Stop underestimating the impact of stress on your physical and mental health.

Has your doctor ever said, “all your tests look normal, it’s probably due to stress.” And you’re thinking “uh yeah right, there is something seriously wrong here.” 

Well chances are you are both right. There is something seriously wrong, and it is likely due to stress. The impact of stress on your mind and body is astronomical.

Impact of stress on the brain.

When you experience a stressful situation, your brain switches to your sympathetic nervous system. That is the fight or flight response. It produces a surge of cortisol and adrenaline that prepares you for action. Your heart rate increases, digestion slows, sweat production increases, blood flow to your muscles increases while blood flow to your skin and intestines decreases, and it stimulates the release of glucose.

When the stressful event is over, your parasympathetic nervous system activates. This is the rest and digest response. Cortisol and adrenaline production slows down as does your heart rate. The digestive system resumes, and urination increases.

When you experience continuous, ongoing stress, the system malfunctions and you can get stuck in the sympathetic nervous system with no ability to kick on your parasympathetic nervous system. This is where the health problems stem from.

HPA axis dysfunction.

HPA stands for hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. The HPA axis is the part of our brain that reacts to stress. A perceived stressful event triggers the hypothalamus to release the corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). CRH triggers the pituitary gland to release the Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) which then triggers the adrenal glands to release cortisol. Cortisol activates our sympathetic nervous system and puts us into the fight or flight response. The hypothalamus responds to the level or cortisol released and thus creates the HPA axis cycle.

The HPA axis becomes overloaded when the sympathetic nervous system is continuously activated, causing what is known as HPA axis dysfunction.

Impact of stress on your mental health.

  • Anxiety: if you are stuck in the parasympathetic nervous system then you are constantly on high alert. Your brain is constantly scanning for the next threat and always on high alert, which is exhausting.
  • Hyper-vigilance: if our brain is constantly sounding the alarms that there is a threat, we will always be alert and guarded.
  • Depression: your body can only operate in the sympathetic nervous system for so long before it shuts down due to lack of energy and no energy reserves. The depression can last a day-several weeks, but eventually it kicks back into the sympathetic nervous system, and you are back in the constant fight or flight response.
The impact of stress on your mental health is huge. Bipolar disorder is often misdiagnosed due to stress.
  • OCD: obsessive compulsive disorder can be triggered by stress. When you are constantly under stress, your brain is perceiving it as a lack of control. OCD aims to find some element of control with whatever it can, however it can. This can look like needing to always have your space clean and organized, obsessive hand washing, and endless thought spiral to name a few. 
  • Bipolar disorder: the constant back and forth between and anxiety and depression can present as and be misdiagnosed as bipolar disorder. You may meet still the criteria for bipolar disorder, but it could be due to stress and the flip flop that happens when you crash into depression then sore back into anxiety shortly after. 

Impact of stress on your body. 

  • Weight gain: our bodies store food intake as fat cells when the sympathetic nervous system is operating so we have reserves when it is time to act on a threat. If your system has malfunctioned, you may find yourself gaining weight as your body continues to store reserves. The excess release of glucose may also play a role in weight gain. 
  • Irritable bowel syndrome and digestion problems: our bodies slow down digestion and other “non-essential” systems to have more energy to put towards pumping blood to our heart when the sympathetic nervous system is activated. If your digestive system is continually operating at a slower pace, you may develop IBS, leaky gut, or other digestive issues.
HPA axis dysfunction leads to anxiety, high cortisol, and more.
  • Insomnia: stress can lead to difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep as your body is constantly in the fight or flight response and does not have the ability to relax.
  • Increased blood pressure: cortisol tightens your blood vessels, which can raise your blood pressure and lead to serious health problems. 
  • Muscle tension: your sympathetic nervous system has you geared to act. Muscles are tense in preparation for fight or flight. This can lead to chronic tight muscles. You may experience more muscle injuries or muscle cramps.
  • Migraines: high stress levels can increase chances of migraines. You may also be prone to tension migraines as your muscles get tighter the longer you are stuck in your sympathetic nervous system.  
  • Chronic fatigue: at a certain point our bodies will begin to shut down due to high stress levels, anxiety, and hyperarousal.
  • Increased risk of a heart attack: your heart rate increases when the sympathetic nervous system is activated. A constant increased heart rate plus high blood pressure can cause damage to your heart and increase your risk of a heart attack or stroke.
  • Infertility problems: stress can negatively impact the reproductive system for both men and women. This can make it harder to conceive. 

Impact of stress on your immune system.

  • Lowered immunity defenses: stress impacts your immune system from operating at full capacity. That means that you may find yourself catching all the illnesses and taking longer to overcome these illnesses as well. It can also lengthen the healing time for injuries.
  • Autoimmune disease: recent research has shown that high levels of stress can negatively affect our immune systems and lead to impairments in functioning. Autoimmune diseases are multifactorial, but stress is implicated to play a role in the development of autoimmune disease.