Were you ever startled, scared, about to have an accident, or awoke from a nightmare? Your heart was racing, you were breathing heavily, muscles tensed, or you might have been sweating? Well, that is stress. Whether for just a moment, or daily and constant, stress has some damaging chemical effects on the body.
There are all kinds of evolutionary responses to stress, but we are no longer being chased by saber-toothed tigers, so our stressors are a little different now.
Our bodies are well equipped to handle stress in small doses, but when that stress becomes long-term or chronic, it can have serious effects on your body in your muscles, breathing, and body’s chemistry.
Muscle tension is almost a reflex reaction to stress—the body’s way of guarding against injury and pain. The muscles tense up all at once, and then release tension when the stress passes. Chronic stress can lead to muscles that are are tense for long periods of time, and may trigger some stress-related disorders, like tension or migraine headaches (when tension is in the area of the shoulders, neck and head).
High physical and emotional stress situations or lifestyles can lead, over time, to a variety of health complications: high glucose, weight gain and obesity, cardiovascular disease, and high blood pressure.
Stress can affect breathing for those people with breathing conditions: some studies show that an 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.
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. Chronic stress on these blood vessels and heart can increase the risk for hypertension, heart attack, or stroke.
In your body, these stress hormones, especially cortisol, will increase the amount of sugar available in your blood by pulling it out of the liver and sugar stores. 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. But when we are stressed, these sugar levels rise, and with chronic stress, they may stay high, leading to lower energy, increased weight gain, high blood sugars, among other things.
So from issues with muscle knots, headaches, breathing difficulty, to weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease, stress can seriously harm you.
Stress and your health is a cycle - if you live healthfully, you can also better protect your body from the effects of stress. Protect your body by doing these things:
The next time you feel overwhelmed, frustrated, or angry, take a stroll. Even a five-minute walk can help clear your head and lower your stress levels.
When you feel less stressed and more in control of your life, you may find it easier to keep your health in track.
Try these stress management techniques to combat stress-related weight gain:
If you try stress management techniques on your own but they don't seem to be working, consider seeking professional help through psychotherapy or counseling.