The effects of chronic stress on the body

The effects of chronic stress on the body

Stress affects all of us in different ways and by different amounts throughout our lives, whether it is due to a negative life event, lifestyle factors or through or physical stress from our training, it is real and it is unavoidable.

What is stress?

People often relate the word stress to the anxious feeling you get when the fuel gauge in your car says you have fifteen kilometres left until empty, but you’re twenty kilometres away from the nearest petrol station. However, in a literal sense, stress really refers to any short or long term strain you place on the body or mind, and actually occurs naturally from the stimulus (exercise) we use to adapt and grow our bodies in our training.

This stress only becomes a significant problem when we do not give ourselves enough time to recover.

One of the physiological responses to stress is for the brain to signal for a release of the hormone cortisol from the adrenal glands which helps to prolong and maintain the stress response. You will likely be familiar with the term fight-or-flight and its symptoms, including:

  • elevated heart rate and blood pressure

  • increased blood flow to the extremities

  • heighted sense of awareness

  • increased breakdown of stored sugars in the body to be used for energy

  • dilation of small blood vessels particularly in the lungs to allow for greater exchange of oxygen.

All of these symptoms are fantastic for running from danger or acting in an emergency situation, however, become detrimental when the stress response is repeatedly activated without enough time to rest and recover in between.

Why is this such a big deal?

Consider some of the symptoms of the stress response and what it might mean if they were constantly occurring inside your body.

It has been proven that high blood pressure is a major risk factor for a cardiac event such as heart attack, and because the heart is an endurance muscle (it contracts constantly for your entire life) and it does not cope well with having to beat quickly long term.

If you’re constantly thinking about that boss who keeps threatening to fire you, or that girlfriend who keeps threatening to break up with you, a heightened sense of awareness will make it difficult to relax or fall asleep at the end of a long day of dealing with all the things that make your life stressful.

 The increased breakdown of stored sugar in the body increases fasting blood sugar levels (a precursor to diabetes), may make you hungrier and increases the likelihood of storing energy as fat.

It is obvious that all of these symptoms of the chronic stress response are harmful to your health long term.

What can you do about it?

Taking time out of our busy schedules to have a small break to sit and forget about what it is that bothers us, do something we find enjoyable or practise a relaxation technique such as mindfulness or meditation can help our brains forget the stress and relax our minds.

Remember, if you feel that you are having trouble controlling your stress levels by yourself, consider contacting a psychologist or organisation that understands the importance of how your mental health affects your life.

-Stuart



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