The effects of stress on the body are numerous and are risk factors for a number of medical conditions. However, a small amount of stress, especially in a dangerous situation can have certain beneficial consequences. One frequently reads of people who are able to do extraordinary things under stress, like lifting cars to free trapped children. Constant, or chronic stress, on the other hand, is often associated with health risks instead of benefits.
When one experiences stress, there are immediate effects on the body. The brain begins to produce higher levels of hormones like adrenaline, cortisol and cortisone. It also halts the production of chemicals like dopamine and growth hormone. These latter hormones, especially dopamine, are necessary for mood balance.
Other effects of stress on the body include an increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and a redirection of blood flow to the muscles and brain. Normal digestive patterns tend to slow down because less blood flow is directed to the digestive tract. Chemicals that help form platelets also are released, and one may note perspiration, and tense muscles as being caused by stress.
Stress doesn’t merely occur in bad or dangerous situations, but also occurs in happy or exciting situations. For example, a ride on a fast rollercoaster quickly puts the body into a stressed out state, even if one enjoys the ride. Warnings on exciting rides about not riding the rollercoaster if one has heart conditions are there for good reason. It may not be a good idea to stress the heart with a suddenly elevated heart rate and the greater risk of developing blood clots. This could lead to sudden fatal arrhythmias, heart attack or stroke.
There are also cumulative effects of stress on the body. The longer and the more frequently one experiences stress, the more likely one will start having health problems. Some long-term effects of stress include: disruption of sleep patterns, headaches, stomachaches, weight gain or weight loss, and accumulation of fat around the abdomen. Some studies have focused on how the hormone cortisol tends to stimulate fat storage around the stomach. Even more serious are the facts that chronic stress can lead to poor heart health, high blood pressure, and increased risk for heart attack and stroke.
Effects of stress on the body can also lead people to coping strategies that worsen their stress and their health. For example, some people smoke, overeat, or abuse alcohol or drugs as a reaction to stress. These strategies may seem to temporarily relieve stress, but they then contribute to overall poor health and risk factors for disease. Such methods of coping can snowball with stress into much higher risk factors for heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke.
People who deal with a high degree of stress may also develop certain conditions that are stress-based. Chronic stress can lead to persistent insomnia, panic attacks, and anxiety disorder. These long-term effects of stress can alter a person’s ability to function appropriately, to work effectively, or to fully participate in their lives. Further, in an effort to combat stress, many turn to medication.
While medication can be helpful in dealing with the effects of stress, certain medications have been shown to shorten life expectancy. Medications for mood disorders like bipolar are linked to shortened life span, in part due to the negative effects of stress on the body, and the weight gain many experience while on these medications. However, cognitive behavioral therapy along with medication has been shown to help people more effectively deal with stress. In fact, people who suffer from chronic stress can learn strategies in therapy for dismissing stress and diminishing its overall effects.