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Most Dangerous Effects of Stress on The Human Body

top ways stress hurts the human body What Is Stress Doing to You?

We have lots of ways to describe the feelings of stress. Keyed up, wound up, geared up, fired up — all those expressions contain the word up because the stress response is, indeed, an “up” kind of experience. Muscles are pumped for action, senses are heightened, awareness is sharpened. And these feelings are useful, until they become too frequent. Constant stress exacts a heavy toll on the mind, body, and emotional well-being. Our health and happiness depend on responding to stress appropriately.

Stress on Our Body

You can control some of the stresses on our body; for example, you can determine how much you eat and how much you exercise. These stresses fall into the physiological stressor category. Then, there are environmental stressors, such as environmental pollution and substance addiction.


  1. Environmental stressors. These are things in our immediate environment that put stress on our physical body. These include air pollution, polluted drinking water, noise pollution, artificial lighting, bad ventilation, or the presence of allergens in the field of ragweed outside a bedroom window.


  1. Physiological stressors. These are the stressors within our own body that cause stress. For example, hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy or menopause put direct physiological stress on our system, as does premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Hormonal changes may also cause indirect stress because of the emotional changes they cause. Also, bad health habits such as smoking, drinking too much, eating junk food, or being sedentary put physiological stress on our body. So, does illness, whether it’s the common cold or something more serious like heart disease or cancer. Injury also puts stress on our body — a broken leg, a sprained wrist, and a slipped disk are all stressful.

One of the most common reactions to stress is compulsive eating. The best way to handle a temporary weakness is to find a healthier way to deal with stressful feelings. A large glass of water, a walk around the block, or a phone call to a friend might be just what you need. Just remember, you can control your life.

Just as potent but less direct are stressors that impact our body by way of our mind. For example, getting caught in heavy traffic may stress our body directly because of the air pollution it creates, but it may also stress our body indirectly because you get so worked up and irritated sitting in a car in the middle of a traffic jam that our blood pressure rises, our muscles tense, and the heart beats faster.

If you were to interpret the traffic jam differently — say, as an opportunity to relax and listen to a favorite audio before getting to work — our body might not experience any stress at all. Again, attitude plays a major role.

Pain is another, trickier example of indirect stress. If one has a terrible headache, your body may not experience direct physiological stress, but the emotional reaction to the pain might cause the body significant stress. People tend to be fearful of pain, but pain is an important way to let us know something is wrong. Pain can signal injury or disease. However, sometimes we already know what’s wrong. We get migraines, have arthritis, experience menstrual cramps, or a bad knee acts up when the weather changes. This kind of “familiar” pain isn’t useful in terms of alerting us to something that needs immediate medical attention.

But because we know we are in some form of pain, we still tend to get tense. “Oh no, not another migraine! No, not today!” Our emotional reaction doesn’t cause the pain, but it does cause the physiological stress associated with the pain. Pain in itself isn’t stressful. Our reaction to pain is what causes stress. So, learning stress management techniques may not stop pain, but it can stop the physiological stress associated with pain. pressure. Everything gets turned “up.”

Our muscles tense, preparing for action. Blood moves away from the extremities and our digestive system, into the muscles and brain. Blood sugars are mobilized to travel to where they will be needed most. Our senses get sharper. You can hear better, see better, smell better, taste better. Even our sense of touch becomes more sensitive.

That sounds like a way to get things done, doesn’t it? Imagine the high-powered executive, stunning clients with an on-target presentation and sharp, clever answers to every question. Imagine the basketball player at the championship game, making every shot. Imagine the student acing that final exam, every answer coming immediately to mind, the perfect words pouring from the pen for that A+ essay.

Imagine someone at an office party, clever and funny, attracting crowds that hang on their every word. Stress can be great! No wonder it’s addictive.

You can help clients relax by associating relaxation with a cue.  It might only mean getting comfortable, breathing deeply, and repeating a word or sound that has positive associations (for example, “love,” “yellow,” “ahhh”) out loud for one minute as they concentrate on relaxing.  When done several times every day for a week, your client will sense their body relaxing automatically!

But the downside is that stress, while beneficial in moderate amounts, is harmful in excessive amounts, as are most things. More specifically, stress can cause problems in different systems all over our body. Some problems are immediate, like digestive trouble or a racing heartbeat. Other problems are more likely to occur the longer you are under stress. Some of stress’s less desirable symptoms, directly related to the increase in adrenaline in the body, include the following:

  • Sweating
  • Cold extremities
  • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
  • Muscle tension
  • Dry mouth
  • Confusion
  • Nervousness, anxiety
  • Irritability, impatience
  • Frustration
  • Panic
  • Hostility, aggression

Long-term effects of stress can be even harder to correct, and include such things as depression, loss or increase of appetite resulting in undesirable weight changes, frequent minor illnesses, increased aches and pains, sexual problems, fatigue, loss of interest in social activities, increased addictive behavior, chronic headaches, acne, chronic backaches, chronic stomachaches, and worsened symptoms associated with medical conditions such as asthma and arthritis.

