Stress is a feeling we all experience when we are challenged or overwhelmed. But more than just an emotion, stress is a hardwired physical response that travels throughout your entire body.
In the short term, stress can be advantageous, but when activated too often or too long, your primitive fight or flight stress response not only changes your brain but also damages many of the other organs and cells throughout your body.
Your adrenal gland releases the stress hormones cortisol, epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, and norepinephrine. As these hormones travel through your blood stream, they easily reach your blood vessels and heart.
Adrenaline is a powerful “fight or flight” chemical, and everybody experiences “adrenaline overload.” Any situation where we feel threatened, insulted, guilty, etc. can signal the stress system to raise our levels of adrenaline.
Adrenaline causes your heart to beat faster and raises your blood pressure, over time causing hypertension. As well, with too much adrenaline you might you might misinterpret what others are saying (and see it as insulting or threatening) and you might make risky or expensive decisions, with consequences youreallydon’t want.
Cortisol, also released by the adrenal gland, can cause the inner lining of blood vessels to stop functioning properly. Notably, this is a first step of forming build-up of plaque in your arteries (atherosclerosis). Hence, your chances of heart attack or stroke are increased.
When your brain senses stress
Under stress, your brain activates your autonomic nervous system which is responsible for regulating body functions such as heart rate, digestion, respiration, urination, and sexual arousal. It is also the primary mechanism in the fight-or-flight response.
Through this network of nerve connections, your brain communicates that you are experiencing stress to your gut leading to “butterflies in your stomach.” As well, the brain-gut connection can disrupt the normal movement of food through your body leading to irritable bowel syndrome and heartburn (due to increased sensitivity of your gut to stomach acids).
Speaking of digestion, does chronic stress affect your waistline?
Unfortunately the answer is a definitive “yes.”
Cortisol doesn’t cause you to indulge in ice cream if you feel stressed, but it does increase your appetite. It tells your body to replenish your energy stores with energy dense foods and carbs. This, in turn, causes you to crave comfort foods (ice cream, cookies, chocolate, cake, pizza). Hence, high levels of cortisol (from high levels of stress) can eventually stay with you as visceral, deep belly fat. This type of fat doesn’t just make it harder to button your pants. It is an organ that actively releases hormones and immune system chemicals called cytokines that can increase your risk of developing chronic diseases, such as heart disease and insulin resistance.
Meanwhile, stress hormones affect your immune functioning in a variety of ways. Initially, they help prepare to fight invaders and heal after injury, but chronic stress can dampen function of some immune cells, make you more susceptible to infections, and slow the rate you heal.
Want to live a long life? Avoid chronic stress
Chronic (ongoing, unremitting) stress is associated with shortened “telomeres”, the shoelace tip ends of chromosomes that measure a cell’s age. When chronic stress occurs, the shape of these telomeres is changed, and your cells begin to die. On top of this, chronic stress can cause:
- hair loss
- sexual dysfunction
- muscle tension
- difficulty concentrating
So, what does all this mean for you?
Your life will always be filled with stressful situations. But what matters to your brain and entire body
is how you respond to that stress. If you can view those situations as challenges you can control and master,rather than as threats that are insurmountable, you will perform better in the short run and stay healthy in the long run.
For more information about anger and conflict, the following resources may be helpful.
- Understanding and Finding Help for Anxiety. https://ontario.cmha.ca/documents/understanding-and-finding-help-for-anxiety/
- Youth Anxiety. https://youth.anxietycanada.com/
- Anxiety Disorders Association of Ontario. http://www.anxietydisordersontario.ca/
- Mood Disorders Association of Ontario. https://www.mooddisorders.ca/faq/anxiety-and-mood-disorders
- Anxiety Disorders. Canadian Mental Health Association. https://cmha.bc.ca/documents/anxiety-disorders