In recent times, ‘Stress’ is a topic that has dominated discussions across medical, professional and personal forums. Yet stress is a natural, inbuilt and beneficial mechanism to human beings. In response to danger, crisis or irritation, the body gets into a ‘fight or flight’ mode with hormones being produced to achieve the desired response. This can be as simple as applying brakes while driving to avoid a collision, to something as complex as losing a job or going through a financial crisis.
However, when stress is not managed properly by the individual, it stays on for longer or becomes ‘chronic’ and creates several health issues across each of the body systems as outlined below.
In a stressful situation, the body prepares most of the muscles to stay alert. This is achieved by supplying oxygen-rich blood to different parts of the body quickly. This means, the person tends to breathe faster and heavier in a stressful situation. For people who suffer from asthma or emphysema, stress can trigger an attack or worsen the symptoms.
Circulatory & Cardiovascular
As described above, under stress, the body pumps blood faster to reach all of its muscles. This raises the blood pressure, and when this continues for a long period of time, the heart ends up getting over-worked. This increases the probability of chest-pain, angina, stroke, heart attack or cardiac arrest. It can also cause palpitations and trigger irregular heartbeat or arrhythmia in the elderly.
Nervous and Immune
Stress upsets the fine balance between various hormones such as cortisol, dopamine, adrenaline and serotonin creating pronounced effects on the nervous and immune systems.
Immunity helps a person fight disease-causing microbes and this is what is compromised in a stressful situation leading to a weakened immune system.
People with chronic stress are more likely to catch common cold or flu and other infections. Stress also prolongs recovery from illness or injury. Stressed people are constantly exhausted, fatigued and suffer from body aches. People suffering from auto-immune disorders such as lupus and inflammatory bowel disease have more pronounced symptoms under stress.
Mental health is also severely affected during stress. Stressed people tend to be irritable, anxious and are prone to depression. Nervousness, trembling hands, ringing in the ears, clenching and grinding teeth (bruxism) are other symptoms of stress. Stressed people are more likely to display nervous behaviour such as nail-biting, fidgeting and pacing. Stress is also known to trigger or worsen addictions such as drug abuse, alcohol abuse, violent behaviour and kleptomania.
On the cognitive side, stressed people are more likely to worry often, be pessimistic, forgetful, likely to procrastinate simple tasks, be disorganized, have trouble focusing and show poor judgement at times. According to a research published in the Biological Psychiatry journal, gray matter in the brain starts reducing or shrinking in stressed people.
Stress also disrupts the sleep cycle, triggering insomnia, nightmares and a vicious cycle of nervousness and ill-health.
Stressed people also suffer from recurrent headaches all through the day.
Under normal stress conditions, the muscles tighten to provide a ‘fight or flight’ response, and when the stressing factor is gone, the muscles relax, which is a normal and healthy cycle. However in stressed people, the muscles do not get a chance to relax, leading to sores, aches, pains and tightness in various joints of the body. Over time, it can trigger or worsen the symptoms of arthritis and fibromyalgia. Stress also causes skin & hair issues such as hair-loss and acne. People with eczema, psoriasis and rosacea show pronounced symptoms under stress.
While short-term stress can boost testosterone and prepare the person for an emergency, chronic stress has the opposite effect. Testosterone drops gradually leading to erectile dysfunction, reduced libido, reduced sperm production and hence sterility in men. It can also increase the risk of infection in the testes or prostrate.
In women, stress causes delayed, heavier, painful or missed periods and amplifies the symptoms of menopause.
Chronic stress is known to increase the production of stomach acids leading to acid reflux, heartburn, ulcers, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting or a bloated feeling. Stressed people can also suffer from constipation and binge-eating.
In response to stress, the liver produces more blood sugar or glucose, and when the stress stays on for a long period of time, the excessive blood sugar can trigger Type-2 diabetes.
While sweating is natural in a healthy individual, chronically stressed people tend to sweat excessively. In some people, the sweat is milky and contains fatty acids or proteins, creating a strong body odour. As a natural consequence of all this, the person feels thirsty all the time.
Managing stress can be complex. It involves diet-management, therapy and counselling. It will require the coordinated effort of the patient, family members, co-workers and healthcare professionals.