Stress is any stimulus, intrinsic or extrinsic, that elicits a biological response. It has a wide range of effects on the human body, from slight changes in homeostasis to life-threatening situations and death. People exposed to consistent, high levels of stress, such as those who work or live in stressful environments, have an increased risk of various diseases and conditions.

Stress is an unavoidable part of life that can be both beneficial and detrimental to our health. Stressors can come from a variety of sources, ranging from every day responsibilities to more serious events. If your body’s stress response keeps firing and these stress levels stay high for an extended period, it can have a negative impact on your health. Although stress can be beneficial in the short term as a way of coping with difficulties, it is important to manage it in order to avoid long-term problems involving your mental health and physiology.

Central Nervous and Endocrine Systems

The hypothalamus of your brain is the driving force of your central nervous system (CNS), triggering the “fight or flight” reflex and prompting the release of stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol from your adrenal glands. These hormones increase your heart rate and direct more blood to the necessary areas of your body during a crisis, like your muscles, heart, and other vital organs. Once the fear is no longer present, the hypothalamus signals for the body to return to its normal state. If the central nervous system does not revert or the stressor persists, the stress response will remain active. People suffering from chronic stress are more prone to experiencing various behavioral issues, such as overeating and alcohol and drug abuse.

Respiratory and Cardiovascular Systems

When your body is under stress, hormones are released that can affect your respiratory and cardiovascular systems. During the stress response, your breathing quickens in order to bring oxygen-rich blood to your body. For those who already have breathing difficulties, such as asthma or emphysema, this can make it even more challenging to breathe. When you’re stressed, your heart pumps faster from the release of those hormones. This constricts your blood vessels and sends more oxygen to your muscles, increasing your strength in a time you need to take action. However, this puts extra strain on your heart, leading to higher blood pressure, and increasing your risk of having a stroke or heart attack if you experience frequent or chronic stress.

Digestive System

Your liver produces extra glucose during times of stress to boost your energy level. If you’re under chronic stress, your body might be unable to keep up with this additional glucose, which could lead to type 2 diabetes. The release of hormones, faster breathing, and a heightened heartbeat can all have an adverse effect on your digestive system, making it more likely for heartburn and acid reflux to occur due to an increase in stomach acid. Although stress does not cause ulcers (H. pylori bacteria is usually the culprit), it can increase your susceptibility to them and aggravate existing ulcers. People who are stressed experience issues with food moving through their bodies, which can result in constipation or diarrhea. They may also experience stomach aches, nausea, vomiting, and even stomach pain.

Sexuality and Reproductive System

When stress is persistent, it can be draining for both the body and mind. It is common to have a lack of motivation when experiencing constant pressure. Although temporary stress can lead to an increase in male hormones like testosterone, this is not a long-term effect. If stress is ongoing, a man’s testosterone levels can start to fall, which may then cause issues with sperm production and even erectile dysfunction. Additionally, long-term stress can raise the likelihood of infection in male reproductive organs such as the testes and prostate. Stress can significantly impact women’s menstrual cycle, potentially causing irregular, heavier, and more painful periods. Additionally, chronic stress can worsen the physical symptoms associated with menopause.

Immune System

Stress can have both positive and negative effects on the immune system. Initially, it can stimulate the immune system, helping to ward off infections and heal wounds. However, stress hormones can weaken the immune system over time and reduce its ability to fight off foreign invaders. People under chronic stress are more likely to catch illnesses such as the flu or common cold, as well as other infections. Additionally, stress can lengthen the amount of time it takes to recover from illnesses or injuries.