How Stress Can Hurt You from Head to Toe

Everyone knows persistent stress isn’t good for you. Everyday stressors can usually be managed with healthy coping mechanisms, but chronic, overwhelming stress can have lasting effects on your wellbeing. What you might not know, though, is the extent to which stress can impact your health.

The body’s reaction to stress—a release of hormones called cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline—sets off a chain reaction that touches almost every aspect of your health. Stress can quite literally affect you from head to toe! Understanding the many symptoms and long-term effects of stress are important for grasping just how serious chronic stress can be when it comes to your wellness.

From top to bottom, here are some of the major effects stress can have on you.

  • Cognition and memory: When you’re stressed, you’re less likely to focus well or think clearly. Chronic stress has been shown to cause brain fog, a lack of concentration and poor memory. These things can also be exacerbated by other side effects of stress, such as poor sleep quality.
  • Mood: Stress and the toll it takes on your body can alter your mood day after day. You might experience mood swings or irritability. Stress might also increase your risk of developing a mood disorder, which can cause a cyclical pattern of negative emotions and even more stress.
  • Hair: Severe stress may cause one of a few temporary or permanent hair loss conditions. You might notice that you’re shedding more hair than usual, your hair is thinning, or bald patches are appearing across your scalp. Chronic stress can trigger hair loss by weakening the hair follicles, making it harder for them to replace the strands that fall out.
  • Head: A combination of stress side effects like tension, lack of sleep and inflammation can cause a pounding headache or migraine that’s tough to shake. Stress can manifest in the body by contracting the neck and scalp muscles. Tension that lasts for a prolonged period of time can lead to a headache. Some people are naturally prone to migraines, and chronic stress can make them crop up more frequently.
  • Skin: Stress might bring about rapid changes in your skin. Some people develop rashes or hives that are red and patchy. Others may experience breakouts on their face or other areas caused by hormonal changes. Stress can trigger breakouts because it tells the body to produce more cortisol. Cortisol boosts oil production in the glands, causing the skin to become more oily and, therefore, prone to breakouts.
  • Heart: Stress gets your blood pumping. While this can be good in acute stress situations, chronic stress can pose lasting damage to your heart. Stress raises blood pressure, which can weaken blood vessels and lead to plaque buildup. It also elevates your blood sugar, causing blood vessels to contract. These things can increase your risk for potentially life-threatening heart problems.
  • Breathing: In stressful situations, your body goes into “fight or flight” mode. For many people, this causes breathing to intensify and become more rapid in an attempt to pump oxygen throughout the body faster. This might be problematic for two reasons. One, breathing problems may be triggered by labored breathing. Two, shallow breathing can actually minimize oxygen intake and cause hyperventilation and distress.
  • Muscles: Have you ever felt tense after an overwhelming day at work? That’s stress in action. Muscle tension is a common protective mechanism. Stress tenses up our muscles so that we’re prepared to fight off whatever threat lies ahead of us. But this survival instinct often causes more harm than good. Excessive tension can put stress on your muscles and other tissues, leading to neck, shoulder and back pain.
  • Gastrointestinal tract: Chronic stress can impact the natural biome of bacteria and yeast that live in your intestines. Stress can kill off beneficial bacteria, allowing other bacteria to grow in abundance and throwing off your gut’s balance. This may lead to a number of gastrointestinal problems, including gas, bloating and diarrhea. Beyond that, it’s believed that the gut has strong connections to overall wellness and to the brain, so imbalances may cause inflammation, mood changes and more.
  • Menstruation: Chronic stress has been known to affect the female menstrual cycle, potentially making it irregular or worsening symptoms of PMS. It can also have an impact on fertility, significantly impeding your ability to get pregnant. Stress can lead to poor sleep, low libido, increased caffeine intake and alcohol consumption, all of which may contribute to fertility problems.
  • Libido: Stress impacts libido much more than most women think. There’s a close connection between mental health and sexual desire, so if you’re not feeling happy and stressless, your sex drive might take a hit. The hormones produced by stress can also cause physiological changes that lower your sex drive and make sex less pleasurable.
  • Sleep: A racing mind often makes it difficult to fall and stay asleep at night. This can impact the length and quality of your sleep, leaving you groggy or completely exhausted each day. Insomnia has its own side effects, as well, including bodily fatigue, mood changes and worsened immunity.
  • Immunity: Stress is one of the biggest detractors from your immune system, which is why you’re more likely to get sick when you’re stressed. Cortisol suppresses immunity, meaning your body can’t fight off pathogens as quickly or effectively.
  • Chronic disease: Over time, inflammation, high blood pressure and increased cortisol levels can culminate in the development of chronic diseases. Risk factors like insulin resistance and excessive weight gain are closely tied to stress, too.

Clearly, stress can take an immense toll on your health and wellness, both in the short term and over a long period of time. This is why it’s so important to find ways to relieve stress each day, such as meditation, yoga, exercise and lifestyle changes. With the right combination of stress-relieving methods, you’ll set yourself up for a happier, healthier life.

Editor’s note: This blog was originally published in October 2020. It has been updated to include more relevant and comprehensive information.

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