How Stress Changes Your Body Is Actually A Lot Scarier Than You Might Realize
To state the obvious, stress isn't good for you mind, your body, or really any part of your well-being. But if "high-alert" and "anxious" are becoming your default state of being lately, it's worth learning about how stress can change your body and disrupt its natural rhythms. Because the thing is, as awful as it can be to deal with stress head-on, once you realize just how huge a toll it's taking on your body, it becomes that much clearer how necessary it is to turn things around and really take care of yourself from the inside out.
So what's really happening in your body when you feel stressed out? According to mindfulness coach Gary Gach, the effects that stress can have on your body have a lot to do with your hormones. "We humans have a unique habit," he tells Elite Daily. "Our bodies will pump 'fight or flight' hormones like adrenal cortisol in response to possible stressors, even when they're not immediately present." In other words, even if you're just mentally reviewing something stressful that happened in the past, or doing the same for a future event you feel anxious about, even though there aren't technically any concrete sources of stress that you're dealing with, these hormones are still produced in your body, the same way they would be if you, say, saw a blood-thirsty cheetah running after you.
"Animals experience a pumping of adrenaline [when] encountering a stressor," Gach says, but they stop doing so when the threat is no longer there. On the other hand, human bodies, he tells Elite Daily, can continue to produce adrenaline through their own, stress-inducing thoughts. Ugh, we humans are a complicated bunch, aren't we?
What's worse, Gach says, stress is a "vicious cycle" in the way it affects your body, both mentally and physically.
According to the mindfulness coach, that adrenal cortisol hormone coursing through your body in response to stress "depresses the immune system," which can make you feel totally burnt out and exhausted, and in turn, "only leads to further stress."
But the vicious cycle doesn't stop there. Chris Brantner, a certified sleep science coach with SleepZoo, tells Elite Daily that stress is one of the most common causes of insomnia, a condition that includes trouble getting to sleep and trouble staying asleep. "The stress and sleep connection is a complicated one," says Brantner. "Stress can hinder your ability to wind down and get to sleep for many reasons. Stress can cause racing thoughts that keep you staring wide at the ceiling at night."
We've all been there at one point or another, right? You're lying in bed, willing yourself as much as you can to go to sleep, but instead, your mind's on overdrive, overthinking to-do lists and imagining potentially negative future scenarios that probably won't ever happen IRL anyway. Stress basically equates to anxiety in many cases, Brantner tells Elite Daily, which is why it can be so hard to stop that maddening stream of consciousness.
And, as if that's not enough for your body to contend with in the face of stress, in an email interview Elite Daily, Tessie Tracy, a certified emotional intelligence and eating psychology coach, explains that daily stress (and increased cortisol) also affects your digestion and metabolism, as well as your ability to absorb nutrients. "The physical effects of stress include weight changes, elevated blood pressure, indigestion, [and] inflammation," Tracy tells Elite Daily. "And adrenal fatigue also connects to mental effects of stress, such as brain fog, moodiness, and irritability."
Ugh. So why do we even have a stress response in the body if it only serves to make us feel crummy?
Sure, stress never feels good, but Lindsay Ryan, a licensed marriage and family therapist, tells Elite Daily that, really, stress is your body's internal mechanism to keep you safe, meaning it's not a totally useless state of being. "Say a bear was chasing you," says Ryan. "You would not stick around and chat. Your pupils would dilate, for focused eyesight, your heart would start beating faster in preparation for you legs to start running, and your breath would quicken. And of course, this is a natural appropriate reaction for the situation."
Again, though, as intense as those symptoms sound, they're more or less the exact same ones that wreak havoc on your body when you're just stressed out about a speech you have to give in front of a huge audience, or about a meeting with your boss to discuss that raise you want. Technically, Ryan says, you are having a response in your body to a situation that simply does not warrant it biologically. Like I said, humans are complicated creatures, guys.
So with all of that in mind, how in the world do you go about managing your stress levels, and in turn, the way that anxiety affects your body? Well, for one thing, Tracy recommends learning, and paying attention to over time, what triggers you to be stressed, and subsequently, practice responding instead of reacting to the stress. "We have a lot of 'self-chosen' stress in our mindset," Tracy tells Elite Daily, but it all depends on how you interpret and react to a situation.
Aside from learning about and paying attention to what really makes you tick, Tracy says mindfulness practices, creating (and sticking to) a self-care routine, and reaching out for help when you need to are all really good places to start.