Have you ever prepared to speak to a group of people and felt that it was difficult to breathe? Maybe your stomach felt upset or your heart pounded. These are typical reactions to stress and the body’s corresponding flight-or-flight response. When faced with a potentially dangerous situation or one that causes fear, all of the body’s defense mechanisms gear up for battle. The brain tells the adrenal glands to produce hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline, that rev up the body’s systems. The lungs take in additional oxygen. That’s why your heart races—beating up to five times more quickly than normal—and breathing quickens.
An elevated heart rate results in increased blood pressure as the heart pounds more blood through the body. Stored fat releases into the bloodstream to provide additional energy.
After an acute threat—the public speech, car accident, or other passing incident—your body’s response systems will subside, eventually returning to normal.
However long-term stress can result in inflammation, sleep problems, and headaches or other pain. These health issues often lead to subsequent health problems, making unmanaged stress a top health concern for many people.
People experiencing chronic stress may suffer from headaches, stomachaches, or back pain. The same muscles that tighten during the stress response, to help the body run or jump to safety, can never relax when constantly clenched. People hold tension in different parts of the body, including the lower back, jaw, shoulders, or neck, and any of those areas may become painful under chronic stress.
With a mind that races long into the night, many people find it difficult to sleep. Insufficient sleep not only makes people less alert, but can also lead to serious health problems including diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
Some people cope with stress by eating more, especially foods full of fat or sugar, which leads to weight gain. Other people lose themselves in television or alcohol, reducing the time available or will to exercise, and increasing the potential for an expanded waistline.
Chronic stress leads to inflammation, and researchers are beginning to understand why. A study from Ohio State University found that stress alters the gene activity of immune cells, making them rally to fight an infection that doesn’t exist. Healthy inflammation can help you heal from a cut, for example, so an infection doesn’t develop. However, chronic inflammation over time can lead to a host of health problems from pain to some types of cancer.
Has stress affected your health?
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