take many subtle forms) our fight or flight response is repeatedly being triggered and it can reach the point where we are in a constant state of high alert.  A consequence of this is that we will have elevated levels of Cortisol and other stress hormones circulating in our bloodstream for a prolonged period, which as well as potentially causing anxiety and depression, can have extremely damaging effects on our physical health.

Poor Digestion and Stomach Issues

As mentioned above, when the fight or flight response kicks in, our digestion slows down so that our energy can be directed towards our ‘emergency’ physiological responses such as increased heart rate and blood flow.  The symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome are exacerbated by stress and the adrenalin released during the stress response irritates the gut lining and can cause nausea and inflammation.  Other conditions such as stomach ulcers and Inflammatory Bowel Disease can also be caused by chronic stress.

Compromised Immune System

Our immune system is our natural defence against infections and viruses.  When cortisol is released in response to stress, the functioning of the immune system is compromised and we are more likely to be struck down with colds, the flu and have general ill health.  We are also more likely to develop autoimmune conditions, such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and thyroid disorders as a result of chronic inflammation which is caused by suppression of the immune system.

High Blood Pressure

Hypertension occurs when we have consistently raised blood pressure and cortisol, which is released into our bloodstream during the fight or flight response, raises our blood pressure. Therefore if we are chronically stressed, we may be more likely to develop hypertension which is a risk factor in serious conditions such as heart disease and stroke.

Aches and Pains

When we are stressed, our muscles tighten and become tense.  This can affect any area of our body, but the back, neck, shoulders and head are the most commonly affected areas.  Chronic pain can also add to our feelings of worry, which triggers the stress response and it becomes a vicious cycle.

Weight problems

When cortisol is released into the bloodstream our insulin levels increase, blood sugar levels drop and we crave sugary, fatty foods.  Our body believes we need this high energy food to survive, however the reality is that we do not burn it off and it ends up being stored in the body as fat.  Chronic stress can also lead to weight loss, largely due to a loss of appetite caused by the adrenaline released during the stress response.

Memory Problems

Chronic stress can have an impact on our ability to recall information, again as a result of increased levels of cortisol.  In times of stress, the areas of our brain which are dominant are more concerned with your immediate surroundings and environment, which makes it harder to retrieve memories.  This explains why many people experience sudden memory loss when faced with nerves in an exam or during a performance.

Behavioural Coping Strategies

As well as the effects on our physical and emotional health, prolonged periods of stress can also lead to a number of behavioural coping strategies which can actually contribute to further health problems and worsen the effects of stress.  These include:

Smoking

Drinking Alcohol

Taking drugs

Lack of exercise

Withdrawing from society

 

The effects of stress on both our physical and emotional health should not be underestimated and that is why it is so important to take care of yourself and engage in activities which relax you and lower your stress levels.

Solution focused hypnotherapy uses guided relaxation and cognitive behavioural techniques, which have been shown to be very effective in lowering stress. So if you are struggling to keep your stress levels in check get in touch for an initial consultation where I will be happy to talk things over with you [email protected]