How Does Stress Affect the Body? Negative Effects of Stress: Review

Heather Campbell
 min read

How does stress affect the body? In more ways than you could think.

How Does Stress Affect the Body? Negative Effects of Stress: ReviewProlonged excessive stress is detrimental to everyone’s health, regardless of whether we are rich or poor.

As a whole, there is nothing wrong with a healthy dose of stress. Chronic stress, however, upsets our gut bacteria, lowers our immunity, accelerates aging and increases the risk of age-related diseases, and is extremely contagious. It can manifest itself in many ways, both physically and mentally.

An estimated 80-90% of primary care consultations are stress-related, and numerous studies have shown that stress is the cause of specific conditions.

This article describes how stress affects the body, so read on to discover how stress affects our immunity, brain, gut, and health, and find out how to manage it.

How does stress affect the body? Introduction

Stress can lead to the following conditions, among others:

  • anxiety disorders,
  • cancer,
  • hypertension,
  • sleep, concentration and memory problems,
  • cardiovascular diseases such as heart attacks and strokes,
  • PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder),
  • obesity,
  • burnout, and
  • an untimely death.

It is difficult to find a condition in which stress does not play a role, either as a cause or factor that exacerbates the problem.

Stress acts on several essential mechanisms that underlie health and disease.

And we also increasingly understand the (complex) ways in which stress has a detrimental impact on our health.

Stress wreaks havoc on our gut

We know that there is communication in both directions between the brain and the intestines. The vagus nerve plays an essential role in this.

So the saying “having a gut feeling” or “having butterflies in your stomach” turns out to have a scientific basis.

These are not external factors but internal, science speaks of “invironment” in this context.

For example, it has become clear that the bacteria in our gut, the microbiome, also play an essential role.

There is nothing wrong with a healthy dose of stress. Still, under prolonged stress, this harmonious interplay can become disturbed.

However, how the microbiome responds to stress may differ in each person.

Stress lowers our resistance

When our bodies experience acute stress, everything is done to fight or flee. Therefore, all other processes that are not life-essential are interrupted.

You can tell by digestion, which comes to a halt when stressed (“rest and digest”), resulting in a lack of appetite and diarrhea.

The same is true of our immune system, which works only when we are in resting mode. This also means that too much stress makes you more susceptible to all kinds of infections.

It used to be thought that stress could cause only one somatic condition, peptic ulcer, until it was discovered that a bacterium (Heliobacter pilori) was involved. So the apparent solution was antibiotics.

Later, scientists discovered that many people are carriers of that bacteria without getting an ulcer.

It became clear that stress is a significant factor in the story, allowing germs to outsmart our natural defense mechanisms.

The example also illustrates how the simple, reductionist model of one cause for one condition is too simplistic.

It is much better to take a holistic view, considering an interplay of many factors.

Stress is contagious

Stress also appears to be contagious:

Research shows that students have more stress hormones (cortisol) in their blood when a teacher shows signs of burnout.

Stress has negative effects in small and large ways

Stress has an impact on several levels, from the individual to the entire society:

  • It starts at the smallest level, with molecules that change under the influence of stress.
  • This, in turn, impacts cells, organs, individuals, groups, and the whole society.

So you can see that stress is not purely a personal issue and that a social phenomenon such as the increase in burnout can impact all other levels.

Stress over-stimulates the amygdala in our brain

When we experience stress or anxiety, the amygdala (an area of the brain) is activated. It sets in motion several biological processes.

But when the amygdala is overstimulated, you experience excessive stress.

However, research shows that when we can name our feelings, the activity of the amygdala decreases, and another part of the brain becomes more active: the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex.

That area is important for processing feelings and inhibiting behavior.

Hence, for example, people with reduced functioning of the prefrontal cortex (e.g., the elderly) are less able to regulate and control their emotions.

Stress accelerates aging and increases the risk of age-related diseases

Numerous studies have shown that chronic stress results in a shortening of telomeres.

This means that our cells are getting older. Therefore the risk of typical age-related diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease increases.

