Evidence based

Effects of stress on human body according to science

Life has a habit of throwing up challenges, so we’ll all experience a little stress from time to time. It’s critical to our health that we manage this, however, and don’t let our stress define our lifestyle. If left unchecked, stress can have a lethal impact on the human heart.

Jun 24, 2019 |
5 min read

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Stress is an unavoidable part of life. If you live in the 21st Century, you will experience it in some capacity. Stress can impact anybody of any age or lifestyle.

There are many catalysts for stress, mainly involving changes to our routine and home life. Young people will experience the pressure of studying for tests. Working adults regularly deal with looming deadlines. Couples may be worried about problems within their relationship.

Worrying about whether there’s enough money in the bank to make rent is a conventional spark for stress.

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Pressure can be a great motivator, but it’s pivotal that stress doesn’t take hold too firmly. Stress is described as a silent killer due to the toll it takes on the human body. Learning how to manage stress can add years to anybody’s life. (1)

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What is stress?

In a nutshell, stress is a physical reaction from your body to a challenging situation. Basically, it’s a byproduct of change. It can even result from something positive, such as an impending wedding or a house move.

Any time the status quo of our lives are interrupted, and a substantial change is on the horizon, the body creates stress hormones.

Don’t think of this as your body betraying you. In truth, the stress in small, manageable doses could be considered a good thing. It’s like the fight-or-flight instinct that governs so much of human decision-making.

Stress places a great deal of pressure on the human heart, though. In short bursts, this can be managed. If the heart doesn’t have the opportunity to return to a typical function, however, it will eventually give out and lead to cardiac arrest.

Imagine that you’re crossing the street. You have looked both ways and decided that it’s safe to step into the road. Despite this, a car appears rounds a nearby corner, traveling faster than you feel comfortable with.

You’ll instinctively take a step back to avoid becoming street pizza, just in case. That’s the positive impact of stress. If your body and brain did not create a stress response, you would blindly continue walking and place yourself at significant risk.

Naturally, though, that caution needs to be a one-off. You can shake your head, mutter under your breath about dangerous driving, then go on with your day.

If the stress reaction doesn’t pass, you’d be stuck at that crossing all day, too anxious to cross the street. That doesn’t benefit anybody.

What is the physical impact of stress?

When we’re stressed, our bodies release a surge of hormones. (2)

The most common of these are adrenaline and cortisol, which is also referred to as “the stress hormone.” These make your heart pound and sharpen your five core senses.

In extreme cases of stress, the fight-or-flight as mentioned above response kicks in. This is sometimes referred to as an amygdala hijack. (3)

The amygdala is the part of the human brain that processes sensation and emotion – both positive and negative. Ordinarily, the amygdala works in tandem with the rest of your brain and sends messages to the body through the nervous system.

In the event of stress, the amygdala overrides every other part of your brain. As a result, your physical prowess will temporarily increase by around 15% – meaning that you can run faster or fight harder.

On paper, this sounds great – you’re basically a superhero for a few moments. However, think about the impact on your heart that we’ve already discussed. If you try to sustain this, you’ll knock years off your life.

Also, your mental faculties will be compromised as the amygdala is running the show. Acting purely on emotional reactions will prevent you from applying logic to your thought processes. This will, naturally, significantly impact your quality of life.

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Besides, your body can only run at this heightened level for so long. Eventually, your heart will not be able to cope with the strain of beating so hard, so regularly. In addition to the risk of cardiac arrest, your immune system will be severely compromised, and you’ll be prone to dizzy spells.

Prolonged stress also impacts the brain

You will be unable to think clearly and struggle to make even the most basic decisions.

You’ll continuously fear the worst, which will prevent you from enjoying even the more fundamental aspects of life and eventually lead to depression. Your memory will also be impacted.

What are the symptoms of stress?

Stress is largely unmistakable. However, if you’re unsure, the common symptoms include:

  • Elevated heart rate
  • An inability to think clearly, leading to irritability when interrupted.
  • Searing, skull-splitting headaches (these are sometimes referred to as tension headaches)
  • Failure to eat, and acid reflex when you do manage to force food down
  • Insomnia, often due to a racing mind
  • Tension in the muscles

How to manage stress

Now that you know how dangerous stress is, you’ll need to manage it. This can be easier said than done. As we have established, stress is a reaction from the human brain. Nobody wakes up and consciously decides to freak out about something beyond their control.

What you can control is your reaction to stressful situations. Unless you’re particularly blessed, you will encounter experiences that stress you out. Avoid self-medicating. Cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol may seem like a quick fix, but they will not solve any problems and will just add more health complications to a body that’s already under strain.

To cope with stress, try some of the following techniques:

Don’t ignore the problem

Think positive, and take action early. Stop worrying about what might happen in the event of X or Y, and focus instead on what will happen if you take constructive action now.

Take an exercise break

Exercise releases endorphins, which naturally neutralize stress. Even if you’re not a runner, a brisk walk in different surroundings can be hugely beneficial.

Get some sleep

If you’re tired, you’ll be increasingly prone to stress.

Train your brain to cool itself off

Many people practice mindfulness, yoga, or even martial arts to help with this.

Learn to say no!

Nobody can do everything – if you invite pressure into your life, you are greatly enhancing your risk of stress.

If you can manage your stress, you’ll significantly enhance your quality of life – and live longer, enabling you to reap the rewards.

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