Chronic stress affects us in very real ways, although it can be a hard thing to measure.
Often, because stress is measured primarily through symptoms and is considered a mental health issue, people discount the physical impact that chronic, daily stress can have on our bodies – everything from our risk for certain diseases to the genes that we pass on to our children.
Perhaps in the future we will have means of measuring stress that make it a more concrete concept – sensors to measure our cortisol and adrenaline levels, for example.
But until then, understanding the ways that stress affects your life comes down to a matter of educating oneself on the subject, and paying attention to one’s body and how certain things affect the levels of stress that you feel.
Here are some ways that stress can have a physical impact on our bodies:
1. It Changes Gene Expression
Extreme stress in early childhood – the kind associated with abuse or neglect – can change a person’s gene expression, putting them at risk for mental and physical health problems later on in life(1).
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“This link between early life stress and changes in genes may uncover how early childhood experiences get under the skin and confer lifelong risk,” says Dr. Seth D. Pollak, director of a recent study on the subject.
2. It Impacts Your Ability To Deal With Stress Later On In Life
As an expansion on the first point, there’s also evidence that stress in early childhood sets the tone for how you experience and even handle stress later on in life.
“Early-life events, including stress, exert long-lasting influence on neuronal function,” one study points out(2), adding that the effects of chronic early-life psychological stress have a negative effect on hippocampus-dependent cognitive tasks.
3. It Damages Your Memory
Speaking of the hippocampus, extreme stress can cause marked damage to that section of the brain, especially in children – but also in adults. That’s right; too much extreme stress can literally give you brain damage!
“Although everyday levels of stress are necessary to stimulate normal brain development, excess levels can be harmful,” said one researcher(3).
4. It Inhibits Your Immune System
Stress can not only slow wound healing, it can even weaken your immune system – and even increase your susceptibility to certain infections(4).
5. It Damages Your Mitochondria
Mitochondira are the energy powerhouses of your body, and are vital to its proper function. Fortunately, there’s evidence that the damage chronic stress can do to your mitochondria can be reversed over time(5).
6. It Impacts Your Metabolism
Lots of people can attest to the fact that they put on pounds when stressed, but don’t know exactly why – sure, some of it could be stress-eating, but there’s also evidence that stress can have an impact on your metabolism, making you more likely to gain weight(6).
7. It Hurts Your Heart
While temporary stress can be good for your heart, chronic stress can cause damage to your artery walls – leading to high blood pressure and an elevated risk of heart disease(7).
8. It Messes With Your Sex Hormones
Stress increases the amount of sex hormone binding globulin produced by your body – that’s the “bus” that transports estrogen and testosterone around your body. Chronic stress can increase the production of cortisol, which can lead to your body producing fewer sex hormones as well(8).
9. It Causes Chronic Pain
Many people living with post-traumatic stress disorder caused by exposure to extremely stressful situations also experience chronic pain, according to one study(9).
It’s not uncommon for those living with chronic stress or anxiety to experience symptoms of physical pain along with psychological symptoms.
10. It Affects Your Gut
We’ve all experienced the kind of stress that you seem to feel in your stomach, but research is only just beginning to explore the relationship between stress and how our guts actually function.
What we do know is that stress can lead to digestive problems, constipation, and the growth of “bad” bacteria in your intestines(10). And that’s never a good thing.