If you have been feeling more stressed out than ever lately, you are not alone. As per a report by the American Psychology Association, 87% of adults have agreed feeling stressed over one crisis after another.
As it turns out, stress is a pretty powerful thing. While it can be good in small amounts and help keep you safe and motivated, chronic stress is a different story. It can wreak havoc on your body and trigger a host of issues, including heart problems, digestion, acne, and much more.
The psychological and physical effects of stress in the long term can take a hefty toll on your mind and body.
Understanding the biological functioning of your body’s stress response and its effects on your mind and body can help you manage stress better.
To help you get started, in this post, we will dive deeper into how does stress affect the mind and body.
But first, let us look at how our body reacts to stress.
Stress is a pretty normal part of our lives.
When you are stressed, your body initiates a stress response. This ‘stress response’ sends a signal to your adrenal glands via the pituitary gland to release cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline.
This, in turn, increases your blood pressure and the amount of glucose in your bloodstream that goes directly to your muscles. The glucose gives your body the instant energy to respond to the immediate stressors in your environment.
Stress hormones like cortisol, noradrenaline, and adrenaline are energizing in nature. They give you an almost instantaneous motivation to complete tasks at hand, solve complex problems, and reach short-term goals. This is why short-term stress is deemed beneficial for your body.
After the seemingly stressful situation has passed, your body recovers to a normal state. However, repeated and long-term stress can have multiple implications on your mind and body.
Now that you understand the science of the body’s flight and fight response, let us look at the long-term effects of stress.
What are the psychological effects of long-term stress?
The mental effects of long-term stress are well-documented. Long-term effects of stress on mental health are linked with severe conditions like anxiety, depression, and substance abuse disorders. It is also closely linked with insomnia, emotional dysregulation, and mental exhaustion.
Let us take a closer look at the psychological effects of long-term stress.
One of the well-established links to the effects of stress is depression. Depression is the leading cause of disability around the world. There is also a recurrent link – people who have ever experienced depression are more at risk of having another episode under immense stress.
In fact, extremely stressful events, like the death of a loved one, etc., can trigger depression.
There are many reasons, and they are mostly related to changes in the brain. Due to the constant release of stress hormones, the brain’s hippocampus region is greatly affected. Stress also leads to inflammation. As per research published in Annual Reviews, both these factors are more common in people with depression than others.
Another one of the mental health effects of long-term stress is anxiety. Stress and anxiety often have overlapping symptoms. Being anxious can increase sensitivity to regular stressors and decrease your overall ability to manage stress.
One of the psychological effects of stress is loneliness. People with chronic stress generally self-isolate and withdraw from social activities. In the long term, loneliness can significantly harm people’s self-esteem and contribute to mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and substance abuse disorders.
4. Sleep Problems
The effects of stress are significantly seen in your sleep patterns and circadian rhythms. Stress hormones, primarily cortisol, play a crucial role in regulating sleep. Increased cortisol levels can be detrimental to your regular sleep patterns.
How Does Stress Affect The Brain And Nerves?
Stress changes the way the brain’s neurons communicate with each other.
As per research by Future Science OA, chronic stress affects the limbic system and prefrontal cortex of the brain. Therefore, long-term stress effects are commonly seen in the brain and nervous system. This can lead to cognitive, behavioral, and emotional changes.
Here are some of the common long-term effects of stress on the brain:
1. Poor Memory
Stress and memory are deeply intertwined. The effects of stress can be seen in how memories are formed in the brain. A lot of people have memory lapses while dealing with highly stressful events.
Additionally, stress can affect people’s ability to create short-term memories and then convert them into eventual long-term memories. Therefore, being stressed makes you more forgetful and can also impact your learning abilities.
2. Decreased focus
While short-term stress can boost your focus and concentration, it is highly detrimental in the long run. Chronic stress can impact the brain by reducing the attention resources available for you to focus on a specific task.
