Mental Health

7 surprising ways that stress affects the body

Stress can quietly sneak into our day-to-day lives and wreak havoc on our wellbeing, but the detrimental effects are often down-played.

For women, chronic stress can disrupt hormonal balance, leading to irregular menstrual cycles, worsening premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and difficult menopausal symptoms. It can also weaken the immune system, making you more prone to catching pesky colds and coughs.

How does stress impact women?

According to research conducted by the Priory Group, a leading independent provider of mental healthcare in the UK, women claim to feel stressed approximately 10 days each month, whereas it’s an average of seven days for men. Experts believe that there are a range of factors that contribute to this discrepancy.

Women, in particular, tend to take on the role of nurturers in the home. This means we tend to shoulder the responsibility of being a caregiver, alongside juggling a career and other commitments we may have. Throw into the mix fluctuating midlife hormones and it’s little suprise that women, on the whole, tend to feel more stressed than men.

7 surprising ways that stress affects our wellbeing

Strains our breathing

Stressful situation can make us breathless. Quite literally.

Stress constricts our airways and increases the rate of breathing, making it feel like each breath is a struggle. Long-term stress can also exacerbate conditions like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), according to a study from the peer-reviewed journal American Medical Association.

Numbs our responses

It’s not unusual for our brain to feel foggy when fending off deadlines and trying to help teenagers tackle their GCSEs. According to research from Nature Reviews Neuroscience, stress affects the prefrontal cortex, a brain region associated with decision-making and impulse control. This is why our thoughts and reactions become slower and decision-making feels more of a struggle when we’re under pressure.

Decreases our vitamin stores

A depletion of certain vitamins, like vitamin B, magnesium and zinc can impact how well we manage stress, but stress itself can deplete essential vitamins and minerals in the body, too. Over time, this can lead to a weakening of our hard-working immune system.

One study from the journal Nature Reviews Endocrinology revealed how chronic stress can deplete essential nutrients and weaken the body’s immune system. Experts believe that it’s because the body, in its state of high alert, burns through nutrients at a rapid pace, leaving us nutritionally depleted and susceptible to various health issues.

The takeaway? It could be worth topping up vitamin stores with a supplement during a period of intense stress.

Drains our social battery

Constant stress can deplete our social energy, according to science. In one study from the Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, researchers investigated the psychological and physiological effects of isolation. Their study shed light on how stress can lead to social withdrawal, as it decreases the desire and capacity to engage with others.

Increases muscle tension

Stress can cause our muscles to tense up, often involuntarily. Over time, this tension can lead to headaches, body aches, and a general feeling of physical discomfort.

Mindfulness practices, such as yoga and guided relaxation, can be helpful for improving awareness of tension in the body, as well as encouraging relaxation.  

Lowers our immunity

Ever gotten poorly after taking annual leave?

A meta-analysis from the Psychological Bulletin found that there were strong links between the relationship between psychological stress and immune function. When we’re stressed (for example at work), our stress hormones kick in to stimulate our immune system. But, when we relax, this throws these stress hormones out of balance, making us more vulnerable to bugs.

Experts believe that prolonged stress weakens the immune system’s ability to defend the body, leaving you more susceptible to colds, flu, and other health issues.

Impacts our gut

Stress throws off the delicate balance in our gut.

When studying the communication between the gut and the brain, researchers from the Journal of Clinical Investigation, found that stress can disrupt the gut-brain axis. This, in turn, can cause tummy upsets, constipation and general digestive discomfort such as bloating.

Not all stress is equal

Conversations surrounding stress and its impact on our health are ever-evolving. In some circles, stress tends to be used as an umbrella term to cover other conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and burnout – to name a few.

While general stress is a natural part of life, stress-induced events like PTSD occur after a traumatic event. Trauma can create symptoms such as nightmares, severe anxiety and depression, all of which can have a huge negative impact on health and happiness.

Studies, like this one from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine also show that childhood trauma influences the likelihood of developing health issues including heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, skeletal fractures, liver disease, and depression.

What about burnout?

Burnout can be caused by many different factors, but it’s most commonly seen in people who experience prolonged workplace stress. It can lead to emotional exhaustion and a sense of detachment from work. It’s important to take signs of burnout seriously and support friends, family or colleagues who are suffering.

Understanding how to tackle specific types of stress and knowing when to reach out for support can help us to avoid it negatively impacting our sleep, immune system, and overall wellbeing.

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