Brain Stress

We already know that stress causes the cerebral cortex to begin a process that results in the release of chemicals to prepare the body to handle danger. But what else goes on in the brain when you are under too much stress? At first, you think more clearly and respond more quickly. But after you’ve reached a stress tolerance point, the brain begins to malfunction. You forget things. You lose things. You can’t concentrate.  We lose your willpower and indulge in bad habits like drinking, smoking, or eating too much.

Many people in their forties and fifties begin to experience increased forgetfulness and fear they are developing Alzheimer’s disease. In most cases, increased forgetfulness is linked to stress, which is often at its peak for those parenting teenagers and experiencing career and relationship changes.

The production of the chemicals from the stress response that make the brain react more quickly and think more sharply are directly related to the depletion of others that, under too much stress, keep you from thinking effectively or reacting quickly. At first, the answers to the test were coming to you without hesitation.

However, three hours into the test and you can barely remember which end of the pencil you are supposed to use to fill in those endless little circles. To keep your brain working at its optimal level daily, we can’t allow stress to overwhelm our circuits!

 How the Body Reacts to Stress Internally

One of the first things that happens when the body undergoes the stress response is that blood is diverted away from our digestive tract to our large muscles.

Stomach and intestines may empty their contents, preparing the body for quick action. Many people experiencing stress, anxiety, and nervousness also experience stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. (Doctors used to call this “a nervous stomach.” Indeed!)

Long-term episodic or chronic stress has been linked to a number of digestive maladies, from irritable bowel syndrome and colitis to ulcers and chronic diarrhea.

 Cardiovascular Connection to Stress Response

If the heart races or skips a beat when you are nervous or have enjoyed a few too many cups of coffee or cans of cola, you know what it feels like to have your heart affected by stress. But stress can do much more to inhibit the activity of our entire cardiovascular system. Some scientists believe stress contributes to hypertension (high blood pressure), and, for decades, people have advised the nervous, anxious, irritable, or pessimistic among them that they’ll work themselves into a heart attack. In fact, people who are more likely to see events as stressful do seem to have an increased rate of heart disease.

Stress can also contribute to bad health habits that, in turn, can contribute to heart disease.  A high-fat, high-sugar, low-fiber diet (the fast-food, junk-food syndrome) contributes to fat in the blood and, eventually, a clogged heart prone to an attack. Paired with lack of exercise, the risk factors for heart disease increase. All because we are too stressed out to eat healthy and add physical activity (PA) each day!

Polluting the body with too much saturated fat and highly processed, fiber food has a direct effect on health. Just as a polluted river soon cleans itself when the pollution stops, so will coronary arteries begin to clear out if the body is freed from having to process foods that are damaging to good health.

Stress Effects on Your Skin

Skin problems – such as acne, are usually related to hormonal fluctuations, which can be exacerbated by stress. Many women in their thirties and forties experience acne during a particular time in their monthly menstrual cycle and despair over the dreaded “breakout.” Stress can extend the length of time these skin flare-ups occur, and a compromised, stressed-out immune system can result in an increased amount of time needed to repair the damage.

Men aren’t immune from this, either. Stress can cause chemical imbalances that can cause or worsen adult acne in men. Teenagers, undergoing dramatic hormonal fluctuations just because they are adolescent, are prone to acne anyway, but stressed-out teens may have a much more difficult time getting acne under control. Remember getting that big pimple right before your first date? It’s no coincidence. That’s stress.

Long-term stress can lead to chronic acne. And it can contribute to psoriasis, hives, and other forms of dermatitis.

Chronic Pain and Its Connection to Stress

Many do not realize it but stress can also result in pain for a client who endures a stressful life for an extended period.  How?  An impaired immune system and increased sensitivity to pain can worsen conditions that include chronic pain. Migraines, arthritis, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, degenerative bone and joint diseases, and old injuries all feel worse when the body is under stress. Stress management techniques as well as pain management techniques can help ease chronic pain, but they also help the mind deal with pain, so the pain doesn’t make the stress worse.  These are only revealed after we truly get to know our client and their past histories.

Stress and Your Immune System

In what way does stress compromise the immune system’s effectiveness? When the body’s equilibrium is disturbed due to the long-term release of stress hormones and its associated imbalances, the immune system can’t work efficiently. Imagine trying to finish an important proposal during a tornado!

Many studies reveal that self-healing, symptom relief, and a strengthened immune system in patients given a placebo – such as a sugar pill, suggest that the brain has amazing healing powers. And other studies suggest that patients can use this power consciously to help themselves heal.

Under optimal conditions, the immune system is much more able to help the body heal itself. However, when conditions are not optimal, some believe guided meditation or focused inner reflection can help the conscious mind perceive what the immune system requires the body to do to facilitate healing. While some doubt such intra-body experiences, the mind-body interaction is far from understood.

