While everyone experiences stress as part and parcel of the realities of life, not all are as well-equipped as others when it comes to learning to manage its strains.
Stress is medically defined as the physical and psychological influences that lead to the creation of bodily and mental tension, and is often the result of the body’s natural “fight-or-flight” response, an Endocrinol and neurological reaction to triggering events.
The short-term response of this reaction is beneficial – it provides motivation to challenge and overcome obstacles, helping us to adapt and survive in a changing environment.
For example, say an individual is planning an important event. If this person feels no motivation and does not plan until the last minute, then they will feel overwhelmed by looming hurdles.
However, eustress, the positive form of stress, can motivate them to plan over an extended period of time, and therefore ultimately experience less stress.
While the short-term effects of stress can be helpful in the short term, the long-term effects are less than beneficial.
A consistent level of moderate to extreme stress can lead to many unwanted side effects that don’t immediately dissipate – even if you think you’re calm in the moment. These side effects can be wide-ranging, affecting many areas of the body.
Long Term Effects of Stress
The Immune System
Ever wondered why you always got sick right around an exam or an important event? An inability to “turn off” high levels of stress can lead to a compromised immune system.
The body experiences barrages of hormones that, while gearing up to act during a crisis, leave us disadvantaged when it comes to fighting off illness.
The body is not designed to handle large amounts of cortisol, a stress hormone, over an extended period of time, and can begin to buckle under the weight of effects such as decreased white blood cell count, increased chances of infection, and even increased chances for diabetes and heart disease.
The elderly and those with naturally compromised immune systems are even more likely to suffer the physical effects of stress.
IBS While the brain is deeply interlocked with the endocrine system, it is also connected with the gut. Doctors have begun to note a possible connection between those with anxiety disorders and irritable bowel syndrome, likely due to the body’s increased response to gastrointestinal stress.
As the gut becomes more sensitive, the contractions that process food may become stronger, leading to diarrhea, gas, and general stomach discomfort.
Since increased stress means increased levels of cortisol, the body may experience increased cravings, especially for carbs, fats, and sugars.
Unsurprisingly, this can easily lead to overeating, and therefore weight gain. Weight gain itself can lead to even more stress, which can cause both a self-perpetuating and self-defeating cycle.
This type of eating can be seen as self-medicating, and can easily snowball out of control if the diet is not kept carefully in check. At this point, comfort foods become only nominally consoling.
If an individual can’t develop healthy ways of coping with life’s obstacles, then they may find themselves increasingly incapable of shrugging off their near-constant poor mood. Depression, while treatable, is not always straightforward, and can lead to such issues as sleep troubles, lack of energy, and slowed cognitive abilities.
Like obesity, depression can lead to a self-fulfilling cycle of stress and unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Since high levels of stress can make an individual more reactive, relationships often take the brunt of this anxiety.
For example, those who are chronically stressed are more likely to be overly-critical of those comments they perceive as slights – even those with benign intent.
That comment your spouse made about being too tired to wash the dishes? That’s just a cover for what they think of how little you do around the house – at least that is how it might be interpreted by the highly-stressed person.
A relationship where one or both persons are highly anxious can lead to increased bickering, contempt of the other, the sense that the relationship is no longer a safe and accepting space, and a generally negative perception of the relationship.
On the other end of the scale, those who are highly stressed and are not currently involved in a healthy relationship are more likely to become reclusive, and therefore harbor a decreased chance of seeking out comfort from friends and loved ones – one factor that can be greatly helpful in the reduction of stress.
Skin and Hair
Stress can even lead to skin problems, including issues such as increased breakouts, eczema, alopecia, and rosacea. Cortisol can cause increased production of skin oils, and an overabundance of these often leads to acne.
Similarly, high stress can lead to the increased shedding of hair, and in extreme cases, some individuals can turn to purposefully pulling out their hair – known as trichotillomania – in an attempt to manage their stress.
<Pregnancy and the Developing Fetus
Some stress is certainly to be expected during pregnancy, but excessive anxiety can actually affect the development of the fetus itself.
Inflammation can increase the possibility of problems within pregnancy and birth, such as a higher chance of premature birth and decreased birth weight.
Chronic stress can even affect the fetus’ brain. While research in this area is still in its early stages, current studies suggest a connection between high levels of anxiety and infant behavioral and emotional issues, including emotion regulation and difficulty in paying attention.
Stress runs much deeper than simple irritability and exhaustion. Ignoring a stressor can lead to even more difficulties in life, possibly compromising even basic functioning, and life is worth far too much to hope that problems will go away on their own.
Instead of turning a blind eye, take active steps to ensure that mental, emotional, and physical health is not compromised by work, relationships, or the other major facets of life.
Everyone should ensure that they have healthy coping mechanisms and habits in place so they are not overwhelmed by what life haves to offer – even its less desirable moments.