All human beings are subject to stress. Many health problems are related to this disorder. However, not everything that has to do with stress is detrimental to our well-being. Sometimes stress can be useful to increase alertness, for example, if we are in danger; to increase memory and efficiency.
There are many individuals who are chronically exposed to stress which can negatively affect both their physical and mental health. Health problems linked to stress include: asthma, depression, obesity, anxiety, chronic fatigue, angina and heart attack, high blood pressure, immune system disorders that increase the risk of contracting infections, viral diseases, including the common cold and herpes.
Stress can affect our skin, causing rashes, hives and eczema (redness). At the digestive system level, stress can cause gastroesophageal reflux disease, stomach ulcer and gastritis, irritable bowel syndrome and ulcerative colitis.
Mechanism of action of stress
When we are faced with a threat or sudden stressor, our body takes a fight or flight action, releasing some substances or hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones cause the heart to increase the number of its beats, blood pressure to rise and blood glucose (sugar) to increase. Once the threatening situation has been overcome, the body systems return to normal.
Stress can contribute to the onset of insomnia or worsen insomnia. In addition, it can affect emotions, mood, behavior and lead to accelerated progression in Parkinson’s disease (although more studies are needed to prove this). Other disorders include: headache, dizziness, and anxiety.
Muscles are subjected to strong tension when our body is under stress. Tension headache, migraines and other musculoskeletal disorders (neck and back pain) can originate when muscles are contracted or strained for a long time.
When a person is under stress, breathing may become more difficult. Fast breathing can cause hyperventilation and can also trigger panic attacks in some people. In patients with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, for example, stress can worsen their discomfort.
Being in a stressful situation can increase the heart rate and make the heart work harder. Blood vessels widen to increase the blood supply to the heart and muscles. This can cause blood pressure to rise, so chronic stress can increase the risk of high blood pressure, stroke , or trigger a heart attack.
The adrenal glands release substances such as cortisol and adrenaline, the so-called stress hormones that allow us to act quickly in a situation of danger or threat. The liver produces more glucose (sugar) when cortisol and epinephrine are released, thus providing the energy needed to cope with a real fight or flight emergency.
At the digestive tract level, stress can increase gastric acid secretion which can produce heartburn or reflux. In addition, discomfort such as nausea or abdominal pain may occur. Digestion may also be affected and diarrhea or constipation may be triggered. The absorption of nutrients can also be reduced in chronic stress. In people suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (colitis), stress can significantly increase their discomfort.
Female reproductive system
Stress may cause menstrual cycles to become irregular or stop. In addition, menstrual cycles may become more painful (dysmenorrhea), and stress may also decrease sexual desire. In pregnant women, stress can negatively affect the fetus, increasing the risk of depression and anxiety during gestation, as well as after delivery, disrupting the mother-child relationship, thus impairing the child’s development.
Male reproductive system
In males, excess cortisol produced under stressful conditions can affect the production of testosterone and spermatozoa, which can trigger erectile dysfunction and infertility.
The cortisol produced by the adrenal glands, regulates the immune system, adapting it to a stressful situation, and in this way, allows us to react in a better way in circumstances of danger or threat. However, in chronic stress, hormones such as cortisol will decrease our defenses, exposing us to the risk of suffering infections by pathogens, since our immune system will be weakened. It is because of this that people with stress are more prone to contract viral infections such as the common cold, from which it will take longer to recover than in a person without stress.
In general some of the most common signs and symptoms of stress include:
-Headache and jaw contraction or pain.
-Clenching or grinding of the teeth
-Stuttering or slurred speech
-Lip and hand tremors
-Backaches, neck pain or muscle spasms
-Dizziness or lightheadedness (fainting)
-Ringing in the ears
-Sweating and flushing
-Dry mouth or salivation disorders
-Frequent or unexplained allergy attacks
-Frequent belching and flatulence
-Sudden attacks of panic or feeling threatened
-Chest pain, palpitations, rapid pulse
-Increased urinary frequency
-Feelings of guilt, worry or anxiety
-Hostile behavior, angry outbursts, or frustration
-Insomnia, disturbed sleep or nightmares
-Difficulty concentrating, racing thoughts
-Confusion, forgetfulness or disorganization
-Difficulty making decisions
-Feeling overburdened or overwhelmed
-Frequent crying or suicidal thoughts
-Feelings of loneliness or worthlessness
-Poor interest in personal appearance or punctuality
-Habits of fidgeting or constant moving of the feet
-Overreaction to minor annoyances
-Increased number of minor accidents
-Obsessive or compulsive behavior
-Decrease in work efficiency or productivity
-Excuses or lies to justify unwillingness to work
-Always being on the defensive
-Communication and socialization disorders
-Constant complaints of feeling tired, weak or fatigued
-Frequent use of non-prescription medications
-Weight loss or weight gain, often unrelated to dieting
-Increased alcohol, cigarette or illicit drug use
-Compulsion to shop or gamble