Stress can have a wide range of effects on the human body as well as a person's behaviour. Stress can affect anyone and it is found in all aspects of life. How stress affects the body often depends on each individual person and any underlying health conditions, although it can affect almost any part of the body.
Stress and the Human Body
In reaction to real or perceived threats or harmful situations, the human body reacts with stress. The body's response to threatening situations is known as a stress reaction. The way the body responds is a way to prevent injury. With stress, a person's heart rate goes up and respiration increases. Other responses include tightening of muscles and rising blood pressure. These physiological responses happen in order to prepare the body for a response, for example fight or flight.
Effects of Stress on the Body
Stress symptoms affect the body in a variety of ways. Common effects of stress on the body include muscle tension and pain as a result of the body's muscles tightening. Stress can also result in chest pain and a rapid heartbeat, headaches, fatigue and low energy, nausea, and stomach pain or an upset stomach including diarrhoea and constipation. Stress can also cause insomnia and other sleep problems, as well as a change in sex drive. Physically, someone with stress can also experience shaking, ringing in the ear, cold and sweaty hands or feet. They may also grind their teeth or clench their jaw, including during sleep.
Effects of Stress on Behaviour
Stress has a major effect on a person's mind and behaviour, which can also cause physiological changes to the body. Someone with stress may experience changes in appetite, whether it is eating more than usual or not eating enough. It may also lead to increased use of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes. The use of these substances has a range of potentially life-threatening effects on the body, such as increased risk of respiratory problems and cancer with smoking.
Stress can result in a range of cognitive effects, including anxiety. A person experiencing stress might feel a sense of constant worrying and racing thoughts, be irritable or angry, or feel sad or depressed. It can also result in disorientation and an inability to focus, as well as disorganization and forgetfulness. Stress may also lead people to display poor judgement. Individuals experiencing stress may also be pessimistic or see the negative in everything. Stress can also result in someone procrastinating and avoiding responsibilities. A person with stress can also experience a range of nervous behaviours, including fidgeting, pacing and nail biting.
Stress and Long Term Health Problems
Occasional stress generally does not result in long term or chronic health problems. Since stress can lower your body's ability to respond to illness by affecting the immune system, which can result in frequent colds and infections. Chronic stress on the other hand can cause long term health problems as a result of its effect on the human body over a sustained period of time.
Ongoing or chronic stress can result in or worsen a variety of serious health problems. The physiological effects of stress can lead to cardiovascular disease, such as heart disease, abnormal heart rhythms and heart attacks. It can also lead to high blood pressure and strokes. Diabetes, obesity and other eating disorders may also result from changes in eating patterns in response to stress. Ongoing stress can result in a person withdrawing from friends, family and others. As a result, chronic stress can lead to serious mental health problems, including depression, anxiety and personality disorders.
Other health problems that may arise from ongoing stress include chronic menstrual problems for women, sustained sexual dysfunction including impotence and premature ejaculation in men, and loss of sexual desire. It can also lead to hair and skin problems, including permanent hair loss, acne, psoriasis and eczema. Serious gastrointestinal problems arising from chronic stress include gastritis, ulcers and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Managing stress is a good way of preventing its physiological impacts on the body. Stress management activities include physical exercise and relaxation techniques, such as meditation or yoga. Eating a balanced diet, getting sufficient sleep, avoiding too much caffeine and alcohol, and quitting smoking are also good ways of reducing the effect of stress on the body. In some cases, seeking help from a doctor is needed in order to control the effect stress is having on the body. When stress and its symptoms ongoing, a doctor can determine if there is another underlying cause for these symptoms.