For example, people who experience high stress due to major setbacks and many daily worries were found to have shorter telomeres compared to more carefree peers.

This effect actually begins before birth: mothers who experience high stress levels during pregnancy have been found to give birth to children with shorter telomeres.

A poignant illustration of how some children are worse off from birth.

Environmental and other socio-cultural factors also ensure that some start life from a pole position, while the less fortunate are worse off from the start.

Stress causes inflammation

Stress also readies the body to defend against injuries expected due to physical violence. Therefore, stress causes inflammation (inflammatory responses).

Research shows that stress resulting from negative emotions such as anger and frustration results in more inflammation, while a positive mood reduces inflammation.

However, you can influence positive thoughts and your mood, which opens up a lot of prospects for reducing inflammation in this way.

Meditating can reduce inflammation

In an interesting experiment, experienced meditation practitioners were subjected to a test.

This test is based on the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST test), a procedure for introducing stress to human participants:

  • They were instructed to explain for five minutes in front of a sternly watching jury why they were the ideal candidate for a job.
  • In addition, just before the interview, a cream containing capsaicin (a substance that evokes an inflammatory response) was smeared on their forearm.
  • The conversation was also ostentatiously filmed to make the situation extra stressful.

The results were astounding. Compared to people who do not meditate, experienced meditators passed the test better:

  • They showed more resilience, and their well-being was less affected.
  • They also showed fewer inflammatory reactions on their forearm.

This suggests that people who meditate are more resilient to stressful situations and that meditation may help with chronic conditions, where inflammation plays an important role.

How to address stress?

The idea is not to eliminate stress from life altogether.

This is not desirable, not possible, and (fortunately) not necessary. But when stress affects us too long, too intensely, there is a problem.

As mentioned, some factors are out of your control, but there is quite a bit you can do yourself to keep from getting caught in stress.

Limit external sources of stress

On the one hand, it is necessary to reduce the external sources of stress. On the other hand, it is also required to focus on the internal factors that are causing you stress (or increasing stress).

The external factors or stressors are simply a collective term for all the outside things that cause us stress. It is the sum of all the major and minor irritations.

Indeed, our bodies also do not distinguish between work, home, or leisure stress. Instead, it is the totality of it that determines how significant the impact is.

First of all, to reduce stress, we must avoid long-term external stressors.

These might include difficult relationships or a job that continually causes unhealthy stress.

An unbiased party can help you

Of course, reducing or even avoiding these stressors is not always obvious. Between dream and reality, there is often a large divide.

Sometimes, it may be necessary to take a radically new path and make hard choices.

Combining these advantages and disadvantages is too complex, delicate, and far-reaching to give general advice on.

The only advice we can give is to also consider talking about this with an outsider (e.g., a coach or counselor).

This person should be someone who can make unbiased judgments, has no direct interest in your choices, and views things from the outside (objectively).

Limit the internal factors of stress

A second way to address stress is to focus on internal factors. This is more confrontational, but the advantage is that internal factors are much more amenable to change than external ones.

This will increase your carrying capacity and resilience. And unlike physical strength, these mental powers are much less subject to aging, quite the contrary.

Tip: Taking time to relax more is beneficial for yourself and those around you, as explained in our other article Why Is Relaxation Important for You and Those You Love?

How does stress affect the body? Conclusion

Stress is the cause of or contributes to many conditions and we must know how does stress affect the body.

For example, stress negatively affects our gut, immune system, and brain. For instance, it can cause inflammation and an increased risk of age-related diseases.

While we cannot control all stressors, we can take action to at least ensure that our exposure to both external and internal stressors is limited.

Professional help can be of great importance here. They can make an objective and unbiased analysis of your personal situation.

Related: Managing our stress is part of leading a healthy life. Find more healthy lifestyle tips in our other article Tips for a Healthy Lifestyle: 15 Top Tips to Improve Your Health

About Heather Campbell

As a nutritionist, my field of specialization is science-based nutritional advice but more importantly, it is my goal to share capturing and inspiring stories, examples and solutions which can help plus-size individuals overcome their specific difficulties. Read More