Physical Impact of Stress

Stress can be understood as our body’s response to a threat and often a short-term experience. It was found that at least one out of five people experience stress which is actually high levels of negative stress stretching at least 15 days or more per month. Hence, it is really important to discuss stress and how it affects us.

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Stress in this context is Negative stress or Distress. The persistent and chronic stress can lead to a number of health problems including physical illness and mental illness. The emotional strain which a person undergoes leads to many social problems also and such things lead to further problems. Any mental illness shows a great impact on the our physical health. Among all, Stress is the major culprit.

Stress: A gateway of diseases

Our body’s immune system is a complex group of cells and organs that defend the body against disease and infection. A healthy immune system remains in homeostasis (balance), much like the speeding up and speeding down relationship between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. This is concerned with the fight or flight response that stress is usually referred to. It is because of this similarity, the immune system has sometimes been called our “Liquid nervous system.”

It is well known that white blood corpuscles are the disease fighting warriors in our body. Our body is built in such a way that there is balance in everything including the number of red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. Any imbalance in the number of these cells, leads to some health problems.

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Stress causes the cells and organs that compose the nervous system to release hormones that trigger the production of white blood cells and other disease fighting elements. This is due to the fact that stress is actually our body’s response to (the process of getting ready to face) the external pressure or threat. The stress-triggered hormone release is essential for priming the immune system to respond to injuries and short-term illnesses. But if this release of hormones that triggers the immune system which causes the production of white blood cells, continues for longer periods, that affects the health in a bad way. Such a chronic stimulation of the immune system results in the suppression of the overall system making it less effective in its primary function of warding off the infections and diseases. Such ineffectual immune system is a gateway of numerous diseases.

Effect on Immune system

It was researched that cells in the immune system produce chemicals called as cytokines which act as messengers and communicate between the cells for producing additional fighting cells to encounter infections. But when an individual is in stress, the hormones released during this period, inhibit the production of cytokines, thus thwarting the body’s ability to effectively coordinate the fight against infections. Because of this reduction in cytokines, the immune system’s proliferate response, i.e., the ability to successfully fight off disease, decreases by 15% or more during chronically stressful situations. Hence it is often heard from the stress-affected people, that their cold infections and mouth ulcers are getting chronic. Many people also suffer from viral infections that develop sores on their mouths and genitals.

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The breakdown of communication between the various aspects of the immune system that occurs during times of chronic stress may also be responsible for triggering flare-ups (or new cases) of various autoimmune diseases such as Crohn’s disease, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis (MS) and other similar conditions. An autoimmune disease is one where the immune system gets confused and starts attacking the body’s own healthy cells instead of what it should be doing, which is attacking foreign disease-causing bodies.

When the body deals with injury or illness, after the completion of its tenure, the immune system usually secretes hormones that trigger a reduction in the production of white blood cells. This enables the system to rest and rejuvenate itself.  When a person suffers from chronic stress, this decrease in the production of white blood cells and rejuvenating the body gets delayed.

Stress and Illness

As discussed, stress hormones has high effects on the immune system, causing existing conditions to worsen in some cases and creating vulnerability to developing new conditions in some other cases.

Digestive System

It is often observed that the stress-affected people experience a stomach-ache or diarrhea. The stress hormones stimulate the colon hinting to empty the digestive system. These hormones also slow down the process of digestion. The emptying of digestive system often results in diarrhea or pain. Excessive belching or farting is also observed in many cases.

Stress hormones when produced for longer periods, can cause an increase in people’s appetite, where they tend to eat more and become obese, which results in some other health problems like diabetes, heart problems etc. While in some, these stress hormones reduce the appetite, which makes them eat less and lose too much weight.

Cardiovascular system

Chronic stress hormone activation can cause much damage to the cardiovascular system, creating heart palpitations, chest pain and increase in blood pressure and lipid levels. Sustained high levels of cholesterol and other fatty substances in the blood can lead to atherosclerosis, a disease in which fatty plaques build up on blood vessel walls, restrict blood flow to the heart and sometimes lead to heart attack. The increase in cortisol levels also lead to the increase in abdominal fat, which again is responsible for heart problems. Such accumulation of fat in the body, gives an apple shape to the body, which suggests that people with such shape are more prone to dementia in later life.

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The stress-effected people who respond with anger and hostility have a risk of developing cardiovascular diseases. Similarly, the habits like smoking, drinking or over eating which people prefer to cope with stress, damage the blood vessels that surround the heart.

Musculoskeletal System

Muscle contractions often occur due to the release of stress hormones. Muscle cramps and aches occur due to the sustained stress. Many people complain about the spasms in their neck, shoulders and lower back when they are in sustained stress for longer periods. Muscle twitches, uncontrolled movements, headaches, muscle tensions, migraine etc. are all caused due to the release of stress hormones.

Migraine is the most common problem for the stress-affected people. Migraine is a severe headache caused in a portion of the head due to changes in nerves and blood vessels that can cause severe pain and nausea. Some of them experience blood oozing out of nose when highly affected with migraine. People with migraine are highly sensitive to light and sound. A hot or cold drink could be a temporary relief. Stress causes TemproMandibular Joint dysfunction (TMJ) which involves pain in the jaw where it joins the skull.

Reproductive System

Stress hormones are capable of troubling the reproductive system of both men and women, at a higher and faster rate. When stressed, men usually face problems like erectile dysfunction or premature ejaculation during intercourse. Women experience menstrual disorders such as heavy bleeding, pain and irregular periods or recurrent vaginal infections, when they suffer from chronic stress. Higher levels of stress can take a toll on their reproductive system causing infertility in both men and women. Though conceived, stress hormones are capable of causing abortions in women. Stress hormones also reduce the sexual desires.

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Other Physical Problems

Skin is also among the most affected parts, when a person is stressed. Stress hormones can cause Psoriasis which is an autoimmune condition characterized by raised, red patches on various parts of the body, which may be covered with silvery white buildup of dead skin cells. Itchy skin allergies like eczema, hives etc. are also caused by stress. Acne in young people is also a result of stress. Hair loss, dry scalp, dandruff and balding can also be caused by stress. Respiratory problems, asthma attacks, dry mouth and mouth ulcers etc. are also the results of the release of stress hormones.

Scientists are still exploring the role of stress in creating vulnerability to cancer. The question of whether there is a link between stress and cancer is intriguing and puzzling scientists since these recent years. Even though stress is not a direct cause, people who develop unhealthy coping habits like consuming alcohol, smoking, or doing drugs excessively to alleviate their discomfort are certainly welcoming cancer at their doorstep.

After having such an idea on how adept cancer is at taking a toll on our lives, it is well understood that stress is the root cause of numerous health problems. In order to minimize these stress levels, it is better to take an expert help. We, at Wellness Hub offer counseling in all forms like online, phone, video and offline counselling to help you live a stress-free life. Book an appointment today!


Prof. Madhu Kosuri

I have completed 30 years of teaching and research in psychology at the Department of Psychology and Parapsychology, Andhra University, Visakhapatnam, India.

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