Stress. It’s an awful word and a worse feeling, isn’t it? The thing is stress isn’t all bad. Without it, we wouldn’t be motivated to protect ourselves or perform. A certain level of stress helps us to adapt to our environment and pushes us to excel. The stress that is worrisome is chronic stress, and it can affect you negatively in multiple ways.
And new research confirms that chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels in midlife can actually cause brain shrinkage and memory problems.
How can you determine if your stress is good or chronic? Let’s take a look, along with how chronic stress can kill your quality of life and why you want to incorporate natural stress relievers into your life.
The Stress Response
So what is “good stress”? While stress itself may not be a good thing, each of us is only here because of the stress response. Our ancestors reacted to a threat by fighting or fleeing, literally or figuratively, and so survived thanks to this fight or flight instinct. Whether it was a food shortage or a physical threat, they went into what the prominent science center, the Franklin Institute, refers to as “metabolic overdrive.” (1)
Adrenaline and cortisol flood the body. Blood pressure, breathing and heart rate increase. Glucose is released into the bloodstream for ready energy. Digestion, growth, reproduction and immune system functions are suppressed or put on hold. Blood flow to the skin is decreased, and pain tolerance is increased.
During a real crisis, your actions would end up reversing many of these processes. You would fight or flee and resolve the problem — then take comfort in contact with loved ones or satisfaction in your abilities. You might dispel adrenaline through pacing or some other soothing effort and restore your metabolic and hormonal balances.
Life today, however, doesn’t often offer us the opportunity to enact a full stress response and resolution. Instead, we operate as if we’re in a constant, low-grade state of emergency, with no real end in sight. Many of us don’t physically dispel stress hormones or take the time to resolve the real problems. We don’t soothe ourselves or take the time to question our priorities.
So what are some of the things chronic stress is doing to you?
Chronic Stress Is Killing Your Quality of Life
1. It’s Messing with Your Brain
You may think that it’s necessary to work under the gun all of the time, but according to the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC), chronic stress affects your ability to concentrate, act efficiently and makes you more accident-prone.
Chronic stress has devastating effects on memory and learning. It actually kills brain cells. UMMC reports that people with post-traumatic stress disorder experience an 8 percent shrinkage of the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center, and stress affects, most decidedly, children’s ability to learn. (2)
The Franklin Institute explains that the stress hormone cortisol channels glucose to the muscles during the stress response and leaves less fuel for the brain. Cortisol also interrupts brain cell communication by compromising neurotransmitter function.
All learning depends on the use of memory. Stress affects your ability to access memories and prevents you from creating new ones.
Worse yet, your hippocampus is involved in turning cortisol off. As it becomes damaged by chronic stress, it becomes less able to do so and becomes more damaged. This is what the Franklin Institute refers to as a “degenerative cascade.”
A 2018 study published in the Neurology confirms brain shrinkage in middle-aged people with chronically elevated cortisol levels. The scary party? The brain starts to shrink before symptoms even appear.
“Our research detected memory loss and brain shrinkage in middle-aged people before symptoms started to show, so it’s important for people to find ways to reduce stress, such as getting enough sleep, engaging in moderate exercise, incorporating relaxation techniques into their daily lives, or asking their doctor about their cortisol levels and taking a cortisol-reducing medication if needed,” says study author Justin B. Echouffo-Tcheugui, MD, PhD, of Harvard Medical School. “It’s important for physicians to counsel all people with higher cortisol levels.”
2. Stress Increases Risk of Heart Attack, Heart Disease and Stroke
A direct link between chronic stress and increased risk for heart attack, heart disease and stroke has not yet been established by researchers. What chronic stress does do, reports UMMC, is worsen risk factors for these conditions.
Stress increases your heart rate and force, constricts your arteries, and affects heart rhythms. It thickens the blood, which may protect against blood loss in case of injury, according to UMMC. Stress increases blood pressure, and chronic stress damages blood vessel linings, especially because chronic stress contributes to inflammation.
Increased blood pressure is also a risk factor for stroke, and the Franklin Institute reports that stress levels can increase atherosclerosis, another risk factor for stroke.
3. Stress Dials Down Your Immune System
Fighting off infection isn’t a primary concern if your body thinks it’s facing an immediate danger, but the problem is chronic stress definitely dampens your immune system, making fighting infection much more difficult. People seem to be much more susceptible to infections and experience more severe symptoms when they come down with a cold or flu if they’re stressed, reports UMMC.
Stress can also trigger a detrimental overdrive in your immune system. Stress contributes to inflammation in the body. Your immune system may react to other damage going on in your body due to stress and send out immune compounds known as cytokines that contribute to the inflammatory response. These compounds can damage healthy cells in their effort to combat unhealthy factors occurring in your body.
Inflammation has been linked to a multitude of health conditions and diseases, from asthma and diabetes to cancer and heart disease.
The American Psychological Association (APA) reports that stress can negatively affect your ability to recover from a heart attack and that stress management training can help speed healing from a heart attack. (3)
According to the Franklin Institute, stress affects the blood-brain barrier. This barrier protects many substances that enter your body from ever reaching and affecting your brain, things like drugs and toxins, viruses and poisons. Researchers found that stress increased the permeability of the blood-brain barrier in Gulf War soldiers. Drugs meant to protect their bodies from chemical attacks and that should have never affected the brain did.
