With busy schedules and the usual wave of life changes, both big and small, stress is a common condition for most people, if not everyone. When stress becomes chronic — meaning it might feel ongoing rather than coming and going — it can have a major effect on your body.
People often think of stress as feeling frazzled mentally and emotionally — and while stress at the right moments can be positive, chronic stress can cause numerous physical problems, and some of them might kick off a cascade of other issues.
Here are some challenges that could have stress as a root cause:
Stress triggers the release of cortisol, a hormone designed to assist with our “fight or flight” response when we’re in danger, so we have the energy to deal with threats.
But when cortisol becomes elevated for too long, it’s associated with higher levels of obesity, and particularly with weight gain in the midsection, according to North Carolina-based registered dietitian Molly Devine.
Why the stubborn belly fat? Because one of the functions of cortisol is to shuttle glucose out of storage so your brain and body can use it for the expected battle ahead. But under chronic stress, the body doesn’t need all that extra glucose, so it releases insulin to deal with it. And insulin’s favorite storage facility is your belly.
Compounding the problem: Cortisol tends to make you crave simple carbs that can get turned into energy fast. That’s why “comfort foods” for many people are packed with fast-digesting sugars, which also get the insulin-belly-fat treatment.
When cortisol releases, it causes increased blood flow toward your limbs — so you can fight or flee as needed — and away from your stomach and intestines, says Ontario-based naturopathic physician Olivia Rose.
The result is your digestion can be affected, leading to problems like constipation or diarrhea, she says. That lowered blood flow also affects how well you absorb nutrients, which means stress might be cutting down on the amount of vitamins and minerals used by the body, particularly B vitamins and vitamin C.
“What you’ll get is a cascading effect,” says Rose. “Not being able to digest food properly is hard on your intestinal tract, so you might develop a chronic condition like IBS, along with other problems like insomnia or blood pressure changes.”
Just as stress shuttles resources away from your digestive system, it does the same with your immune response, Rose says.
“The body is trying to shut down anything that’s not necessary in a crisis,” she notes. “If you’re facing an immediate threat, it’s less important for the body to handle a foreign virus or bacteria.”
But that’s meant to be a temporary shutdown, she adds. When chronic stress keeps your immune system tamped down, it can leave you vulnerable to colds, the flu and other illnesses. If you find yourself catching every bug that sweeps through the office, it might be time to implement more stress relief as a way to get your immune system back on track.
In addition to a cortisol wave, stress causes muscles to tense, which can affect areas like the shoulders, neck and particularly the low-back area.
According to Johns Hopkins, back pain can become more severe if you smoke — which raises inflammation in the body and hinders healing — have a high body mass index and/or tend to have a sedentary lifestyle.
Stress can also affect your perception of the pain, making it feel worse and prolonging the issue. If the pain becomes troubling enough to sabotage your workouts, then you could exacerbate the situation since exercise has been shown to decrease emotional stress and improve back pain in many cases.
One common stress effect Rose sees often is skin problems, particularly among those who used to have acne or eczema and are now seeing those flare again.
That’s because stress can prompt more inflammation throughout your system as a defense mechanism. But that might cause your skin to overreact with a disproportionate response, Rose notes. In addition to breakouts, you might get rashes, rosacea, bumps or scaly areas as your skin tries to adjust to its new, high-stress conditions.
When this is happening, your skin tends to become more sensitive as well — which means slathering it with lotions or acne cream could make things worse instead of better.
Considering the physical, emotional and mental effects stress can have, it’s worth making the effort to lower the amount of stressors in your life. Keep in mind there are some types of stress that can actually be beneficial.
For example, exercise stresses the body — and, as anyone who’s done a HIIT session or aimed for a strength training PR can report, it usually overwhelms the mind as well — but that type of stress serves a purpose in making you stronger and more resilient.
The same goes for other types of stress, from family issues to work deadlines. Stress can be a fuel to get more productive, work out problems and move forward. So, it’s counterproductive to think of all stress as negative. Instead, focus on strategies that allow you cooldown periods, so your stress (and cortisol) gets regulated into being an advantage instead of a detriment.
The best strategy is to come up with de-stress tactics when you’re in a calm period, suggests Devine.
“You don’t come up with an evacuation plan when your house is on fire,” she says. “Don’t wait for that overwhelmed feeling to kick in before you think about how to balance stress in your life.”