Physical and Mental Effects of Stress

By: Mike Cole | Posted: 23rd October 2009

Stress is a primitive response that people have to fear or danger. Fear triggers the "fight or flight" response, releasing chemicals into our body like cortisol and adrenaline. This was very important in the past, when some of our greatest causes of stress were predator attacks. The ability to instantly boost our speed, energy, and large muscle dexterity was once crucial to our survival. Cortisol, the other stress hormone, was useful in ancient times during droughts, or when food supplies were dwindling. Cortisol helps the body store extra layers of fat for times of famine.

While stress hormones were once largely responsible for our success as a species, they can work against us today. Modern stress comes from work, family trouble or threats to our financial security. And the effects of these stresses can take a toll on our emotional and physical wellbeing.

Stress and Sleep Trouble

One of the most troublesome ways that stress affects our bodies is by making it difficult to sleep. Racing minds, tension and the slight burst of adrenaline that we ironically get from the fear of not being able to fall asleep can all contribute to insomnia in times of stress. The effects of stress and the effects of insomnia are similar, and can include weight gain, high blood sugar, reductions in immunity and muscle tension. These combined symptoms can add up to some serious potential health effects for anyone suffering from insomnia and stress at the same time, and because of reduced energy levels, the ability to cope decreases as well.

Stress and Fatigue

Insomnia can cause severe drops in normal energy levels, even when not accompanied by stress. Stress also causes fatigue, both physically and mentally. Physical fatigue makes it very hard to accomplish physical tasks or to motivate yourself to do some of the things, like going for a walk or run, which could actually help to alleviate your stress.

Mental fatigue makes it hard to focus or make decisions, even small ones that can normally be made in an instant. Choosing which shirt to wear can seem like a nearly insurmountable task, and the near panic attack that it causes is vastly out of proportion to the problem you are addressing. When this happens, it is very important to seek help, either at home or professionally.

Stress and Physical Pain

Stress causes the muscles of the body to tense as if in preparation for extreme physical actions like fighting for your life or running as fast as you can. When there is no physical release of tension, the muscle tightness and muscles can become knotted and painful.

The muscles in the back and neck can often store tension and become perpetually sore. This can contribute to trouble sleeping, concentrating, and staying active — all of which tend to heighten the sense of being stressed out. In addition to muscle pain and knotting, high stress levels can also cause stomach pain and can manifest in all sorts of ways, from a simple upset stomach to heartburn, or even ulcers over time.

Stress and Panic Attacks and Breakdowns

Being stressed out for days, weeks, or even months at a time can contribute to feelings of helplessness and depression, and can also lead to a state of panic. Panic or anxiety attacks can be accompanied by a racing heart and chest pains as well as difficulty breathing. These symptoms can be similar to those of a heart attack, which is another possible effect of stress.

Panic attacks may be repeated, but the actual attack is transitory. A more long term effect of stress is a mental breakdown, in which the sufferer is unable to cope any longer with the stress. There may be an emotional explosion, tears, and a sense of being unable to continue with the stressful way of existence. Less drastic is a feeling a burnout, which can make it difficult to continue with the stressful activity.

Stress and Decreased Immunity

Stress can also weaken the immune system over time, making you more likely to get sick and slowing recovery time. This may be related to insomnia, which also decreases the fortitude of your immune system. Like many of the other ways that stress affects us, decreased immunity can contribute to more stress in a repeating feedback loop.

Stress has many mental and physical effects. But there are several ways to manage and reduce your symptoms. By targeting your specific stressors and taking note of exactly how they make you feel, you can take steps to avoid or better cope with stressful situations. It may be helpful to work with a doctor or therapist to devise personalized stress reducing techniques that you can use at work, at home or any time you're experiencing the effects of stress.

Leslie Silver is a freelance writer who writes about self improvement and stress management.
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Tags: effects of stress, food supplies, muscle tension, energy levels, potential health, flight response, droughts, high blood sugar, stress hormones, mental fatigue, stress hormone, causes of stress, physical fatigue, cortisol