Stress is something we all experience, whether it’s from an upcoming exam, managing a house full of kids, impending deadlines at work, making sure all the bills are paid, trying to make enough time for friends and family, the list goes on. However, while we all experience stress in one way or another, we can exhibit symptoms differently based on how our bodies react to certain situations. Stress hormones trigger the ‘flight or fight’ response in our bodies by increasing heart and breathing rates. Its purpose is to protect the body by preparing your muscles to act quickly in an emergency. If this response is continuous, day after day, it could put your health at serious risk due to the strain it puts on the body.
On average, 55% of Americans experience stress during the day, which is 20% higher than the global average. The Covid-19 pandemic has only added to that stress. Nearly eight in 10 adults attribute the coronavirus pandemic as a significant source of stress in their lives, and two in three adults express increased stress throughout the pandemic. Now, it is as vital as ever to focus on how stress impacts our daily lives. In honor of Stress Awareness Month, let’s look at how it affects our long-term health and how we can improve it.
The Science Behind The Stress
Chronic stress is a consistent state of feeling pressured and overwhelmed over a long period of time, according to Yale Medicine. It affects more than just your mental state. The most common physical symptoms may include headaches, muscle tension or pain, chest pain, fatigue, change in sex drive, upset stomach or sleeping problems. It can affect our mood in ways of anxiety, restlessness, lack of motivation or focus, feeling overwhelmed, irritability or anger, sadness or depression. Our behavior can also shift to overeating or undereating, angry outbursts, drug or alcohol misuse, tobacco use, social withdrawal or exercising less often.
Furthermore, untreated chronic stress can lead to severe hypertension, heart disease, obesity and metabolic syndrome, Type 2 diabetes, arthritis, depression, addiction or anxiety disorders. It affects all the body systems, including musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous and reproductive systems, which all perform essential functions for our bodies daily. Here is how stress deeply affects these systems:
- Musculoskeletal system: When there is a sudden onset of stress, the muscles in the body tense up all at once to fight off injury and pain. Once the stress passes, the muscles release that tension. However, some people experience chronic stress, causing the muscles to be constantly guarded. When these muscles are tense for long periods, stress-related disorders can begin to form, such as tension headaches or migraines. Activities such as yoga, walking or mindful meditation can boost your mood and give your muscles a much-needed break.
- Respiratory system: Stress and other strong emotions can cause respiratory symptoms like shortness of breath and rapid breathing. Psychological stressors can further intensify breathing problems and cause asthma or panic attacks. Developing relaxation or breathing techniques can help curb these associated respiratory complications.
- Cardiovascular system: The heart and blood vessels work together to provide nourishment and oxygen to the body. Stress can affect the function of both of these essential organs. Acute stress causes increased heart rate and longer contractions of the heart while increasing the amount of blood pumped throughout the body and increasing overall blood pressure. Prolonged stress can lead to long-term problems with the heart and blood vessels, increasing the risk for hypertension, heart attack or stroke.
- Endocrine system: During threatening scenarios, the brain initiates a series of events that start the production of various stress hormones. These hormones naturally fluctuate throughout the day, but they will increase to provide additional energy to deal with the stress during a stressful time. If this production remains constant, damage between the immune system and the hypothalamus occurs and causes a potential for metabolic disorders such as diabetes or obesity, depression and immune disorders.
- Gastrointestinal system: Stress can disrupt the number of bacteria in our gut and cause pain, bloating, nausea and other stomach discomforts. It affects the process of digestion and what nutrients the intestines absorb. The intestines can become weak and allow harmful bacteria to enter the body. If this happens routinely, our immune system can break down.
- Nervous system: The autonomic nervous system is responsible for triggering physical reactions during times of crisis. Experiencing stressors over a long period of time can drain the body of energy and cause wear-and-tear.
- Reproductive system in men: Stress causes the body to release more of the hormone cortisol. When there are excess amounts of cortisol, it can affect the normal biochemical functioning of the male reproductive system. Specifically, chronic stress can influence testosterone production and result in a decline in sex drive or erectile dysfunction. Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP) Therapy is one treatment option available to overcome several chronic conditions. It has been specifically designed to provide improved sexual performance in men and is quick, safe and virtually painless.
- Reproductive system in women: High-stress levels can cause absent or irregular menstrual cycles, more painful periods or changes in cycle lengths. It can also cause a drop in sexual desire, similarly in men. As menopause approaches, hormone levels fluctuate, but prolonged stress exacerbates these level changes, resulting in more intense symptoms. PRP Therapy is also a solution for women who experience changes to their libido.
How to Manage Stress
During Stress Awareness Month, we encourage you to explore stress management strategies and find what works best for you. Practice relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, meditation, yoga or massage. Spend time with family or friends and set aside time for hobbies or things you enjoy doing. Remember that passive stress management such as watching television or playing video games may be relaxing at the moment but can actually add to your stress in the long run.
Also, keep in mind that sometimes there are stressors in our lives that we cannot change. The American Institute of Stress provides a few additional tips for when feelings of stress may start to become overwhelming:
- Recognize the situations we do not have control of and let them go. We can control our reactions, so it can be helpful to focus your mind on something that makes you feel calm and in control.
- Take care of yourself through healthy eating, regular exercise and taking breaks when you feel stressed. Develop a plan for healthy living, wellness and personal growth. Set realistic goals along the way to help your plan come to fruition. Check out our tips on developing practical personal goals and sticking to them all year long. Medical weight loss may also be a helpful tool for establishing your wellness plan and stress management. Everything you need to know about medical weight loss is right here.
- Get an adequate amount of sleep. Sleep deprivation can also have severe effects on your overall health and wellness. Making small changes throughout your day can help improve your quality of sleep.
- Avoid drugs and alcohol as these can increase feelings of stress that are already present and create further problems.
- Share how you feel with someone close to you, such as family members, friends or counselors.
- NAMI Connection Recovery Support Group provides a free, peer-led support group for any adult dealing with any symptoms of a mental health condition. You can connect with others who may be going through similar situations and develop coping skills to handle stressful situations moving forward.
- If you are experiencing stress related to the pandemic, Missouri offers several resources to residents. Show Me Hope Missouri is a free and confidential counseling program to help you develop coping skills related to a disaster. There is also a 24-hour crisis counseling text line available. The MU Psychological Services Clinic also offers brief telehealth services for both children and adults who exhibit stress and anxiety related to life changes due to Covid-19.
When to Seek Help
If you feel like stress controls your life or you’ve taken steps to eliminate your stress, but symptoms persist, it may be time to see your doctor. They can help evaluate your current situation, help you identify the root cause, and propose effective solutions to manage your symptoms appropriately. Your body offers restorative powers, and KC Wellness can help you harness those to bring your body back to the center. Whether it’s through regenerative medicine to fight off chronic pain, bioidentical hormone replacement therapy to combat lost strength, gained body fat, decreased energy or diminishing libido, we have a solution for you. To learn more about our services, click here or call us at 816-214-5276.
“I have had great experiences at KC Wellness Center. The staff listens to my concerns and helps me to figure out a plan to get me feeling my best. Every visit I feel cared for and couldn’t be happier with the services I receive.” —David R.