How have you felt this year? If you’ve felt under the weather consistently, battled ongoing sleep disturbances, and frequently had a stomach ache, you may be experiencing chronic stress. While we all know the scary consequences of stress, we often think there’s something else contributing to our headaches, skin concerns, or agitation. But the mind and body are one entity, and it’s important to know the ways stress impacts your physical health to help you cope and heal.
8 Ways Stress Impacts Your Physical Health and How to Cope
1. Cardiovascular problems
When our body perceives stress, the sympathetic nervous system releases stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to initiate action, our fight-flight-freeze-or-fawn response. These stress hormones make our heart pump faster and our blood pressure increase. However, through frequent or chronic stress, these factors elevate the risk of more severe cardiovascular conditions, including coronary artery disease, strokes, and heart attacks.
How to cope: Pay attention to how your body reacts under stress. Perhaps you feel a tightening in your chest, your hands feel clammy, and your breathing constricts. Use these signals as a sign to ground yourself by practicing belly breathing;
- Place one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest.
- Visualize a balloon in your stomach, and inhale gently through your nose for a count of two, allowing your stomach to rise.
- Then, exhale slowly for a count of three, focusing on deflating the imaginary balloon in your stomach.
- Continue repeating the steps until you feel calm.
Controlling your breath will activate your parasympathetic nervous system, lower your heart rate and blood pressure, and alleviate the strain on your entire cardiovascular system.
2. Sleep disturbances
There’s nothing worse than spending the entire night tossing and turning and facing the day with little to no sleep. It feels almost impossible to function or even enjoy your day. Unfortunately, stress can be the culprit. Elevated cortisol levels disrupt your natural sleep-wake cycle, so it’s no wonder you may struggle falling asleep, staying asleep, or achieving restorative sleep. It also goes hand-in-hand with racing thoughts and anxiety that make you further uncomfortable and agitated.
How to cope: Create a wind-down routine to release stress by following a guided meditation for sleep, taking a hot shower, spraying lavender on your bed, and journaling your thoughts and concerns. Doing so will help you manage nighttime anxiety. Furthermore, support your circadian rhythm (your brain’s internal clock) by using black-out curtains, grounded sheets, and white noise to create a peaceful environment.
3. Suppresses your immune system
Do you ever feel like you’re always sick? Everyone around you seems to have the immune system of a superhero, but you somehow catch a bug almost every month. While stress produces anti-inflammatory effects in the short run, chronic stress weakens your body’s ability to fight off bacteria. This disruption includes a decrease in the production of immune cells and cytokines, which makes you more susceptible to infections, prolonged healing times, and inflammatory conditions.
How to cope: Start your morning with a savory breakfast with protein, healthy fats, and fiber, and continue loading up on fruits and vegetables throughout the day. While we can’t get everything our bodies need through our diet, ensure you take a multivitamin and omega fatty acids. You can take it a step further with immune and cognitive-enhancing supplements like lion’s mane, turkey’s tail, and reishi, and by incorporating turmeric (wonderful for its anti-inflammatory properties) into your routine. A fan favorite is turmeric tea with black pepper (which activates the benefits), honey, coconut oil, and hot water.
4. Impairs your digestive system
Stress certainly does a number on our second brain, our gut. It can cause heartburn and acid reflux and affect bowel movements, causing uncomfortable issues like diarrhea or constipation. While stress doesn’t directly cause ulcers, it can elevate the risk and exacerbate existing ones.
How to cope: Each tip on this list will help you alleviate your stress, but to protect your gut even more, prioritize a healthy diet in probiotics and prebiotics. Additionally, maintain regular meal times to balance your blood sugar and give your system adequate time to digest your meals.
5. Affects memory and concentration
One of the most frustrating ways stress impacts your physical health is through memory and concentration. If you suffer from chronic stress, you’re probably no stranger to brain fog. For example, you may struggle to retrieve and remember information, make decisions, solve problems, and struggle to focus. During stressful periods, your brain becomes overstimulated, causing an impairment in your cognition and can lead to your hippocampus shrinking, the region critical for memory formation.
How to cope: It’s common to feel overwhelmed when battling stress. But to help you stay focused, create a to-do list organized from the most time-sensitive tasks to the least important. Having this roadmap to follow will help you navigate your work days with more ease. Additionally, practice a few of these brain fog remedies to improve clarity and focus.
6. Produces muscle tension and pain
Have you ever received a massage, and your masseuse immediately knows where you carry your stress? Perhaps in your shoulders, hips, or in those hard-to-reach spots that always ache? Well, under stress, your body innately tenses to protect itself from injury, and when you relax, your muscles do too. But if you’re constantly reacting to your environment, whether it’s traffic, work emails, or arguments with your partner, your body doesn’t receive the chance to repair and recuperate. This results in constant body aches and headaches.
How to cope: Instead of reaching for the pain medicine, incorporate yoga and somatic therapy exercises to relieve stress and trauma. A body scan is a great way to understand where you’re carrying the stress to focus on it and release it. Here’s how to practice;
- Sit or lie down in a comfortable position.
- Inhale slowly through your nose, and exhale through your mouth.
- Then, direct your attention to your body, starting from your toes and gradually moving upward. Notice any sensations, tension, or relaxation in each part.
- As your attention moves through each body part, observe any sensations without judgment. If you notice tension, try to release it with your exhale.
7. Harms your sex drive and reproductive system
It’s not uncommon to temporarily lose your sex drive while experiencing stress. However, if you experience chronic stress, it can not only harm your sex life, but it can further disrupt your hormones and menstrual cycle. For example, it can cause heavier, more painful, and longer periods. And for men, stress causes their testosterone levels to drop, causing erectile dysfunction and further complications.
How to cope: If stress is affecting your relationship, communicate openly with your partner about your feelings and any concerns. A supportive and understanding environment can alleviate pressure. Furthermore, learn how to cycle-sync your workouts and avoid the worst foods for your hormones while you combat your stress.
8. Other conditions
Stress wreaks havoc on our minds and bodies. So, beyond the previous effects, it can also heighten your risk for obesity, diabetes, and mental conditions like depression, anxiety, mood changes, suicidal ideations and burnout. Furthermore, stress may influence lifestyle choices, leading to drug and alcohol abuse, isolation, and impaired relationships.
How to cope: What is causing your stress? Beyond meditation, a healthy diet, exercise, and a support system, it’s critical to dive deep into the roots of your pain. Speak with a mental health professional and receive a combination of gold-standard therapies such as cognitive behavior therapy to improve your internal dialogue and eye rapid movement desensitization therapy to overcome trauma. Consistent support from a trained source will help you heal to improve your overall wellbeing.
While stress is a natural response, when left unmanaged, chronic stress can be dangerous for our physical and emotional health. Therefore, learning the ways stress impacts your physical health gives you the foundation of how interconnected everything is and what needs to change to feel happier and more at peace.
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