|By Tré LaRosa
Life can be stressful in so many ways. We’ve all experienced stress to some degree, whether that stress comes from work, a health condition, personal frustrations, financially, or wherever else. Most people probably associate the term “stress” with something that applies to being overwhelmed with day-to-day life, but it also encapsulates physiological stress that comes from when we put our bodies through hard labor. I don’t necessarily think of the two types of stress as being that fundamentally different from one another; after all, physiological stress affects our minds and psychological stress has an impact on bodies. We tend to separate our mental health from our physical health, but as mental health is a part of the human condition and includes our brains, mental health and physical health should be considered two sides of the same coin. We should also assume that if our mental health is struggling, it is affecting our physical health in some way, and we should also assume if our physical health is flagging, it’s affecting our mental health. If you’ve experienced a clear example of how intertwined physical and mental health are, this might seem obvious to you, but to others this connection might not be so clear. As stress can mean something different to everybody, we’ll use the NIH’s National Cancer Institute’s definition of stress: “The body’s response to physical, mental, or emotional pressure.” The NCI further explains that according to their definition, “stress causes chemical changes in the body that can raise blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar levels.”
As the New York Times stated in a 1998 article titled “A Cold Fact: High Stress Can Make You Sick,” it has long been known that stress makes us more likely to get sick. The reason for this seems to be due to increased stress hormones negatively affecting how our immune systems work, thus reducing our ability to prevent infections. A recent study even found that those who experienced increased stress were more likely to get COVID-19 during the early days of the pandemic.
So stress can make us more likely to get sick from viral or bacterial infections, but our immune systems have a lot of very important roles, and stress doesn’t only affect our immune systems. Chronic stress also interrupts our ability to fall and stay asleep (and loss of sleep also affects our immune system and stress hormones, thereby creating a feedback loop), and as we know, sleep is incredibly important for a variety of reasons, probably more so than most of us realize.
Americans are more stressed out than ever. According to a striking survey (2,051 age 18 and over adults were polled) )fielded the first week of March conducted for the American Psychological Association, Americans are reporting higher levels of significant stress than ever before, with 87% of respondents — the highest figure ever found in an APA “Stress in America” survey — reporting stress about certain topics. The APA’s CEO expressed concern about these high levels of significant stress saying, “[T]these data suggest that we’re now reaching unprecedented levels of stress that will challenge our ability to cope.” That phrase — “unprecedented levels of stress” — makes it clear that we’re reaching a crisis point of stress.
Stress doesn’t only make us more likely to get colds or viral infections, stress also more deeply affects our body in many ways across every major bodily system. To even further blur the lines between physiological and psychological stress, chronic stress can even harm our musculoskeletal health. You probably recognize this; have you ever found yourself tensing your shoulders, almost squeezing them up to your ears, when you’re in the middle of the work day? This doesn’t only affect you when you’re in the middle of focusing on something, according to the APA, since “chronic stress causes the muscles in the body to be in a more or less constant state of guardedness. When muscles are taut and tense for long periods of time, this may trigger other reactions of the body and even promote stress-related disorders.” This can also result in headaches, as well as neck and back pain.
Stress can lead us to experience shortness of breath, and the APA mentions that acute stress has been shown to trigger asthma attacks. When our bodies are exposed to acute stressors such as tripping over something or narrowly avoiding an accident, our bodies compensate by increased heart rates and stronger contractions of the heart muscles. Occasionally these responses are okay but over the long-term, “can increase the risk for hypertension, heart attack, or stroke.”
As for our brains, stress has multiple effects. It might surprise some people to know that the brain also has a connection to our gastrointestinal system. But this connection is also part of a lot of people’s daily lives, whether they know that or not since stress can be a major cause of stomach aches. Further, stress can alter the bacteria in our stomachs which can actually affect our moods. When we become stressed, our brains tell our adrenal glands to release epinephrine and cortisol, which is why our hearts beat faster and we breathe more quickly when we experience acute stress.
Stress can also affect neurocognitive conditions in many ways. It isn’t completely clear, just as we have seen with air pollution, diet, and gingivitis, but chronic stress might increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. As chronic stress has so many effects, it is difficult to discern which mental, physical, or other effects stress has on the body, but we do know that while stress might be good in small amounts, extensive, chronic stress negatively affects quality of life.
With any sort of risk factor, researchers set out to understand how this factor affects the body in much broader ways. For example, from one paper, titled “Neurobiological and Systemic Effects of Chronic Stress,” the researchers discuss neuroplasticity and how “stress can cause an imbalance of neural circuitry subserving cognition, decision making, anxiety and mood that can increase or decrease expression of those behaviors and behavioral states. This imbalance, in turn, affects systemic physiology via neuroendocrine, autonomic, immune and metabolic mediators.” These effects need to be further researched to fully understand them but since preliminary evidence suggests these effects from chronic stress have such extensive downstream effects — and when you consider the APA’s “Stress in America” surveys showing increasing numbers of Americans reporting significant stress — it’s becoming increasingly clear how much chronic stress is becoming a public health crisis.
- “Protect your brain from stress” from Harvard
- “I’m So Stressed Out! Fact Sheet” from the NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health