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.
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.”
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.
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.