Stress & The Systems of The Body

Stress is the brain’s response to any demand or change, whether it is minor or major, real or perceived.

The stress response occurs if the change is positive, negative, exciting or traumatic, and has consequences for the systems in the body. It is a reminder of how much influence the mind has over the body. Each system of the body is affected differently but this can also have consequences for other systems.

Musculoskeletal System

Muscles tense and tighten as part of a reflex and protective reaction to stress which can result in tension and migraine type headaches as well as aches and pains in shoulders, neck and back. This tension usually remains until the stress has alleviated and the long term aches and pains can interfere with exercise routines and goals.

Respiratory System

Stress causes the body to breathe harder and faster and in some cases such rapid breathing that hyperventilating occurs, the feeling of a shortness of breath or a panic attack. This is particularly dangerous for those with a compromised respiratory system such as asthma suffers and if experienced chronically could increase susceptibility to upper respiratory infections.

Cardiovascular System

Short term stress causes an increase in heart rate, stronger contractions of the heart muscle, dilated blood vessels, elevated blood pressure and a rerouting of blood away from the digestive tract – this combines with the stress hormones released to trigger the short term chain reaction is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. On-going stress causes hypertension or high blood pressure due to inflamed coronary arteries increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke. Additionally long term stress can narrow arteries increasing cholesterol levels and adding to heart disease risks. 

Endocrine System

The adrenal glands are signalled by the brain to produce more stress hormones to combat stress; this is part of a process to flood the body with energy to escape a real or perceived threat. As a result of the presence of these stress hormones the liver produces more glucose to assist in energy levels. These two reactions can create inflamed adrenal glands and in the blood sugar levels are constantly elevated and not reabsorbed it increased the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

Gastrointestinal System

Stress causes and increase in appetite leading to overeating, and in some cases heartburn and acid reflux. Additionally, due to tense muscles stomach cramps, nausea, the feeling of ‘butterflies’ in the stomach and sharp pains that can mimic those of a stomach ulcer. Severe stress can also cause vomiting. Stress greatly affects digestion and elimination processes leading to poor nutritional extraction from food, unhealthy food choices, constipation, and diarrhoea. It can also increase the risk of irritable bowel syndrome.

Nervous System

The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is the trigger for the ‘flight or fight’ responses from different systems of the body due to the release of chemicals causing the entire body to be in a constant state of awareness for danger. It can hold the body in this state until the brain believes the danger /threat has passed. Constant activation of these hormones can be draining, lead to wear and tear of the body, and may even impair learning and memory resulting in higher risk of depression.

Immune System

Short term stress can boost the immune system to protect against infection and increase wound healing, however persistent stress results in slow wound healing, high susceptibility to viral illnesses, increased risk of opportunistic disease and infection and can exasperate skin condition such as hives, eczema and acne.

Reproductive System

Stress can cause havoc for the reproductive systems of men and women creating symptoms ranging from impotence, irregular or no periods, painful periods, sexual dysfunction and in some cases infertility.

American Psychological Association
The American Institute of Stress
National Institute of Mental Health
Dr Libby Weaver - Rushing Woman's Syndrome 2012