Physical Effects of Stress

When we experience changes in life, whether planned or unexpected, the result is often an increase in stress. Our bodies naturally respond to these different circumstances by giving off physical symptoms indicative of deeper emotions. These symptoms can have both long and short-term effects, so it’s important to learn how to properly manage your stress to prevent lasting consequences. 

How Short-Term Stress Feels

When you initially experience an unexpected event or a change in life, your nervous system reacts by exhibiting somatic symptoms. In response to either a real or perceived threat, your body releases hormones triggered by your fight-or-flight response. These hormones can have a number of immediate effects on your mind and body. When you are in a stressful situation, you might notice an increase in irritability, increased anxiety or a lower mood. Some of the physical effects* that often come with stress include:

  • Changes in energy levels (fatigue or difficulty falling/staying asleep)
  • Increased heart rate or blood pressure
  • Gastrointestinal problems 
  • Increase in common illnesses/infections
  • Sweaty palms
  • Changes in appetite
  • Increased muscle tension

*This is not a replacement for medical advice. Discuss any concerns or changes in health with your primary care provider.

Long-Term Effects of Stress

You might start to notice the physical effects that various circumstances can have on your body and immediately take action to resolve your situation. Sometimes, though, these symptoms can go unnoticed or ignored, resulting in lasting mental and physical health changes. When your body is living in a constant state of tension, you can lose vital regulatory functions. Chronic stress can result in:

  • Mental health issues (anxiety, depression, eating disorders)
  • Heart problems
  • Digestive issues
  • Chronic pain
  • Skin rashes
  • Chronic headaches or migraines

Most stressful situations are manageable or are short-lived, but when you are in an environment where there is constant tension, it can be more difficult to regulate your emotions. When our emotions are not well-regulated, the physical effects on our bodies become more severe and more difficult to reverse.

Managing the Physical Symptoms of Stress

By learning appropriate coping skills, you can help prevent lasting effects of stress on your body. While creating new habits can take time, there are practical steps you can take and integrate into your day that will make a huge difference in your physical health. Here are three tangible skills you can begin implementing today:

  1. Start a Journal: Journaling creates an outlet for you to express your feelings related to your situation and process through life events. By writing down the things you are worried about, you are able to organize your thoughts in order to better understand where your stress is coming from. 
  2. Begin Prioritizing Your Tasks: One of the largest contributing factors to feeling overwhelmed is not having a grasp on all the tasks you need to complete. Take some time to write down all you need to accomplish for the day or week and break down this list into manageable tasks, prioritizing them accordingly. 
  3. Practice Deep Breathing and Mindfulness: Mindfulness exercises are a quick way to work on regulating your nervous system. Deep breathing can help lower your blood pressure and heart rate, allowing you to refocus on the tasks at hand. Other mindfulness practices, such as meditation or guided imagery, also serve to calm your anxieties and reduce the physical effects of feeling overwhelmed. 

By making changes to better manage your daily stress, you can reduce the likelihood of long-lasting physical effects of anxiety. 

When to Seek Professional Help

The negative effects of stress can result in a person developing unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as alcohol or substance use. Frequent use of drugs or alcohol often leads to addiction, resulting in a need for professional intervention. At Cumberland Heights, we work with you to develop healthy coping skills to manage your life stressors while addressing your substance use disorder. If you’re looking for comprehensive treatment that supports your holistic wellness, contact us today to learn more. 

Reference: Schneiderman, N., Ironson, G., & Siegel, S. D. (2005). Stress and health: psychological, behavioral and biological determinants. Annual review of clinical psychology1, 607–628.

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