Have you ever wondered why it always seems to be around exams that you get the flu or that just as that big presentation is coming up at work your skin will break out? Have you ever noticed that when you are under a lot of stress, it starts to take its toll on your body? Body and mind are intimately connected and when we are faced with challenging events, they impact not only on our thoughts and feelings but also have a direct impact on our bodies. This article explores our bodily and behavioural responses to stress.
A key feature of your stress response is the impact it has on your physical state. When you find yourself facing a threatening situation such as being fired from work or going through a divorce, your body mobilizes resources in order for you to manage the situation – either through escape (flight) or standing your ground (fight). This primitive bodily reaction of fight-or-flight is your body’s attempt to maximize your chances of survival. Your sympathetic nervous system is activated, and the body produces increased amounts of the hormones cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline, initiating a heightened bodily alertness and the slowing down of non-essential bodily functions. For the person experiencing this fight-or flight response, the physical results may include a generally heightened alertness, tensed muscles, increasingly rapid breathing, heart rate and perspiration. On the other hand, the digestive system slows down and one’s immune response is reduced. Your body is intensely focused on surviving this challenging event.
While this response may be useful to get you through a challenging time, staying in this heightened mode for extended periods has deleterious effects on your health and wellbeing. Ideally, we want to return to a state of balance where a relaxed heart rate and breathing is restored. However, sometimes we can become trapped in a stress generating cycle and find it hard to escape from this heightened state. Our bodily and behavioral (as well as emotional and cognitive) responses to stress feed into each other, maintaining the stress response. This is especially so when we are faced with intense, multiple or cumulative stressors. The impact of having a chronically ill spouse, for instance, or moving houses, losing your job and getting divorced shortly after each other or all at the same time can push us into a space where we struggle to shift back into a more “chilled” state.
This can have a long-term impact on our health. The cumulative effects of stress on the body include back pain, cramps and muscles spasms, sexual dysfunction, headaches, reduced immunity, sleep disturbance, stomach disturbances, high blood pressure and heart disease. In addition, ongoing stress has a behavioral impact as well. Heightened stress is associated with over or under eating, anger management problems, substance abuse and social withdrawal which may in turn exacerbate the experience of stress and impact on bodily functioning. Studies have shown a direct link between stress and chromosomal damage. Chronic emotional stress has been linked to a shortening of the ends of chromosomes called telomeres. While these ends naturally shorten with age, it seems like stress also impacts on telomere length, putting one at increased risk for diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and strokes.
While we might think of stress as a relatively minor everyday part of life that we just have to deal with, if ignored, the long-term impact of stress on our physical health can be significant. So, start to notice your exposure to stressful circumstances and your particular physical and behavioral responses to stress. Just like you watch what you eat or make sure to have enough exercise, an essential part of maintaining good physical health is managing the stress you experience and your response to it.
Dr. Stacey Leibowitz-Levy is a highly-experienced psychologist with a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology and a PhD in the area of stress and its relation to goals and emotion. In addition to her private therapy practice, she currently runs E-counseling.com – a mental health resource with self-help guides on stress, anxiety, depression, and many other areas. During her spare time, Stacey enjoys spending time with her husband and children, being outdoors and doing yoga.