Stress has received a bad rap in the last couple of decades, but it is important to note that stress is a normal physical response to the perception of a threat. From an evolutionary viewpoint, stress provided us with the “fight or flight” response, which drastically increased our ability to cope with potential threats. Our stress response includes several changes, including an increase in our breathing and heart rate. This is why severe stress or prolonged stress impacts our physical, mental and emotional health.
5 Ways Severe Stress Affects Your Body
1. Increases Your Risk of Heart Problems
Severe stress causes your body to release large amounts of adrenaline, which increases your heart rate and causes your blood pressure to rise rapidly. This can have a negative impact on your heart health, especially if the stress is constant or occurs on a regular basis. Severe stress may also trigger inflammation, which is a known instigator of heart disease. A recent study found that even a single instance of severe stress can have lasting effects. Severe stress can cause heart problems such as high blood pressure, irregular heart rhythms and coronary artery disease (atherosclerosis). It is estimated that 20-40 percent of sudden cardiac deaths are triggered by acute stress.
2. Exacerbates Digestive Problems
The gastrointestinal tract has plenty of nerve endings and immune cells that are affected by stress hormones, which results in minor problems such as acid reflux, as well as more serious digestive disorders. Severe stress can alter the functional physiology of the intestine, which is why inflammatory diseases such as Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease and other gastrointestinal disorders are associated with stress. Stress also has a negative impact on intestinal permeability, stomach acid secretion, and the absorption process, which can reduce nutritional uptake. Animal tests show that induction of severe stress can result in inflammatory GI diseases. Even severe stress in childhood increases the risk of these diseases in adulthood.
3. Causes Migraine Headaches
Severe stress causes your muscles to tense up for prolonged periods, which can lead to migraines and tension-type headaches. Typically, a migraine causes throbbing or pulsing pain that is generally most severe behind one eye or around the temples. The pain can last for up to 72 hours and you may experience other migraine symptoms such as sensitivity to light, nausea, and vomiting. According to the American Headache Society, 4 out of every 5 people who suffer from migraines report stress as a trigger. Researchers also found that relaxing after a period of severe stress can trigger migraines as part of the “let-down” effect. If you suffer from migraines, you will need to take active measures to keep your stress levels under control at all times.
4. Increases the Risk of Premature Ejaculation and Erectile Dysfunction in Men
Stress causes a change in hormone levels along with the stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system. This creates the urge to ejaculate, meaning that engaging in sex at this time will lead to an early climax. It is estimated that 20% of men experience uncontrolled or premature ejaculation at some point in their lives. Severe stress can also change hormone levels and interrupt the signals from the brain to the penis to increase blood flow. This results in erectile dysfunction (the inability to achieve and sustain an erection). These problems can lead to performance anxiety and further stress, which then forms a vicious cycle.
5. Greatly Increases the Chances of Weight Gain and Obesity
Stress triggers the release of the hormone cortisol which in turn releases glucose from the liver. This raises blood sugar levels, which cause food cravings. Studies show that severe stress causes cravings for foods that are high in sugar and fat, which is why foods like ice-cream and cake have become common “comfort foods.” Severe stress also increases the production of the hormone ghrelin which controls appetite. This means that when you are stressed you are more likely to eat larger quantities of high-calorie foods that will result in weight gain and obesity. Researchers have found that the link between stress and weight gain is stronger for women as compared to men.
Looking at the ill-effects of severe stress, you might think that the simplest way to avoid these problems is to avoid stress. From traffic jams and long workdays to rocky relationships and simply coping with this stressful presidency – there’s no evading the stress in our day-to-day lives. The good news is that there are several things that you can do to lower your stress levels. Meditation allows you to calm your mind after a long day, while exercise can boost your serotonin (the happy hormone) levels. Social support from friends and family in times of severe stress will help to reduce psychological distress and promotes adaptive appraisal which improves your coping skills.
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