Can stress affect your body

Deep breath. Let’s take a moment and reflect on the past few years. What comes up for you? Many have experienced loneliness, fear, and tons and tons of change. And believe it or not, those three factors are major causes of stress and anxiety.

Let’s take a step back. Stress can vary from individual to individual. Your reaction to stress is different from someone next to you. We’re all unique. And so, the last few years, can be a different experience for each one of you. Sometimes stress can be the feeling of overwhelm, pressure to get things done quickly, the mind never stopping or being always on the go. Imagine having always something to do or to be somewhere. Sounds familiar?

Yes, I hear you, some people thrive on this and when I chat to patients they go, “But I love it. I love being busy.” Some feel they benefit from being in this state because they get things done and are constantly achieving their goals. Also, some feel like this is their normal and don’t know anything different!

Now I know, I felt like this 10 years ago. I was living in London, always on the move, always on the go, doing something, studying, working and travelling. My mind was always racing. I even spoke quickly. And I remember some people were like, “I can’t understand you. You speak too quickly.” And that was actually my normal. And then I moved to Australia, things changed. I slowed down. And I was developing a different perspective.

The series of events that take place during a stress reaction was actually designed to protect us, to alert us about danger so we could run or fight, hence why it’s called the fight, flight or freeze response. However, in today’s world, emotions trigger the stress response. And we’re talking about guilt, fear, embarrassment, or even shame.

The stress reaction starts with a thought which is first detected by the amygdala. The amygdala, a small gland in the brain, is the centre for processing emotions. It relays those fear signals to the hypothalamus, another gland in the brain, at times of stress. The hypothalamus subsequently sends messages to the adrenal glands to kick start the fight or flight response. Adrenal glands sit on top of your kidneys and are designed to release stress chemicals of cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline. Once released into the bloodstream, messages are sent to different parts of the body.

I now want to introduce you to the autonomic nervous system. This collection of nerves work automatically without much control needed by us, hence the word autonomic. It’s literally divided into two areas, the parasympathetic and the sympathetic. Now, the sympathetic is all about speeding things up in the body and the parasympathetic does the opposite. It slows things down. We have this amazing control mechanism trying to regulate function and always trying to achieve balance. But have we forgotten to switch on the parasympathetic, the brakes? That’s for another blog.

Now, the autonomic nervous system is connected to multiple organs. It makes sense because when we’re feeling stressed, we may feel our heart race, our mouth may dry up and we may experience sweaty palms. The nerves are communicating messages to all of these organs.

What we may not be aware of is that the stress response is also connected to the liver. This triggers the release of sugar or glucose. And how can I forget that the nerves are also connected to the gut. Hence why stress affects digestion by affecting the flow of stomach acid, gut bacteria and also the movement of the gut. You may have heard of Irritable Bowel Syndrome where the bowel movements alternate between diarrhea and constipation? Yes, that’s right, the stress response is an important player in this condition. Stress also affects the thyroid, adrenal and hypothalamus glands.

So, what’s our ultimate goal when we’re thinking about the stress reaction? BALANCE. We’re trying to seek balance between sympathetic and the parasympathetic. Now, often, and we don’t realize that we could be in a state of chronic stress. Remember the stress reaction is there to protect us. We need to be alerted to danger, for example, when we’re crossing the road, so we save ourselves. But in today’s world, we may be going through chronic stressWe are spending more time in the sympathetic response compared to the parasympathetic response. And that causes the body to be in a constant state of imbalance.

Imagine the impact of chronic stress on our organs over time, be it weeks, months or even years. Overtime, chronic stress can lead to symptoms anxiety, sleep difficulties, fatigue, bloating and the irritable bowel symptoms.

So how do we deal with the stress response? Firstly, we may not even realize we are in the sympathetic response throughout the day. It may have become our normal. So, take a moment to pause and do a check in. How are you feeling? Do you have symptoms that could be related to stress?

Disclaimer: This is general advice only. Please see your healthcare professional if you are suffering from stress and anxiety.

By Dr Shami Barathan