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Stress Part 3: The Effects of Chronic Stress Are a Long-Term Problem

By Dr. Molly Casey

Effects of Chronic Stress

What happens to our bodies when they are in a constant state of stress? Chronic stress is where we’re headed and it’s a bumpy ride.

In Part 1 we learned that stress is any stimulus that creates tension and that stressors themselves are not bad -- rather, it is about the body’s response to the stress. In Part 2 we learned the issues with stress arise when the body has met a threshold and can no longer respond in a way that’s optimal.

Let’s look at the physiological state of the body while under chronic stress and the impact it has.

Body Physiology and Chronic Stress

When your body is under a steady state of stress, the threshold is met, and it can’t optimally adapt to the stimuli, the body begins to suffer. A body under stress has physiological responses that indicate to it that it needs to work harder and protect itself. When the body is stressed, hormones are released, the breath quickens and becomes more shallow, digestion slows, and muscles become more tense and stay ready for action. This is called the fight/flight/freeze response.

When your body experiences fight, flight, or freeze, it’s because such responses are required to allow the body the best chance to achieve survival. The issue becomes more severe when you are chronically under stress. Even under a low-grade stress your body begins to take this fight/flight/freeze response as the norm and you become sympathetic dominant. Humans are supposed to mainly live and operate in a parasympathetic state of calm with the body focusing on digestion, deep breathing, and living with ease. But under the duress of chronic stress, the body goes into sympathetic dominance and it lives in overdrive. You can imagine that this wreaks havoc on physical, mental, and emotional health. Imagine an engine that’s perpetually in a redline position; there’s going to be damage.

Effects on the Body

Under stress, the focus of a body is taken away from activities that promote long-term health and replaced with the perceived need for short-term safety. So the body doesn’t focus on digestion, but rather keeps itself safe in the here and now. Digestion is a necessary process for proper nutrition, immune health, brain function, and waste removal. Chronic stress is linked to an increase in relapse of people who suffer with inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

The gut is also a main player in the immune system. When digestion is decreased and the body is under chronic stress, the immune system suffers. Again, sympathetic dominance is not focused on cellular activity to defend against foreign invaders such as bacteria and viruses, but rather on a larger scale of how to avoid perceived threats.

Chronic stress often results in insomnia for people. Sleep is one of the body’s greatest weapons. A proper amount of high quality sleep is needed for maintaining a healthy lifestyle. It is required for all levels of healing. Whether a pulled muscle, a herniated disc, or an emotional trauma, your body needs sleep. Stress robs most people of sleep -- either in amount or quality -- and that harms your health. Nearly all chronic diseases resulting from chronic inflammation -- such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease -- are exacerbated by chronic stress from a multitude of physiological, mental, and emotional angles.

Effects on Mental and Emotional Health

Mental and emotional health affects physical health. Think about it: being sad or angry are often barriers to people getting out and exercising or eating healthy. The physical health of the body (or lack thereof) also affects mental and emotional health. If your body is sympathetic dominant, you have less energy available for patience, you are more irritable, and you experience fatigue more easily. Chronic stress causes folks to experience more anxiety and depression. All these factors impact one’s ability to focus and maintain concentration. Individually, each of these effects can -- and eventually will -- wreak havoc on family life, friendships, and professional life at some level.

Chronic stress causes physiological changes in the body. When you remain over the body’s threshold to optimally adapt to the stress, the body begins to perceive the sympathetic responses as normal. This affects literally every aspect of your life whether you’re aware of it or not. It’s widely accepted that chronic stress does not help your body heal, whether the malady is acute or chronic. Quality of life and relationships are not helped by chronic stress. Start looking for those areas where stress might be affecting you in more ways than you currently know.

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