The Effects of Stress on the Body

Today's society is fast paced with the emphasis on fast and busy. Everyone seems to be in a huge hurry to do more, be more, and get more, and part of the way to achieve all this is to stay in a state of constant “up.” The response of the body to stress is to become more—to think clearer, to function faster, to be stronger—all of this and not feel hungry! Many people are so used to operating at a high stress level that they do not want to come down. The initial feeling of sharp intelligence, quick wit, and tremendous endurance is exhilarating. For many the thought of not performing at this seemingly peak level is not conceivable. It is unfortunate that most people still do not realize the depleting demands of stress. For many the long-term effects of constant stress result in chronic illness.

Digestion and Elimination

Long-term stress can result in a number of health issues. Stress can be held in any organ or muscle of the body, so if you have an area of weakness, that area becomes a target for stress. Your stomach for one cannot keep on stomaching stress without damage! Ulcers and other digestive disorders are clearly linked to stress. Many people experience low-grade stomach upset every day and attribute this condition to a nervous stomach. If your stomach is nervous you have long-term stress. Furthermore, many intestinal issues such as irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel, or colitis are aggravated by stress. The body's instinctive response to stress is to shut down the digestive and elimination functions; therefore chronic stress becomes a serious issue.

Stress and the Skin

One of the first places extended stress can be seen is in the skin. Your skin is visible and you can see how you look whenever you want—that can be a stress in itself on a day that your skin breaks out! The chemical imbalances caused by stress can change the condition of your skin, your hair, and your nails. All can become dry and dull, reflecting the effects of stress for all to see. Dry skin and dandruff as well as thin and cracked nails can also be a result of chronic stress. More severe skin conditions like acne, eczema, psoriasis, and even hives may come from stress.

The human function curve is a concept developed by Dr. Peter Nixon, a cardiologist in London, to demonstrate the effects of long-term stress. Nixon showed that, initially, performance increases under stress; however, over the long term, fatigue introduces decline in performance and, finally, ill health and breakdown. He also showed that long-term stress produces unawareness of the performer as he or she begins to decline.

Your Heart and Your Lungs

Stress and the long-term effects of stress affect your blood pressure and the rate of your heartbeat. Constant stress on the heart muscle weakens its function. A weakened heart leads to a weakened circulatory system, which adds pressure on the lungs as well. If the lungs weaken, they are unable to bring enough oxygen into the body, which leads to the problem of how to release toxic waste. You can see how not dealing with stress creates a mess of the whole body.

Stress and Your Muscles

The tension that stress creates as it prepares you to fight or flee puts an incredible amount of pressure on your muscles. During times of great stress you are strong enough to defend yourself and also able to run unbelievably fast—more so than you normally would be. However, a prolonged stay in this condition may lead to a weakening of these muscles, and that can take away your overall strength and endurance. With the weakening of the muscles comes pain, and chronic pain is debilitating.

Imagine a condition where you try to use your body—walk, play with your child, take the trash out—and a tremendous pain runs through your hip, stopping you in your tracks. You drink some water and try again only to be hit with even more pain. You attempt to continue but your body will not let you. The next day you are fine, and you continue with your routine, only to be hit again a few days later, this time far worse than before.

To add insult to injury that night you can't sleep because of the pain. You take a few aspirins and hop into the shower, only to discover that now you hurt all over; even your skin hurts as the water hits it. This episode sends you to the doctor, who may or may not be aware of the painful intensity or encompassing scope of chronic pain syndrome. Let's hope your doctor is, because this pain is real; it is not in your head! People who suffer from burnout may experience this kind of pain, another side effect of stress.

Balance and Stress

The nervous system supports the immune system and the immune system supports balance in your body. Both of these systems work with the endocrine system to help keep your body and mind fine-tuned and in a constant state of homeostasis. Normal day-to-day living creates stress that these systems can deal with; however, a continued barrage of stress-related incidents that leave your head spinning affects the way your body fights off disease.

Keeping the mind, body, and spirit strong gives support to all the functions of the body. Massage and other forms of relaxation not only teach you to relax but strengthen your ability to stay healthy.

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