Anxiety is clearly not good for your health, but what about routine, everyday stress? Even people who are very good at coping with normal amounts of occasional anxiety experience stress, so how can the negative impacts of routine stress be avoided? As your body experiences a variety of physical symptoms in response to stress, some less obvious than others, the mental and emotional effects can begin to pile up unnoticed until a full-blown mental disorder develops. Since stress is unavoidable, no matter who you are, learning to deal with stress is clearly the best method for preventing anxiety disorders from developing and keeping your body at optimal health. So, can stress harm your health?
Physical Responses to Stress
Just as anxiety serves a useful evolutionary purpose, stress today can be beneficial. Stress can give you the extra energy you need to get to the end of a ballgame, or the surge of productivity that will help you finish your 10-page report on time. Your body’s physical response to stress, whether it’s a deadline or an important meeting that causes the stress, is similar to the symptoms of anxiety, but much milder:
- Alertness and wakefulness
- Sharpened senses
- Faster heartbeat
- Sweaty palms
- Jitteriness, or an inability to sit still
If you need to complete a stressful task or get through a stressful situation, these reactions can actually help you remain awake and focused on the job at hand. However, many people find that their daily lives are full of such stressful situations, or that just about anything can act as a stressor. This can lead to chronic stress, which—like the occurrence of panic attacks in patients with anxiety disorders—is anything but healthy.(1)
Because it doesn’t feel as physically serious, emotionally taxing, or mentally terrifying as anxiety, chronic stress is dangerously underdiagnosed in the U.S. As the physical responses of stress are sustained over long periods of time, nagging headaches, high blood pressure, muscle pain, frequent illness caused by a lowered immune system and insomnia can be the result. Lack of sleep makes it more difficult for your body and brain to cope with stress, so a cruel cycle begins to develop.
Similarly, when chronic stress causes you to fast all day before stopping by your local McDonald’s for dinner, weight gain can cause you to stress about your diet and your waistline, which then adds to the chronic stress that led to your poor diet choices in the first place. Obesity is one of the most undervalued negative effects of chronic stress for this reason.(2) As detrimental as these effects can be to sufferers of chronic stress, however, its effects on your mind can be even more devastating.
Mental Effects of Stress
Researchers at UC Berkeley have brought science even closer to understanding the correlation between chronic stress and the negative mental effects that it can create. According to several studies performed there, chronic stress can literally change the way your brain works. Stress hormones may even have a profound impact on the way the stem cells in your brain—cells which have the potential to become any type of cell—develop.
Chronic stress seems to cause more stem cells to turn into myelin, which is a fatty substance that allows chemical messengers move swiftly through the brain, and fewer stem cells to become neurons, which are responsible for sorting, storing and processing information. This may result in the strengthening of connections between the emotional structures of the brain, such as the amygdala and the hippocampus, while the connections between these and regulatory parts of the brain, such as the frontal lobes, remain weaker. Lower levels of neurons may also explain the poor learning and memory retention associated with chronic stress.(3)
All of these brain changes culminate in a not-so-surprising fact: chronic stress creates a predisposition for the development of a mental illness. Anxiety isn’t the only mental disorder that it can lead to, either. Research shows that chronic stress is linked to mental disorders of every kind, from depression and alcohol or drug addiction to schizophrenia.
A major aftereffect of the body’s stress response is low energy, as the body works to recover from the rush of adrenaline it has just had to endure. These frequent ups and downs can wear your body down, leading to the debilitating fatigue that is characteristic of depression. Bipolar disorder takes this process one step further, as depressive episodes lead to bouts of high energy, or manic episodes, and then back down into depression.
Chronic stress can also lead to the development of personality characteristics you may not normally find acceptable, such as angry outbursts, poor work performance, lying or acting on negative impulses.(4) This could have something to do with the low levels of neurons that chronic stress contributes to, as well as the fact that poor connections to the frontal lobes may hinder the focus, inhibitions and judgement parts of your brain. Most alarming of all is the fact that these brain changes may possibly begin in childhood, which means that stress in childhood could be an indicator of the possibility of mental illness later in life.
- Understanding chronic stress. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/understanding-chronic-stress.aspx
- Sanders, R. (2014, February 11). New Evidence That Chronic Stress Predisposes Brain to Mental Illness. Retrieved from http://news.berkeley.edu/2014/02/11/chronic-stress-predisposes-brain-to-mental-illness/
- Stress symptoms: Effects on Your Body and Behavior. (2016, April 28). Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-symptoms/art-20050987
- Mills, H., Reiss, N., & Dombeck, M. (2008, June 30). Mental and Emotional Impact of Stress. Retrieved from https://www.mentalhelp.net/articles/mental-and-emotional-impact-of-stress/