Emotional Stress and Physical Health

Some people don't realize this (or want to believe it), but chronic stress causes a direct toll on almost every aspect of your physical health. Stress causes these physical problems because of chronic activation of the fight-or-flight survival reflex by means of the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.

This gets somewhat technical, but it you bear with me, you'll have a really good understanding of how stress contributes to so many chronic problems.  First, we will need to review some terminology and physiology.

How the Nervous System Works

Our nervous system is divided into two parts: the central nervous system (the brain and the spine), and the peripheral nervous system (everything outside the brain and the spine).

The Peripheral Nervous System

  • Connects the central nervous system to your limbs and organs.
  • Includes the somatic nervous system and autonomic nervous system.
  • Gives us voluntary control over our skeletal muscles.
  • Gives our brain feed back through our senses.
  • Controls and regulates things below our level of conscious.

The Autonomic Nervous System

  • Regulates heart rate, blood pressure, respiration rate, digestion, urination, perspiration, salivation, pupil size, and sexual arousal. 
  • Made up of two separate systems: 
    • The Parasympathetic System – also called the “rest and digest system,” because it slows down the body and increases digestion.
    • The Sympathetic System - a major part of the “fight or flight survival reflex” all it cares about is making sure that your body can take action when there is an emergency.

Sympathetic System Reactions to Stress

To your brain, emotional and mental stress is treated the same - whether the sources is life-threatening or not. When your brain perceives danger (or you are feeling stressed) the hypothalamus (in the brain) activates the sympathetic system, which gets your body ready in the following ways:

  • Your blood pressure rises, and your heart rate increases. Your skeletal muscles need to be ready for action, and this gives them a good blood supply.
  • Blood is shifted away from the digestive system to the skeletal muscles. No time to digest food right now, you need to be ready to fight or run away.
  • You start to breath faster. Your muscles will need this oxygen to save yourself from the danger.
  • You sweat. You need to cool off your body because prolonged activity might be coming.
  • Your pupils dilate to allow you to see as much as possible.
  • Sexual arousal disappears - no time for sex now.*

Hormonal Reactions to Stress

At the same time the sympathetic nervous system is being activated, another, the hormone bases system, is also being activated. This is called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.  When the brain perceives danger, the hypothalamus (the same area that activated the sympathetic system) sends a hormone signal to the pituitary gland, which sends hormone signals to the adrenal glands, telling the adrenal glands start pumping out three stress hormones:

Epinephrine (adrenaline) and Norepinephrine: Epinephrine and norepinephrine are stimulant hormones and neurotransmitters, they help accelerate the sympathetic response by:

  • Increasing the heart rate.
  • Increasing blood flow to skeletal muscle.
  • Increasing oxygen supply to the brain.
  • Releasing glucose (sugar) stores. 

Cortisol: Affects the body in the following ways:

  • Increases blood sugar levels.
  • Gives a quick boost to the immune system (but if activated too long will suppress the immune system).
  • Decreases bone formation.
  • Tells cells to start making their own fat, protein, and carbohydrates.

Fiscal or Physical Danger? Your Brain Can’t Tell the Difference!

Although subconscious activation of the flight-or-flight survival reflex is very helpful when we are placed in an emergency situation, chronic stress will chronically activate the fight or flight response, which will play havoc on body. Let’s use a practical example:

Let's say you are stressed out because finances are tight, work has cut back on your hours, the mortgage is due and your car just broke down and needs repairs. On a conscious level, your brain might be saying, “this is bad, I need to logically work though a way to keep my family financially a float until my hours pick back up at work.”  But, on subconscious level, all the hypothalamus hears is “something bad is happening” and jumps into action.

Nine Health Problems Related to Stress.

If you find healthy ways to deal with the stress, everything goes back to normal. However, if you don't, the real problems begin: 

1. Increased Risk of Heart Attack or Stroke. Chronically elevated blood pressure and a high heart rate places extra stress on the heart & arteries, increasing your chances of having a heart attack or stroke. 

2. Digestive Problems. Blood being shunted away from the digestive system can cause digestive problems such as constipation, diarrhea, or irritable bowel syndrome.

3. Palpitations and Panic Attacks. Chronically elevated heart rate causes you to develop palpitations or even panic attacks.

4. Heavy Sweating and Body Odor. Your friends start to notice the chronic sweating or the odor that goes with it.

5. Sexual Difficulties. Your spouse wonders why you are having problems with sexual arousal.

6. Increased Risk of Diabetes. Increased release of glucose stores, along with increased production of glucose, leads to diabetes and all the problems it causes.

7. Increased Illness. A chronically suppressed immune system leads to increased infections and illnesses.

8. Weak Bones and Osteoporosis. Chronically high cortisol leaves leads to weak bones and osteoporosis.

9.Weight Gain. The increased fat, protein, and carbohydrate production along leads to obesity.

These are just some of the physical consequences caused by the body’s neural-hormonal response to stress. It's not easy to take the time to practice constructive ways to manage stress. We all have varying levels of stressful events in our lives, but it is well worth it to learn how to manage your stress. Furthermore, your body will thank you for it!

*I do take some liberties personifying the sympathetic nervous system, it does not really “think” it just reacts to situations. 

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