Testimonial evidence is widespread – managing stress and listening to the body are essential elements in the promotion of self-healing.

The Stress–Disease Connection

While not every expert agrees on which diseases are linked to stress and which to other factors such as bacteria or genetics, an increasing number of scientists and others believe that the inter-relatedness of the body and mind means that stress can contribute to, if not cause, almost any physical problem. Conversely, physical illness and injury can contribute to stress.

The result is a whirlpool of stress — disease — more stress — more disease, which can ultimately cause serious damage to the body, mind, and spirit. The “which came first” question may be irrelevant; debating which conditions are caused by stress and which are not may be irrelevant as well. Managing stress — whether it caused physical problems or resulted from them — will put the body into a more balanced state, and a body that is more balanced is in a better position to heal itself. It will also help the mind to deal with physical injury or illness, reducing suffering and down-time.  Stress management may not heal a client (again, we do not diagnose or treat unless qualified), but it will make life more enjoyable for a stressed-out client. Then again, we cannot rule out the fact that it may help to improve your client’s health.

Please remember that stress management techniques should never be used in place of competent medical care. Stress management is best used as a complement to the any care your client is already receiving — or should seek — for your physical illness or injury.  Support clients in following the advice of their doctor by providing Stress Management Coaching that helps their body’s natural healing mechanisms an extra boost by getting debilitating stress out of the way.

Stress and It’s Effects on Your Mind

Stress also can cause or be caused by a variety of mental and emotional conditions. Working too hard, pushing too far, being spread too thin or living in a state of unhappiness or anxiety is incredibly stressful. Like physical stress, mental stress makes life difficult, and the harder things are, the more stress they cause. Your client may be caught in this downward spiral.

Perhaps your client is experiencing difficulties in a personal relationship. This is stressful, but rather than deal with the problem (the problem may seem like it has no solution), they throw yourself into their job, working long hours and taking on many additional projects.  Now the new obsession with work adds more stress to their life, as do the long hours, the lost sleep, and the poor dietary habits they have developed.  The body begins to suffer, and so does the mind. At first, a client may find they have an extra edge at work because they are channeling the energy from personal stress into their workload.  But eventually, your client will reach a stress tolerance point. Their mind may suffer a lack of good judgment. Clients may feel that they cannot concentrate or pay attention. They may get extra emotional, or irritable, or both. The client may begin to think badly of their work performance, and of themselves. Frustration, anxiety, panic, or depression will set in.

Don’t let clients get caught in stress’s vicious circle.  When the client feels stressed by an event that is supposed to be positive, the guilt or confusion felt about their stress will make the stress worse.  As a coach, we work to have clients try to see stress for what it is — that is, a natural human reaction to change.

Mental stress comes in a lot of different forms. Social stressors include pressure from work; an impending important event; relationship problems such as with a spouse, child or parent; or the death of a loved one. Any major change in life can result in mental stress, depending on how the mind interprets the event, and even when an event is positive — a marriage, a graduation, a new job, a Caribbean cruise — the changes it involves, even if temporary, can be overwhelming.

Mental stress can result in low self-esteem, a negative outlook on life, cynicism, or the desire for isolation, as the mind attempts to justify and, in any way possible, stop the stress.  As a coach, if you’ve ever had an extremely stressful week and want nothing more than to spend the entire weekend alone in bed with a good book and the remote control, you’ve experienced the mind attempting to regain its equilibrium just as a client would.  Too much activity and change can create a desire for zero activity and reversion to comfortable, familiar rituals.

If we allow our client’s stress to continue for too long, they risk the real possibility of burnout, losing all interest in work as a lack of control increases. Panic attacks, severe depression, or even a nervous breakdown, which is a temporary state of mental illness that could occur suddenly or slowly over a long period of time, are all potential problems that await untreated stress.

Mental stress can be insidious because it can be ignored more easily than we can ignore a physical illness. Yet, it is just as powerful and just as harmful to the body and to our life quality.  Weeding out sources of mental stress is an important key to managing our stress level. Life will become more enjoyable when clients observe their mental as well as their physical stress tolerance level.

Signs of burnout include loss of interest, joy, and motivation in life; an increased sense of a loss of control; constant negative thinking; detachment from personal or work relationships; and a loss of focus and life purpose.

Stress on Our Spirit

Spiritual stress is more nebulous. It can’t be measured directly, but it remains a potent and harmful form of stress that is inextricably linked to physical and mental stress. What is spiritual stress? It is the neglect of and the eventual loss of our spiritual lives, or the part of us that hopes, loves, dreams, plans, and reaches for something greater and better in humanity and in life. It is the noncorporeal in us, the soul. Whether or not your client holds religious beliefs, they still have a spiritual side. Think of it as the part of them that can’t be measured, calculated, or wholly explained.

When clients ignore their spiritual side, they throw their body out of balance. When our bodies are out of whack, we are at risk for elevated levels of stress impacting all parts of our health.   It’s not good.

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