The Effects of Stress on Your Body

I was drawn to provide this page to my students after watching them stress out over exams, deadlines, workloads, life burdens, and just about anything that would alter their overburdened lives. We all seem to be over committed regardless of our circumstances with work, family, and social or obligatory functions for work or school. Add circumstances like traffic, varied commute times, and personal or family/ friend’s illness, or anything that is completely out of our control, compounding our stress.

Your body does not recognize or have the ability to distinguish different types of stress,  so they all look the same physiologically whether you are running late for a meeting or in mortal danger of your life.  Our physiologic stress response was developed for mortal danger situations that happened occasionally.   However, our stress response is now being triggered more frequently because of our over burdened lives, global situation, polarized and inflammatory news, or any situation that causes you fear or stress.  The following is/are the physiologic effects of stress, regardless of the circumstances:

1.  You start sweating to cool yourself down, your breath increases to give you energy and oxygenate your muscles, your heart rate increases, and your your blood pressure increases all to help energize you to fight or flight (the options for your body under stress or fight, flight or freeze).

2.  In addition to the physiologic responses above, you also get a hormone surge that includes increased adrenaline,  glucagon , cortisol, and epinephrine. All of these hormones energize your body for fight or flight.  Adrenaline is really meant for fight so may find yourself acting disproportionately angry i.e. road rage or having an emotional outburst at work.  Glucagon is mobilizing all of your stored sugar so it is like dumping a couple of candy bars worth of sugar into your blood, which will temporarily raise your blood sugars, but will also eventually result in a crash as well.  Cortisol  is meant to just spike in the morning to help wake you up and then taper off during the day to help you sleep under normal conditions.  However,  it also favors fat deposition when triggered during the day, especially in the abdominal or “belly” area.    All of these hormones will temporarily energize you to be able to fight  or flight but once they leave your body, you will feel drained and exhausted.

3.  Non essential body functions also shut down during this time which includes growth hormone production (this is responsible for repairing your body and building muscle), sex hormones, immune function and digestion.

4.  Your blood increases it’s ability to clot, just in case you are cut and  bleed, which will eventually increase your risk for heart disease along with the increased blood pressure and heart rate when stress becomes chronic.

5.  While all of these situations have short term effects,  with repeated exposures to stress, you will begin to have long term effects.  These long term effects can alter your cortisol levels resulting in a “wired and tired” situation where you are exhausted but you can’t shut down or go to sleep.  If that continues, eventually your cortisol production will bottom out, which is known as adrenal fatigue and that results in total exhaustion.  Insulin resistance, blood sugar issues, and eventually type 2 diabetes can also result from these hormone shifts.  At minimum, you will probably find yourself constantly hungry, craving sugar, increasing your body fat,  and having more difficulty controlling your weight.  

This is why stress, over time, compromises your health. From an epigenetic standpoint (the effects of gene expression due to environment), the hormones and physiologic responses, described above,  turn on genes that lead to chronic disease and aging.   However, all of these physiologic responses are also going to cause and or exacerbate anxiety, depression, and almost all mental health conditions which are now plaguing society at record rates.  

So what can you do?  What can you control?  In many situations you cannot control extraneous situations, but you can control how you react to them.  One of the biggest factors with in your control is doing things earlier and giving yourself extra time so you are not bumping into deadlines or running late for important work or life commitments.  However, it is important to share with you what has been scientifically been proven to reduce these hormonal effects and some of them can actually boost your immune system, decrease aging and change your brain function.

The two hormones that can actually make you feel good are dopamine and oxytocin.  Things that you can do that boosts these hormones include meditation, being in nature, gratitude, kindness, and compassion.  In addition, there are techniques like tapping (emotional freedom technique) and meditation that can actually change the way in which your brain works as well as increase our telomeres (the part of our genes that determines how we age), and also increase your immune system and decrease certain stress hormones. 

When I taught face to face courses, I actually had my students tapping before their midterms to help with stress. For myself, walking, especially in nature, really helps ground and calm me. Deep breathing, can mitigate some of the physiologic effects of stress and is part of a yoga practice and also more extensive meditation practices. Sometimes just leaving a situation and taking a minute for yourself can be enough stop the cascade of effects.

Eventually I will be providing a resource page on my website but these are a few resources that you can google for help in these areas. Emotional Freedom Technique (this is called tapping and it is a great way to relieve stress and it is actually being used for PTSD and there is some amazing studies and research done by Dr. Dawson Church.  Nick and Jessica Ortner also have some amazing videos (both long and short on EFT and tapping. Davidji has a 16 second technique that can cause a “pattern interrupt” in the middle of a stressful situation and can be used in traffic, meeting or any other situation through breathing. Donna Eden also has some short videos that can energize you in the morning and also relieve stress.