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Effects of chronic stress on health and wellness

You’re stuck in traffic getting late for a job interview and the clock keeps ticking. The hypothalamus, a portion of your brain controlling activities, sends out an instruction calling for the attention of stress hormones. These hormones trigger some kind of action in your body with a ‘fight or flight’ result. Your heart rate increases, breathing speeds up, and the muscles are geared up to take action.

This entire process was stimulated to keep your body active in times of an emergency so that you react rapidly. However, stress experienced repetitively, on a regular basis, can pose a serious risk to your health.

Stress has been experienced by all. It is a natural mental and physical reaction to surrounding situations. Stress can be triggered by small experiences like an argument with a family member or excessive workload to major life events like war or losing a loved one. In the case of stress caused by short-term events, the emotion can be positive for health. It can give you the push to manage possibly critical situations.

But, what if issues of stress don’t stop and stress levels remain high for a long period of time? What if stress hormones constantly trigger actions in your body? The outcome is chronic stress influencing your health. It can cause several types of indications and hamper your overall wellness. Some of the common chronic stress symptoms include:

Irritation

Anxiousness

Depression

Insomnia

Frequent headaches

Immune System

In certain situations, stress is advantageous for the immune system. This is because it prepares the immune system to take corrective actions, prevent infections, and heal wounds. Nevertheless, with time stress hormones start to damage your immune system making it tougher for your body to respond to foreign particles. Patients with chronic stress are more prone to get afflicted by viral illnesses like the common cold and flu. Stress can further weaken the immune system increasing the amount of time it takes for your body to fight an injury or illness.

Muscular System

When you are undergoing stress, your muscles tense up protecting them from getting injured. Once stress is over, they release and relax. However, if stress prevails for a long period of time, your muscles remain tensed and don’t get the opportunity to relax. Tight and tense muscles lead to different types of pains and aches in the body. This can be extremely unhealthy as you cannot exercise and start depending on pain relief medication.

Digestive System

The liver secretes extra blood sugar during stress. This works like an energy booster allowing you to take swift action in situations of emergency. In cases of chronic stress, the body is unable to match up with the level of blood sugar required. This increases the chances of developing type 2 diabetes.

The digestive system also tends to get disturbed as a result of an increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and the gushing of hormones. More stomach acids are produced causing heartburn and acid reflux frequently. Stress does not directly cause ulcers but repetitive episodes of stress can disturb existing ulcers or increase the risk for their development.

Stress affects the movement of food in your body causing constipation or diarrhea. Nausea, stomach ache, and vomiting are also common symptoms.

Central Nervous System and Endocrine System

The central nervous system sends a ‘fight or flight’ response to the brain when a situation of stress arises. In the brain, your hypothalamus decides when stress hormones need to be released and signal the same to the adrenal glands. These hormones then stimulate your heartbeat pumping blood to different parts of your body, especially parts that need it the most to generate an appropriate action immediately.

Once the factor of stress subsides, the hypothalamus must inform all the systems to normalize their functions. However, if the central nervous system remains activated or the element of stress persists, the body will continue to process the response.

Chronic stress leads to incorrect signals being sent to the brain causing actions of starving or overeating, alcohol consumption, social withdrawal, and even drug abuse.

Cardiovascular and Respiratory systems

Your heart rate increases in times of stress. Blood vessels contract, pushing out extra oxygen to the body’s muscles so that an appropriate action can be taken with strength and energy. Consequently, your blood pressure starts to rise. An increase in blood pressure directly increases the risk of a heart attack or stroke. Therefore, chronic stress causing a frequent release of stress hormones in the body burdens your heart impacting the cardiovascular system.

In a stressful situation, you start breathing faster since you want the oxygen-carrying blood to quickly reach different parts of your body. This affects the respiratory system. So, in case you are a patient with emphysema or asthma, stress further aggravates the breathing problem and strains your respiratory system.

Sexuality and Reproductive System

Stress exhausts both the mind and the body. In fact, a lot of individuals even tend to lose the desire when under constant stress. While situations of short-term stress temporarily increase amounts of the male hormone testosterone, a drop in the levels is noticed in long periods of stress. This can trouble sperm production leading to impotency or erectile dysfunction. Due to chronic stress, male reproductive organs are also susceptible to infections like testes and prostate.

Stress can affect the menstrual cycle. A woman undergoing stress tends to experience painful, irregular or heavier periods. The physical symptoms of menopause may also get elevated as a result of chronic stress.

What should you do?

If stress begins to hamper your daily life, it is something to worry about. Longer periods of stress are dangerous for both your mind and body. You might constantly start feeling fatigued, overburdened, and irritable along with other negative symptoms. This is because chronic stress starts to cause wear and tear on your body. Let’s identify some of the activities and strategies that help to reduce stress:

  • Know what triggers stress:Track your thoughts throughout the day. Make a note of anything that starts giving you stress and affects your mood. Once you have been able to identify the problem, create a plan that will help you overcome the same. Most individuals need to first set reasonable expectations and only perform activities they are capable of.
  • For example, if household responsibilities are a cause of stress, ask someone for help and share the load.Similarly, at your workplace, ask your team members for help if you have more workload than what you can handle. List all the activities that you need to perform in a day, set priorities and first complete the ones that are essential. This way you will have lesser chances of being stressed.
  • Establish strong bonds: Conflicts with family members or spouse is one of the leading causes of stress. This does not mean that you start avoiding that family member since relationships are also great stress busters. Share your problem with close friends or other family members and see how you can find appropriate solutions to tackle the same. An outsider can sometimes add a new perspective to your situation and make things easier.
  • Leave the room: If a particular situation instigates stress, close your eyes and count to 10. Then formulate your reaction in your head. If you feel that you still cannot handle the situation at all, leave the room and come back when you are ready.Not reacting impulsively to a situation helps to lessen the release of stress hormones in your body. Walking or diverting your mind in other physical activities can also help to cool you down.
  • Relax your mind: Stress generally does not let people sleep. This means that you need to take extra precaution and ensure that you get the suggested seven or eight hours of shut-eye. Eliminate all distractions like the television or computer from your room, reduce the amount of caffeine you consume, and follow a sleep schedule of going to bed at the same time daily. Indulge in activities like yoga and meditation that give your mind the calming effect it needs to relax.
  • Consult: If stress levels do not reduce, get in touch with a psychologist and take medical assistance. These experts will be able to guide you on how you should manage stress and tackle all such related problems. He or she can identify elements and behaviors that lead to stress and suggest ways by which you can overcome the same.

A simple step that can really change the way you handle stress is some form of exercise. Exercise accelerates the production of endorphins, a hormone which helps to boost your mood.

Studies have concluded that ‘positive affect’ – emotions of joy, happiness, excitement, and contentment – also help to improve your state of mind and overall well-being. This means that indulging in activities that give you happiness and keep your mind occupied add to positive affect and keep stress away. An increase in positive affect directly impacts the heart and reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases.

Adaptogens or natural herbs have also extensively helped with stress management since they have healing properties and can balance the development of hormones inside the body.

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