Stress and Anxiety: How They Impact Your Overall Well-Being (Beyond Mental Health)

Stress and Your Physical Health

In today’s fast-paced world, stress has become an inevitable part of daily life for many of us. We know that stress can take a toll on our mental well-being, but it can have a profound impact on our physical health as well. Here, we take a look at the intricate connection between stress and physical health, with helpful information from local medical professionals.

What Is Stress?

Before delving into the physical effects of stress, it’s important to understand what stress actually is and how it affects the body. Stress is the body’s natural response to perceived threats or challenges, which triggers the “fight or flight” response. When fight or flight is activated, our bodies are flooded with hormones like cortisol and adrenaline which are designed to protect us from harm, quickly preparing our bodies to either escape or defend ourselves.

The fight or flight response is very helpful when facing a truly dangerous situation, but when the stress response is triggered more often and by situations that are not actually dangerous, it can cause a sharp decline in quality of life. Chronic stress, characterized by prolonged exposure to stressors without adequate relief or coping mechanisms, disrupts the body’s natural balance and often causes physiological changes that can impact various organ systems.

stress and anxiety | graphic illustration of woman having stress and anxiety

Stress and Your Cardiovascular System

Chronic stress is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases such as hypertension, heart disease, and stroke. According to the American Heart Association, stress can cause high blood pressure, which in turn causes an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. Additionally, chronic stress often leads people to seek unhealthy coping mechanisms such as smoking, overeating, and a sedentary lifestyle, all of which further exacerbate the risk of cardiovascular dysfunction. 

Dr. Henry Cheng, a cardiologist with The Chattanooga Heart Institute, says, “We see a lot of patients with symptoms and consequences of stress, such as palpitations, chest tightness, shortness of breath, and hearing blood flow in their ears. After running tests to make sure the heart is okay, I recommend patients see a therapist or psychiatrist to help them control or reduce their stress and anxiety. Cardiac symptoms from stress usually improve or resolve once the underlying stress is controlled. Severe stress can weaken the heart and lead to stress-induced cardiomyopathy, which is generally reversible but can lead to hospitalization. A primary care physician or cardiologist may start the process of referring patients to a therapist or psychiatrist, as well as prescribe anti-anxiety medication to help start the process of relieving stress and its effects on the heart.”

stress and anxiety | depressed woman sitting on a window sill

Stress and Your Immune System

The immune system plays a crucial role in defending the body against pathogens and maintaining overall health. However, chronic stress can weaken the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to infections and illness. High levels of stress hormones, particularly cortisol, suppress immune function by inhibiting the production of lymphocytes – the white blood cells that normally help fight off infections. This makes your body more susceptible to illnesses and makes it harder to recover from infections.

Stress and Your Digestive System

Stress can wreak havoc on the digestive system, leading to a range of gastrointestinal problems such as indigestion, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), acid reflux, and more. 

When your body enters the fight or flight response, digestive functions are inhibited to conserve energy for more pressing needs like running or fighting. In normal conditions, the digestive system will function normally after the danger has been dealt with and the stress hormones have run their course. With chronic stress, the digestive system is interrupted more often and can have a much harder time recovering.

Stress and Your Endocrine System

The endocrine system, which regulates hormone production and secretion, is intricately linked to the stress response. Chronic stress can dysregulate the endocrine system, leading to hormonal imbalances that contribute to a variety of health problems. For example, prolonged exposure to stress hormones like cortisol can disrupt the balance of other hormones such as insulin, thyroid hormones, and reproductive hormones, increasing the risk of conditions like diabetes, thyroid disorders, and infertility.

Stress and Your Musculoskeletal System

Another way the fight or flight response prepares us for danger is by causing muscles to tighten, which is meant to help guard against injury and allow us to be more agile. With chronic stress, prolonged muscle tension can create musculoskeletal problems like tension headaches, neck and back pain, temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction, and general discomfort.

Stress and Your Respiratory System

Stress can impact respiratory function, exacerbating conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). During periods of stress, individuals may experience shallow breathing or hyperventilation, which can trigger respiratory symptoms and worsen existing respiratory conditions. Moreover, chronic stress can also impair lung function and weaken respiratory muscles, making it more challenging to breathe efficiently.

Stress and Your Skin

The skin is highly sensitive to stress, often reflecting internal imbalances through various skin conditions. Chronic stress can exacerbate existing skin conditions such as acne, eczema, and psoriasis, as well as contribute to the development of new skin problems. 

stress and anxiety | therapist having a session with her patient

Stress-induced changes in hormone levels, immune function, and inflammation can disrupt the skin’s barrier function, leading to increased susceptibility to infections, irritation, and premature aging. Additionally, impacts on the immune system can show up as slow-healing wounds, which increases the risk of infections and scarring.

Stress and Your Vision

Stress affects vision in several ways, including pupil dilation. In most cases, vision will return to normal after the stressful period is over. With chronic stress, however, excessive stress hormones can cause symptoms of vision loss which include dry eyes, eye strain, and eye twitching. Stress can also cause visual distortions like blurred vision, double vision, tunnel vision, and floaters. In some cases, stress-related inflammation can also cause diseases like glaucoma and optic neuropathy.

By understanding the physical effects of stress and adopting healthy coping mechanisms, reducing exposure to stressors, and prioritizing self-care, people with chronic stress can mitigate these negative effects and lead healthier, more resilient lives. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor about treatment options. From medications to lifestyle adjustments, there are many ways to address chronic stress and reduce its impact on your life and your health.

Picture of Henry Cheng, MD

Henry Cheng, MD

Cardiologist, The Chattanooga Heart Institute

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