What is the effect of stress on the body?


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With the ever-demanding and ongoing tasks of life, stress is a factor that greatly weighs in and impacts one’s day to day life. As the Medical Encyclopaedia describes it, “Stress is a feeling of emotional or physical tension. It can come from any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or nervous.”

It has grown to become one of the taxing side effects of the difficulties of life – to keep up with one’s professional schedule, social circles and personal relationship, mental health is one that is often omitted. The importance of mental well-being is looked over since it does not exhibit physical manifestation, until there is a build-up of the same. The build-up of stress can lead to further implications of health (known as MENTAL BREAKDOWN), progressing to ANXIETY DISORDER and occurrence of PANIC ATTACKS.

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Such a situation must be avoided at all costs since it makes the individual unable to perform any of the tasks that they are required to do – thereby causing professional and personal loss, combined with damage in the mental status. The consequences of stress on the brain are widely known, but the same on the rest of the body are spoken about in hushed tones. Reviewing the general effect of stress on the body is crucial to the functioning of a person and overall health.


What is the effect of stress on the body?

  1. The Nervous System

The nervous system largely comprises of two systems – THE CENTRAL NERVOUS SYSTEM (CNS), which includes the brain and spinal cord and THE PERIPHERAL NERVOUS SYSTEM (PNS), which harbours the autonomic and somatic nervous systems. The autonomic nervous system is mainly involved in response to stress, initiating the ‘FIGHT OR FLIGHT RESPONSE’ by a rush of hormone ADRENALINE, under a stressful situation. Once the stressful situation ends, the body shifts into its pre-emergency mode, as adrenaline is stopped. This puts the body into a relaxed, regular state.

In case of a person with a stress disorder, the autonomic nervous system constantly remains in the emergency mode, thereby draining the energy of the body and having physical manifestations on the body – ones which are to be described below.


2. The Musculoskeletal System

Under a regular level of stress, that is observed during the flight or fight response, muscles tend to tense up to gear up for a hypothetical fight. In times of chronic stress, the muscles get stuck in a state of tense – thus, paving the way for disorders such as joint pain and muscle pain. It also leads to pain in the back, neck and head.

If the stress continues, it can cause further, more severe conditions such as ARTHRITIS, referring to chronic inflammation of the joints. This makes the individual more susceptible to injury with respect to an already-weak skeletal system.

3. The Respiratory System

The respiratory system plays an indispensable and life-giving function and it is one that must not be affected and deviated from its normal function. Under the fight or flight response mentioned earlier, breathing become faster, causing higher pulse and even blood pressure.

Due to being in a constant state of the same, respiratory conditions can follow. It has been observed that people with pre-existing respiratory conditions can have severe reactions due to stress – such as CHRONIC BRONCHITIS, referring to inflammation of the bronchioles in the lungs. People without pre-existing disorders can also develop disorders such as ASTHMA, which can worsen over time.

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4. The Cardiovascular System

The cardiovascular system is in-charge of supplying the organs with the much required oxygen, which is crucial for their role in the body. Under stress, the hormone adrenaline triggers a surge in heart rate and stronger contractions of the heart and its muscles. Further, the blood vessels dilate, aiding in more flow of blood through them, thereby elevating the blood pressure.

Persistent stress causes permanent dilation of the blood vessels, sometimes causing inflammation. A constantly high level of blood pressure is also observed – causing loss of energy to do physical tasks. Inflammation of the cardiovascular system can also lead to more occurrences of MYOCARDIAL INFARCTION, commonly known as a heart attack, hypertension or a stroke.

5. The Gastrointestinal System

The gastrointestinal system includes all the organs, beginning from the mouth to the rectum. It supervises and functions in the intake of food and thereby, the processing of food. The stomach and bowel are the organs adversely affected by chronic stress. High levels of stress can be the reason for BLOATING (i.e., the feeling of swelling in the stomach or abdomen), abdominal pain or sometimes even vomiting. It leads to an increase or decrease in appetite, both of which can be harmful for the overall health of the person.

Stress can affect the digestion of food and can cause discomfort by causing indigestion and decreased absorption of nutrients by the small intestine. It also decreases the gut microflora, present in the small intestine, which can cause IMMUNESUPPRESSION and make the individual more susceptible to infections.

6. The Immune System

The immune system is a rather large system, comprising of various organs, performing detailed functions all over the body. It is essential for the immune system to be strong, so as to not let a pathogen infect the cells and degrade the health of the person.

In times of stress, as mentioned above, cause a decrease in the gut microflora and the immune system is weakened – thus enabling pathogens to invade the body. The fighter molecules of the body, the ANTIBODIES are unable to defend the body against the invaders.

It is a little known fact that the human body harbours pathogens of all kind – those ranging from common cold to a chronic condition such as tuberculosis. It is because of these antibodies that the body can withhold the invasion of these agents and maintain the health. In the absence of antibodies, the body is left defenseless and chronic diseases are assured. The drastic drop in health can be life threating or require several months of treatment.

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What should be done to decrease stress?

As we can see, when a person suffers from chronic stress, the body puts all the other organ systems on a halt and focuses on improving the mental health. This is a rather futile process since the energy acquired from all the organ systems is lost, which is essential for mental health as well. The body is then stuck in a vicious cycle of wanting to destress and unable to do so due to the ill-functioning of the rest of the body.

It then boils down to the individual to take care of their mental health. External aid from the person themselves is what will guarantee a state free of stress and improvement in health of the other parts of the body.

Basic ways of decreasing stress involves maintaining healthy relationships with friends and family, engaging in regular exercise for the mind as well as the body, meditation and getting quality sleep each night for a good amount of time. These are just simple ways that not even ensure perfect mental health, but also promotes healthy habits and overall well-being of the body.

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