Updated: Jul 31, 2022
Stress can affect your body in many different ways, some of which might not be immediately obvious, from your heart to your brain and immune system, worry can mess with your body, in both short-term and more permanent ways.
Decades of research have found that anxiety can impact your organs, nervous system, gut, and brain. Carrying stress around can make you more vulnerable to illnesses and infections — or make your immune system overreact and hurt your cells. Recent research has shown how it can hurt your gut, whiten your hair, and even shrink your brain. When under stress you experience a cascade of hormones. As the cascade spreads, it causes your heart to pound, your breathing to quicken, and sweat to start pouring, all of which are designed to help us cope with threats and danger. After danger passes, your body is meant to reduce these hormones to normal levels, but if you're under a lot of pressure all the time, they stay at elevated levels constantly.
Chronic stress can damage your body's defenses against viruses and infections. A review of the effects of strain on the body published in EXCLI Journal in 2017 found that studies have linked stress to poor immune system function, in part because when you're anxious, your body changes the way it secretes hormones that help the immune system. defenses against viruses and infections. A review of the effects of strain on the body published in EXCLI Journal in 2017 found that studies have linked stress to poor immune system function, in part because when you're anxious, your body changes the way it secretes hormones that help the immune system. "Stress leads to systemic inflammation, which can increase chronic pain and impair the immune system, leaving people more vulnerable to infections, from the common cold to flu," Dr. Julia Blank M.D., a family medicine physician also at Providence St. John's Health Center.
A 2019 study published in Microbial Pathogenesis found that it can actually help bacterial growth, making infections worse.
Sleep deprivation can physically alter your brain, making everyday tasks a struggle. A review of the science around anxiety and sleep published in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews in 2019 found that being stressed just after birth can affect our sleep all the way to adulthood.
Feeling worried over long periods can increase the likelihood of depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. Research in 2018 found that anxious people showed slight brain shrinkage compared to relaxed people, and the review in 2017 showed that worry can physically rewire the brain, changing its structure and the way its cells communicate.
If you feel gurgles in your digestive system whenever you're anxious or upset, you're not alone; the digestive system can be very sensitive to emotions. Research published in Frontiers in Microbiology in 2017 found that being under strain can damage the microbiome that helps your gut function, though the effects can differ widely from person to person.
Being anxious is a risk factor for poorer heart health overall, with stressed people more likely to show symptoms of cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, and other heart issues over the course of their lifetimes. A study published in Circulation in 2019 also found that race plays a role in the relationship between stress and heart health in women, too.
Busting anxiety is a good way to reduce its effects on your body and physical health. "Creating daily rituals will help reduce unwanted stress," Dr. Ross tells Bustle. Dr. Blank suggests finding hobbies that make you feel fulfilled and getting daily exercise if you can. You'll probably have your own individual ways of relieving the burdens of everyday life, whether it's doing a few laps in a pool or sitting in the lotus position for an hour. And the results will relieve your body as well as your mind.
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