4. Chronic Stress Contributes to Aging
As I’ve explained, the stress response turns off many physiological processes that aren’t deemed urgent. Consider the lack of blood flow to the skin. That’s certainly going to affect how old you look. Worse, though, is how much chronic stress can affect the aging brain. We all lose brain cells as we age. Toxins, automatic routines, improper diet, lack of exercise and loss of social connections contribute to this. So, as stress allows more toxins to cross the blood-brain barrier and cortisol damages the hippocampus, brain function, new learning and memory are greatly affected.
The reduced effectiveness of the blood-brain barrier is a common finding in people with Alzheimer’s disease. The “degenerative cascade” is accelerated in the aging brain. A study of elderly people found that hippocampus size was reduced by 14 percent in those with high cortisol levels and that these participants showed much less ability to create new memories for new learning. Another study found that hippocampus size was linked to the rate of progression in Alzheimer’s disease.
The APA reports on a study of chronological age versus physiological age related to stress. Women that cared for disabled or sickly children over a matter of years were 10 years older physiologically. That’s because chronic stress affected their ability to regenerate blood cells. Chronic stress can also contribute to aging in terms of arthritis, cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis.
5. Stress Contributes to Weight Gain and Digestive Disorders
Since digestion is also dialed down during the stress response, chronic stress can contribute to a variety of digestive disorders. Bloated stomach, cramping, constipation and diarrhea are common symptoms of chronic stress. So, too, is acid reflux and irritable bowel syndrome. Stress can worsen ulcers and inflammatory bowel disease as well.
Cortisol contributes to the accumulation of dangerous belly fat and worsens cravings for fat, salt and sugar. Eating unhealthy carbs can be soothing as this lessens the behavioral and hormonal imbalances associated with the stress response. Unfortunately, this behavior can become habitual and lead to health problems like diabetes and heart disease.
6. Chronic Stress Affects Your Mood and Relationships
Constant stress can affect your sleep patterns and make you irritable and fatigued, unable to concentrate and highly reactive. You may become unable to relax and operate in a state of anxiety. Depression is a common reaction to chronic stress. All of these things can downgrade your quality of life and affect your relationships with others.
Chronic stress is associated with feelings of helplessness and lack of control. Perfectionists are more likely to suffer from disrupted serotonin levels due to stress, the “feel-good” neurotransmitter in the brain, reports UMMC.
7. Stress Increases Pain
Links between pain severity and chronic stress have been established with headaches, joint pain and muscle pain. Stress seems to intensify arthritis pain and back pain. Work stress is associated with backaches, and stress increases the occurrence and severity of tension headaches.
8. Stress Affects Sexuality and Reproductive Functions
Chronic stress reduces sexual desire in women and can contribute to erectile dysfunction in men. Chronic stress is linked to premenstrual syndrome severity and can affect fertility in women. Stress during pregnancy is linked to higher rates of premature birth and miscarriage. Stress during pregnancy may also affect how infants themselves react to stress after birth, reports UMMC. Chronic stress can also worsen hormonally based mood changes that accompany menopause.
9. Chronic Stress Affects Your Skin, Hair and Teeth
Hormonal imbalances due to stress and the fact that blood flow to the skin is reduced during the stress response can negatively affect your skin, hair and teeth. Eczema is a common reaction to stress. Acne, hives, psoriasis and rosacea have also been linked to stress. Hair loss and gum disease have also been linked to stress.
10. Stress Contributes to Addiction
In an attempt to escape the negative feelings associated with chronic stress, many people turn to self-soothing behaviors or activities that temporarily raise their dopamine and serotonin levels. Alcohol, tobacco and substance abuse are common ways people attempt to treat stress. Food addictions, gambling, checking out with television and video games are also habits that may develop due to chronic stress. All of these behaviors end up worsening the problem in the long run and greatly affect both mental and physical health.
Related: What Is Eustress and Why Is It Good For You?
Don’t Take Stress for Granted
Just because you aren’t able to spear your saber-toothed tiger doesn’t mean that you’re unable learn to deal with stress more effectively. And plenty of research has found that stress management and relaxation techniques can help you become more able to adapt to stressful events, more efficient in functioning during stress and better able to recover from stress. Much of chronic stress has to do with feeling out of control or helpless.
Stress has been linked to heart disease in men that don’t feel that they have control in their jobs. It also plays a role in acute coronary syndrome (ACS), symptoms that warn of a heart attack. UMMC reports that ACS occurs in men after work, after stressful incidents. This means that thinking and emotions play a large part in ACS, and your thoughts and emotions are the very things that you can learn to control, no matter what happens in your environment.
Take a look at your life, and identify what’s causing you stress. Pay attention to your moods, and try to identify the thoughts and beliefs that may be contributing to them. Make time to engage in pleasantly challenging activities, exercise and connect with others. Prioritize and delegate. Check out my 16 Ways to Bust Stress for more ideas. If you’re having trouble managing your weight because of chronic stress try ways to lower cortisol, like adaptogen herbs, and reduce cravings.
Don’t try to eliminate stress from your life altogether. First of all, that’s impossible as so much of life is unpredictable. Secondly, some kinds of stress are beneficial. A challenging memory task can boost your immune system while watching a violent video can weaken it, reports the Franklin Institute. Memory tasks can also contribute to brain cell growth. Learn to deal with stress effectively rather than avoid it altogether.
- Stress is normal, and some kinds of stress are good.
- You can learn how to better manage stress.
- Chronic stress can affect every physical and psychological system.