How Physiological Changes Triggered by Chronic Stress Can Compromise Health

David Yarian Ph.D.

Lasting Stress Increases Risk to Health

The long-term activation of the stress response system can disrupt almost all your body's processes, according to the Mayo Clinic Health Information (September 17, 2004). This can increase your risk of obesity, insomnia, digestive complaints, heart disease and depression.

These health risks may occur through the direct effects of chronic stress, such as by suppression of the immune system or by chronic constriction of major blood vessels. Risks to health may also occur through indirect effects of stress, as persons attempt to respond to chronic stress levels in less-than-healthy ways, such as by overeating, smoking, drinking too much, not exercising, or engaging in other risky behaviors.

How Systems in the Body May Be Affected by Chronic Stress Response

The Mayo Clinic points out how various bodily systems may be affected through chronic activation of the stress response:

Digestive System:

Stress hormones slow the release of stomach acid and the emptying of the stomach. The contents of the colon are more quickly passed. Continuously high levels of cortisol can increase appetite and cause weight gain.

Immune System:

Chronic stress tends to dampen your immune system, making you more susceptible to colds and other infections. Continuously elevated cortisol levels switch off the immune and inflammatory responses that are the body's responses to infections. In some cases stress can make your immune system overactive, resulting in an increased risk of autoimmune diseases.

Nervous System:

If your fight or flight response never shuts off, stress hormones produce persistent feelings of anxiety, helplessness and impending doom. Over-sensitivity to stress has been linked with severe depression, sleep disturbances, loss of sex drive and loss of appetite.

Cardiovascular System:

High levels of cortisol can raise your heart rate and increase your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. These are risk factors for both heart attacks and strokes.

Other Systems:

Stress worsens many skin conditions - such as psoriasis, eczema, hives and acne - and can be a trigger for asthma attacks.

Health Is Improved with Constructive Ways of Handling Stress

The chronic activation of the body's stress-response system thus creates many health vulnerabilities. An important aspect of good health is learning how to deal with life stresses in constructive ways. This includes developing skills to turn the body's stress- response system off when it is not needed, so that all bodily systems may rest and recover from the powerful effects of the stress hormones.

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