The Physical Manifestations Of Stress

Oliver Jay

The Physical Manifestations Of Stress

Presented by BetterHelp.

Many of us have heard that stress is “bad,” and that we should take every step possible to avoid it. There are things that some people do, like choosing stress-reducing colors when painting their walls or practicing mindfulness to reduce stress as much as possible. 

But what exactly is stress, how does it manifest in the body, and what steps can we take to limit harmful stress in our lives? Today, we will explore these questions and more. 

What is stress?

Stress is a normal human reaction to new environments or difficult situations that everyone experiences from time to time. The stress response evolved as a survival mechanism, allowing humans to quickly respond to threats and get away safely. 

In small doses, stress can be beneficial. It motivates us to work, prompts us to solve challenges, and helps us stay alert and recall information. It also guides our choices, encouraging us to make better decisions in the future. 

However, when stress doesn’t go away or it’s constantly triggered by things like traffic, never-ending deadlines, or marital strife, it can be harmful. Chronic stress inhibits our ability to relax, and it can exacerbate physical and mental health problems.

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According to a 2022 survey conducted by The Harris Poll for the American Psychological Association, more than a quarter (27%) of U.S. adults say that their stress levels impact their ability to carry out daily functions, and 34% of survey respondents say that their stress completely overwhelms them on most days. 

The physical symptoms of stress 

When you’re stressed, the body’s sympathetic nervous system launches into a “flight-or-fight response,” releasing a cascade of stress hormones (like cortisol), elevating your heart rate, and spiking energy. This response evolved to help us navigate eminent danger, but when stress levels are chronically elevated, the near-constant activation of the sympathetic nervous system can lead to wear-and-tear and physical symptoms like: 

  • Stress rash
  • Muscle tension
  • Headaches or dizziness
  • Heart racing
  • Hypertension
  • Sleep disruptions 
  • Nausea or diarrhea
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Poor immune function
  • Increased cholesterol
  • Persistent, low-grade inflammation
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These symptoms result from “sympathetic system overload,” as levels of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol remain elevated throughout the body. High adrenaline levels often contribute to cognitive symptoms like lack of insight, difficulty prioritizing one’s own needs, and unclear thinking. 

Studies show that, over time, chronic stress can increase the risk of diseases like cardiovascular disease (heart disease), obesity, diabetes, and cancer. As Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D., says, “Stress has a profound impact on how your body’s systems function.”

How to manage stress 

The World Health Organization makes the following recommendations to manage your stress levels

  • Get enough sleep
  • Establish a routine 
  • Consume a nutritious diet 
  • Spend time outdoors 
  • Get regular exercise, and try to get some form of exercise when you’re feeling overwhelmed  
  • Maintain social connections 
  • Reduce consumption of news and social media
  • Take time each day to think about what you’re grateful for and what you did well
  • Write to-do lists to reduce the burden on your working memory
  • Talk with a mental health professional, like a therapist or counselor 
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By using relaxation tools, like meditation, yoga, deep breathing exercises, or progressive muscle relaxation exercises, you won’t necessarily be able to stop short-term stress responses. However, these strategies may help you reduce the occurrence of chronic stress and the physical symptoms that can come with it.

Takeaway

Stress is often viewed in a negative light. But stress can have many benefits, helping us survive in dangerous situations, and increasing our motivation to accomplish daily tasks and responsibilities.  

When stress becomes long-lasting (chronic), however, it can cause a variety of physical, mental, and behavioral problems. Physical symptoms of chronic stress, like stress rashes, and hypertension can often be managed with stress-reduction strategies. If you’ve finding it difficult to manage stress on your own, it’s a good idea to reach out to those you love, or book an appointment with a licensed therapist who can help you address your symptoms. 

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