While stress can be a positive force in our lives, motivating us to work towards goals and provide for ourselves, excessive feelings of anxiety can cause various health problems. Our bodies become worn down by the symptoms associated with stress like body tension and increased heart rate, therefore placing strain on other processes. If you find yourself getting sick and feeling fatigued often, experiencing digestion problems or body aches, or noticing changes in your behavior, stress may be to blame.
These health problems are not always a direct result of stress itself. Unhealthy lifestyle choices, like drinking, smoking, and overeating, are often a result of being unable to cope with chronic stress. These choices similarly contribute to a decline in overall health. Read on to learn more about how high levels of stress can affect your health in unforeseen ways, as well as a few helpful steps you can take to relieve it.
Weakened Immune System
If you find yourself feeling sick all the time, it may be due to stress. Prolonged and extreme feelings of anxiety can make you sick more often because they can cause chronic suppression of the immune system. When we’re anxious, our body becomes less efficient at fighting off antigens, leaving us more susceptible to illness.
According to one study from 2015, your body’s immune cells change their responsiveness to neurotransmitters and hormones when subjected to chronic stress. This means that they cannot effectively communicate with hormones that would otherwise signal the need to fight off an illness. Essentially, your immune system becomes confused by the constant signals it receives due to feeling overwhelmed, leaving new infections undetected.
Chronic stress can also lead to fatigue. Fatigue is characterized by overwhelming exhaustion coupled with a strong desire to sleep that interferes with daily activities. This extreme sense of tiredness is often associated with other sleep problems, including insomnia and sleep apnea.
According to the Mayo Clinic, feeling stressed and overwhelmed can lead to emotional exhaustion, resulting in fatigue. Typically a result of built-up anxiety over a long time, emotional exhaustion can manifest itself in physical and emotional symptoms like irritability, hopelessness, headaches, fatigue, and lack of motivation. Your body becomes so overwhelmed by a constant fight-or-flight response that it wears itself down.
Muscle Tension and Body Aches
Stress can also manifest itself in muscle tension and body aches. As your body reacts to its fight-or-flight response, muscles can tense up. Typically, once the stress releases, muscles should also relax. However, in situations with long-lasting stress, your body never gets the relief it needs. Your muscles are not allowed to release as you are always on high-alert, ready to respond to any immediate threats. This then causes pain in the neck, shoulders, and head.
If you find yourself constantly sore and tense, it may be due to pent-up stress in your body. Taking the time to move around, especially to stretch, can help counteract these aches and pains by distracting you from your worries and loosening your muscles.
Another unexpected way stress can impact your life includes your sexual health. As you become overwhelmed by feelings of anxiety, you can become less interested in sex. This is due to your fight-or-flight response, which causes the body to focus more on boosting necessary processes such as breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. On the other hand, nonessential functions, like sex drive, are pushed to the background.
Similarly, excessive stress can lead to sexual dysfunction due to a shift in testosterone production. Not only can a decrease in testosterone cause a man to lose his sex drive, but it can also lead to erectile dysfunction or impotence. Your body’s processes are constantly interrupted by the flow of stress hormones, leaving you more susceptible to hormone imbalances and infection.
Changes in Behavior
Stress can also lead to extreme behavior changes, which can then influence almost every area of your health. Common behavioral responses to stress include alcohol misuse, irritability, angry outbursts, social withdrawal, and an inactive lifestyle. As you can probably imagine, changes in behavior can be particularly harmful to your relationships, which profoundly affect our mental and emotional health.
Because stress also commonly causes people to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms, their health may begin to decline due to these behaviors, too. The first step to addressing the drastic changes in behavior you may be experiencing due to stress is to face your mental health head-on.
Finding positive ways to relieve stress could transform your mental and physical health. Research healthy coping mechanisms that you think you might enjoy. Take the time to try out a few new hobbies to keep yourself busy, and consider writing your thoughts down in a journal. If your mental health begins to affect your day-to-day life, reach out to a mental health professional. As you can see, an investment in your mental health is an investment in your overall well-being.