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Physical Effects of Stress

This blog on the physical effects of stress, is the first in a series that will focus on stress and how to manage it.  Stressful experiences are a normal part of life, and the human stress response is a survival mechanism that primes us to respond to threats. 

What can be the possible physical effects of stress?

Stress can affect all systems of the body including the musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine (hormonal), gastrointestinal, nervous, and reproductive systems.

  • Effect on the muscles

When our body is stressed, our muscles tense up. Muscle tension is almost a reflex reaction to stress—it’s the body’s way of guarding against injury and pain. With stress that occurs suddenly (say, another car cutting in front of us recklessly or loud noise that wakes us up in the middle of the night), our muscles tense up all at once, and then release their tension when the stress passes. 

However, chronic stress causes the muscles in the body to be in a more or less constant state of guardedness. And when muscles are taut and tense for long periods of time, this may trigger other reactions in our body.  Both tension and migraine headaches are associated with chronic muscle tension in our shoulders, neck and head. Lower back pain has also been linked to stress, especially work stress.

  • Effect on the respiratory system

Stress and strong emotions can cause shortness of breath and rapid breathing, as the airway between the nose and the lungs constricts. For people without respiratory disease, this is generally not a problem as the body can manage the additional work to breathe comfortably, but psychological stressors can exacerbate breathing problems for people with pre-existing respiratory diseases such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Rapid breathing or hyperventilation caused by stress can bring on a panic attack in someone prone to panic attacks or similarly an asthma attack in someone prone to those.

  • Effect on hormones, heart rate and blood vessels

Sudden short term stress such as meeting deadlines, being stuck in traffic or suddenly slamming on the brakes to avoid an accident causes an increase in heart rate and stronger contractions of the heart muscle, with the stress hormones—adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol—acting as messengers for these effects.

In addition, the blood vessels that direct blood to the large muscles and the heart dilate, thereby increasing the amount of blood pumped to these parts of the body and elevating blood pressure. (This is also known as the fight or flight response.) Once the acute stress episode has passed, the body returns to its normal state. However, constant stress experienced over a prolonged period of time, can contribute to long-term problems for heart and blood vessels and can increase the risk for hypertension, heart attack, or stroke.

  • Effect on the gut and bowel

Stress can affect this brain-gut communication, and may trigger pain, bloating, and other gut discomfort to be felt more easily. The gut is also inhabited by millions of bacteria which can influence its health and the brain’s health, which can impact the ability to think and affect emotions. Stress is associated with changes in gut bacteria which in turn can influence mood. 

Early life stress can change the development of the nervous system as well as how the body reacts to stress. These changes can increase the risk for later gut diseases or dysfunctioning. Stress can also make pain, bloating, or discomfort felt more easily in the bowels. It can affect how quickly food moves through the body, which can cause either diarrhea or constipation. Furthermore, stress can induce muscle spasms in the bowel, which can be painful. Stress can affect digestion and what nutrients the intestines absorb. Gas production related to nutrient absorption may increase.

  • Other possible physical effects of stress

    • Sexual desire

Chronic stress, ongoing stress over an extended period of time, can affect testosterone production resulting in a decline in sex drive or libido, and can even cause erectile dysfunction or impotence.

    • Fertility

Researchers have found that men who experienced two or more stressful life events in the past year had a lower percentage of sperm motility (ability to swim) and a lower percentage of sperm of normal morphology (size and shape), compared with men who did not experience any stressful life events.

    • Premenstrual syndrome

Stress may make premenstrual symptoms worse  – for example cramping, fluid retention and bloating, negative mood (feeling irritable and low) and mood swings.

Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.

Book a counselling session today!


See also: Burnout or Stress?   All You Need to Know about Stress  Relationships and Stress: How women and men deal with stress differently