When the pandemic struck, an already fast-paced world was met with countless new stressors. Emotional duress was expected, but with heightened stress also came heightened physical issues, as stress affects all systems of the body, including the musculoskeletal; respiratory; cardiovascular; gastrointestinal; endocrine; nervous; and reproductive systems.
Stress is your body’s natural way of responding to any demand or threat, explains Family Nurse Practitioner Terry Lindsay, of Woodbury Primary & Specialty Care. When we’re stressed, the body’s defenses kick into high gear; the blood vessels constrict, respiration quickens, and stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, are released.
Small amounts of stress are natural, and we’re well-equipped to handle them, adds Lindsay. “Stress helps us rise to challenges, set goals, and meet deadlines. It strengthens our stamina and concentration. It keeps us ‘on our toes.’ ”
However, as stress becomes more chronic – and isn’t dealt with in healthy ways – the mind and body can pay a high price. Short-term stress often causes a rapid heart rate, chest tightening, muscle stiffening, and a spike in blood pressure. Long-term stress can lead to similar, more detrimental impacts, such as:
- Gastrointestinal upset: Loss of appetite, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, and irritable bowel syndrome are common results of stress, which can be triggered by muscle tension and the weakening of the intestinal barrier (which allows more gut bacteria to flood into the body).
- Shortness of breath/dyspnea: As stated above, stress causes all muscles to tighten, including those in the respiratory system. This is arguably one of the most frightening stress responses – leading people to panic, thus having even more trouble breathing – but it’s important to recognize that it’s typically not indicative of a serious physical problem.
- Headaches/migraines: These are also closely associated with muscle tension in the upper torso, neck, and head.
- Hair loss/alopecia: Stress can cause hair follicles to enter what is known as a “resting phase,” in which they don’t produce any new strands. Over time, the old strands start to shed easily.
- Suppressed immune system: People with chronic stress may find themselves sick more often, as stress hormones hamper the immune system’s effectiveness and ability to fight off harmful antigens.
- Skin irritation: Chronic skin problems like acne, psoriasis, and eczema can be exacerbated with stress, because cortisol increases inflammation. Symptoms may be provoked more so if we neglect our normal skincare routine. Stress may also cause hives, new rashes, or even cold sores.
- Hypertension/high blood pressure: A continuous release of stress hormones, constriction of blood vessels, and rapid heart rate can affect the nervous system’s ability to regulate blood pressure. The less we manage stress, the more likely we are to develop long-term hypertension.
- Hot flashes: As heart rate and blood pressure rise, often so does body temperature, leading to a feeling of flushing and/or excess sweating.
- Irregular menstrual cycles: Cortisol has a direct impact on women’s estrogen and progesterone levels, which can make periods late, longer or shorter, or stop entirely.
- Weight problems: Because stress can cause GI upset, some people may not eat as much, leading to weight loss. For others, “stress eating” may become a habit, leading to weight gain.
- Sleep disturbances: Tension, cortisol, and overwhelming thoughts can keep us awake at night. This is a vicious cycle, as sleep deprivation only worsens stress further.
- Psychological and emotional strain: Chronic stress can also increase feelings of isolation and loneliness and the likelihood for development of long-term conditions such as an anxiety disorder and clinical depression.
Being able to recognize and manage chronic stress symptoms is incredibly important to our overall well-being and quality of life, continues Lindsay. Just a few behaviors that can be beneficial to adopt are:
- Getting regular exercise – at least 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity.
- Relaxation techniques, such as yoga, meditation, stretching, and mindfulness exercises.
- Eating a well-balanced diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and omega-3 fatty acids, with little refined foods.
- Limiting/avoiding alcohol and tobacco use.
- Maintaining a healthy sleep schedule.
- Spending time socializing with family and friends.
- Setting aside time for hobbies/personal interests.
Of course, finding the time to do these things and actually reducing stress levels isn’t always that simple, Lindsay adds. “Everyone is different. It all comes down to finding the right ways to cope that work for you, and this can take a lot of time and ‘trial and error.’”
When stress reaches the point where it affects your daily ability to function – even after you’ve taken steps to mitigate it – it may be time to seek professional help.
Additionally, if a particular symptom persists and you no longer feel stress is the cause, it could be a result of something else and should be discussed with your primary care provider.
Stress can take a serious toll, but it doesn’t have to; don’t be afraid to ask for help on different issues you are experiencing, reminds Lindsay. “We are here to help.”
Jefferson Health – New Jersey