Additionally, the effects of stress can also be seen in your self-awareness. When stressed, you are more likely to face emotional dysregulation due to your decreased ability to pay attention to your feelings.
What Are The Physical Effects Of Long-Term Stress?
If you feel that the effects of stress are only seen on the mind or your mental health, you are deeply mistaken. The physical effects of long-term stress can be seen in your physiological processes, including your respiratory, digestive, and cardiovascular systems.
Here are some of the physical effects of long-term effects on your systems:
1. Digestive System
Ever been so stressed that you had an upset stomach? If yes, you are not alone. A growing body of research has shown that the long-term effects of stress on your digestive system can be multifold.
The digestive system has its personal nervous system, called the enteric nervous system. It comprises the same neurons that constitute the rest of the nervous system. They are similar in their structure and use similar neurotransmitters (like serotonin) to communicate with the brain.
This way, the interconnectedness can lead to gastrointestinal stress. It can lead to the following issues:
- sensitive stomach,
- bloating, and
- decreased good gut bacteria.
2. Cardiovascular System
The physical effects of long-term stress can also be seen in your heart and cardiovascular system.
During a stress response, your body pumps adrenaline into your bloodstream, spreading it throughout your body. The adrenaline makes your heart rate and blood pressure increase. If this happens too frequently, like during chronic stress, it can damage your arteries and blood vessels. High blood pressure puts you at risk of heart attacks, strokes, and other related ailments.
3. Respiratory System
Rapid breathing or shortness of breath are common effects of stress.
Simply put, stress makes your breathing difficult, which can be detrimental to people with asthma and panic attacks. According to research by J K Kiecolt-Glaser and team, chronic stress significantly impacts your immune system, making you more prone to illnesses like the flu.
The physical effects of stress can cause wear and tear in your lungs, thereby damaging your overall respiratory system.
4. Musculoskeletal System
One of the most painful and discomforting physical effects of long-term stress is its impact on the musculoskeletal system.
Stress makes your muscles contract, which eventually restricts blood flow. Therefore, during chronic stress, your muscles contract for more extended periods. This can lead to muscle tension, which can cause injury, pain, and even secondary disorders like migraines. Increased cortisol levels can also lead to premature aging and the breakdown of muscle tissues, leading to chronic pain.
5. Reproductive System
If you suffer from chronic stress, it can significantly affect your reproductive health, fertility, and menstrual cycle.
Increased cortisol levels can affect testosterone production. This can affect your sex drive and sperm health. In menstruating people, it can cause irregular periods, painful cycles, and difficulty conceiving.
6. Chronic Ailments
The effects of stress on the body and mind can lead to multiple serious physical disorders, including the following:
- Diabetes: Stress increases glucose levels in your body. When this becomes more common, and your body cannot process the increased glucose, you are at risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
- HIV and AIDS: While stress has no role in causing HIV, there is evidence that it can affect the condition’s progression. As per research published in Psychology Medicine, stress increases the risk of developing AIDS from HIV by almost 50%.
- Autoimmune conditions: Inflammatory conditions like sclerosis, arthritis, and psoriasis are worsened due to stress. It also increases the risk of developing autoimmune disorders.
Stress is an extremely powerful and complicated response. It can boost your productivity and help you reach your goals in the short term. In the long term, the effects of stress can affect your mind and body significantly by affecting your psychological and physiological processes.
It can affect everything from your ability to form memories and concentrate to your breathing and blood pressure. Chronic stress is also linked to lifelong illnesses like autoimmune disorders, HIV, asthma, and diabetes. The mental health effects of long-term stress can lead to depression, anxiety, insomnia, and substance abuse disorders.
We hope this blog post on how does stress affects your mind and body will help you understand the devastating consequences of it.
Wondering how to deal with stress and stop it from ruining your health? Well, there is a lot you can do. To find out more, click here.
To continue learning about stress and mental health, subscribe to Your Mental Health Pal.