If you’re stressed, it’s not just your mind that’s feeling the effects—your body takes a hit, too. In fact, stress can affect your body in multiple ways, including through these three main causes of stress-related illness and injury: tension headaches, gastrointestinal issues and cardiovascular problems. Learn more about what stress does to your body and how you can effectively manage it so you can lead a healthy life!
When we’re feeling stressed, our adrenal glands secrete epinephrine, a.k.a. adrenaline, into our bloodstreams. When we’re forced to fight or flight from a stressful situation, adrenaline causes an immediate increase in blood pressure and heart rate—which is great if you need it for short-term bursts of energy but can be very harmful if you’re dealing with chronic stress and need your body operating at optimal capacity. Not only do stress hormones raise your risk of cardiovascular disease and hypertension; they also slow down digestion and lead to indigestion (so much for getting that food back out!) and constipation.
Like any hormone, cortisol can be good or bad depending on how much of it your body produces. If you’re experiencing chronic stress, your body will produce too much cortisol which, in turn, might lead to heart disease and an impaired immune system. Additionally, elevated levels of cortisol cause a number of physical changes such as increased appetite and sleepiness (due to slowed metabolism). In other words, sustained cortisol elevations lead to weight gain around your midsection and tiredness. Cortisol is also necessary for memory formation but too much may interfere with a person’s ability to learn new information or perform complex cognitive tasks.
As stress hormones are released, blood sugar rises; it also drops when stress is relieved. The result of these highs and lows can be a pattern of yo-yo dieting, which can lead to a greater likelihood of developing diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Cholesterol: Stressed people generally have higher cholesterol than their unstressed counterparts. High cholesterol is associated with cardiovascular problems including heart attacks, strokes and peripheral artery disease. High blood pressure: People under stress tend to experience high blood pressure—which increases your risk for stroke, heart attack and kidney failure.
Chronic stress can wear away at your hippocampus. That’s where memories are formed and stored, and if that part of your brain is damaged, you may have trouble forming new memories or recalling existing ones. It also means that it’s harder for you to learn and retain information. The frontal cortex governs rational thought, says Dr. Michael Smith, chief of neuropsychology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee. But when people are stressed all day long because they’re worried about money or their children, those structures start breaking down. If you want a good memory, protect it by reducing stress levels as much as possible. And one way to do that is through meditation.
Stress messes with your cognitive functions. The more stressed you are, the more you will struggle to focus and pay attention, according to a study published in Neurobiology of Learning and Memory. Further, stress can make it harder for you to retain information—such as names or phone numbers. This is why many experts recommend meditating at least five minutes a day: It’s a simple way to lower stress levels and boost memory.
When you’re stressed, your body releases stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. These can help defend against some infections by increasing blood flow and activity of certain immune cells. But they also have some negative effects on immunity, like increasing inflammation and inhibiting cell growth. This can make it easier for pathogens to take hold in your system. If you’re worried about getting sick, it might be time to ask your doctor whether you need an annual flu shot or a checkup. It might also be a good idea to increase your intake of vitamin C, which has been shown in animal studies (and possibly humans) to help protect against colds when exposed to stressful situations.
Focus and memory
It’s important for your brain to process information effectively and focus on what’s relevant, which is why stress is linked with impaired memory. According to a study published in 2014, subjects who experienced stress due to worries over a job promotion performed worse on memory tests than those who were not stressed. The researchers suggested that short-term stress can be used as a way of improving memory by helping you rehearse it more effectively. Try focusing only on what you need to know while preparing for an exam or presentation; it might help boost your performance. However, when long-term stress is present (you have high levels of cortisol in your system for too long), it can impair cognitive function by limiting blood flow and suppressing neuronal activity and development.