Stress is a response to a threat in any given situation, thus triggering your body’s ‘fight-or-flight’ response. While this stress response helps protect the body in an emergency by preparing you to react quickly to the situation, it can put your physical and mental wellbeing at risk if it fires continuously and stress levels remain elevated over a long period of time.
Respiratory: When stressed, we tend to breathe faster in an attempt to distribute oxygen-rich blood to the body. Some report feeling a heaviness in their chest or a feeling that they can’t breathe. This may exacerbate existing breathing issues and/ or may create anxiety and panic where one may believe one has a serious physical health issue.
Cardiovascular: Stress causes your heart to pump blood faster as well as the blood vessels to constrict so as to divert more oxygen to your muscles to give you the strength to fight off the trigger or flee from it. However, this also raises one’s blood pressure. Frequent or chronic stress can increase one’s risk of developing high BP, a stroke or a heart attack.
Muscular: To protect oneself from injury, the muscles tend to tighten for the duration of the stressful situation and relax thereafter. If the stress becomes chronic, they don’t get a chance to relax and this can cause headaches, back and shoulder pain, generalised body pain, and tiredness.
Immunity: Chronic stress tends to reduce one’s ability to fight-off infections making one more prone to infection and viral illnesses. It can also affect one’s recovery time.
Digestive: Stress increases the risk of acid reflux, ulcers, stomach aches and cramps, bloating, diarrhea or constipation, nausea, and vomiting.
Diabetes: When stressed, the body tends to increase the production of glucose to give one the extra energy required. When the stress becomes chronic, the body may not be able to keep up and this increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Dental: Bruxism or teeth grinding can also be caused by stress which can affect one’s dental health in the long run.
Sexuality and Male Reproductive Health: Chronic stress can cause testosterone to start dropping which may effect sperm production, erectile dysfunction, or impotence. It can also increase the risk of infection to the reproductive organs. Chronic stress also tends to cause exhaustion which can lead to a loss of libido.
Sexuality and Female Reproductive Health: Exhaustion can lead to a loss of libido for women as well. Additionally, it can affect the menstrual cycle – changes in menstrual regularity/ flow and increased menstrual pain and cramps. If one is menopausal, chronic stress can increase the physical symptoms.
Mental health side-effects
Sleep: Stress tends to cause difficulty in falling and staying asleep and thus may also affect one’s sleep cycle. Chronic stress can lead to insomnia.
Appetite: Stress tends to affect appetite wherein it may either increase or decrease. It can lead to a change in weight as a result.
Loss of control: Stress can cause one to feel overwhelmed and in turn lead to feeling a loss of control. This loss can further exacerbate the stress.
Mental health conditions: When one finds it difficult to cope with stressors, it can cause irritation and increased anger outbursts. Chronic stress can increase one’s risk for depression, anxiety disorders, panic attacks, and substance use disorders.
Stress may affect one’s attention and concentration thus taking longer to complete a task.
It can impact memory making it more difficult to create short term memories and transfer said short term memories to long term storage. This in turn makes it more difficult to retain information and thus learn.
The organisation of information also becomes difficult in view of multiple racing thoughts and the interference with one’s thought process.
Judgement can be affected.
It is therefore extremely important to learn to cope with stress and not allow it to become chronic in nature.
Tips to control stress
Learn to recognise the warning signs of stress (physical, behavioural, emotional, and cognitive) so that you can start handling it immediately
Understand the situations that tend to cause you stress so that you can anticipate stressful situations, and then create a game plan to handle each situation efficiently
Accept that you cannot control everything
Be assertive: Say no if you find yourself taking on too much work or juggling too many responsibilities
Start journalling on a daily basis
Do some deep breathing exercises
Listen to music that you enjoy
Eat healthy and get adequate sleep. This will help your body handle the stress better.
Exercise regularly – choose an activity you enjoy
Spend some part of your day engaged in creative activities – drawing, painting, singing, etc.
Spend some quality time with your friends and family
Avoid caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes, and recreational drugs: stimulants can make you edgy while depressants can make you feel low
Learn or attend mindfulness/ yoga/ dance/ music therapy sessions
Consult a mental health practitioner if you’re finding it difficult to cope with the stress in spite of trying the above.
(Ritika Aggarwal is Consultant Psychologist, Jaslok Hospital & Research Centre)