How Does Stress Affect Health?

Written by Amy Pusey (last updated April 17, 2009)

Imagine if a one-word summation of the 21st century was stress. What do you imagine future generations would think about our supposed progresses in industry, if the sacrifice was individual well-being? Stress is so common these days it is considered a part of every day life. Now, keep in mind that not all stress is bad for you because in small quantities it helps individuals rise to the challenges they must face, and it is a normal response of the body. It is when stress becomes the overwhelming factor in our lives when we realize the engine is sputtering because the tank has run out of gas.

Stress is not an emotion, and it is not just a feeling we experience when the demands on us become too great, but there is an actual physical response to the stress that is perpetuated by the activities of our daily routines. The reaction to stress actually begins in the nervous system when the body reacts to perceived concerns or threats, by releasing cortisol and adrenaline, which are our stress hormones. There sudden presence creates an immediate response from our bodies by putting us on alert to get ready to act. Some of the ways in which are bodies react to stress may include:

  • Fast breathing. An alarmed or worried state can alter the rhythm of your breathing, making it become fast and shallow.
  • Rapid heartbeat. If you detect a concern or threat, your anxious reaction will put your body in overdrive forcing the heart to pump blood more quickly, which causes the sensation of your heart beating out of your chest.
  • Attuned senses. Incredibly alert to what is around you and what you may hear, see, and touch.

You may not believe this, but stress actually works to protect our minds and bodies, as long as it is controlled and does not exceed the natural limits we can normally handle. How does it work to our advantage? Appropriate levels of stress assist us in remain focused and alert, as well as energize our bodies, so that we have the wherewithal to react to a stress-inducing situation, such as giving first aid to a child who has cut his knee, or the concentration to a fireman rescuing someone from a burning building. When stress reaches the outer limits of our control, this is when we see its damaging effects on: health, work productivity, and overall quality of life.

Chronic, or ongoing, stress can negatively impact every bodily system, including nervous, immune, and reproductive; it can cause obesity and digestive problems. Long-term exposure to unhealthy stress can instigate severe health problems. In fact, it can develop a chemical imbalance in the brain making a person more susceptible to anxiety and depression, which can become very serious mental health disorders. According to the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory conducted by Behavioral Healthcare Inc., the following are the 'Top Ten Stressful Life Events:'

  1. Spouse's death
  2. Divorce
  3. Marriage separation
  4. Jail term
  5. Death of a close relative
  6. Injury or illness
  7. Marriage
  8. Fired from job
  9. Marriage reconciliation
  10. Retirement

When we begin to reach our limits for handling stress, our body will give us warning signals or alerts that we can identify, if we pay attention. They are measured in four categories of symptoms: emotional, behavioral, physical and cognitive (perception.) Here are examples of symptoms for each category:

  • Emotional: irritable, moody, unhappy, or lonely
  • Behavioral: isolating you from others, procrastinating, smoking or drinking to relax, or developing nervous habits
  • Physical: chest pains, nausea, loss of libido, or body aches and pains
  • Cognitive/Perception: poor judgment, racing thoughts, inability to concentrate, or memory difficulties

Remember, some stress is good for you because it will help you concentrate and meet those hastening deadlines. But, if your body is telling you that it has had enough, take the time to listen to it and soon enough you will be relaxed and revitalized.

Author Bio

Amy Pusey

With over 18 years experience in operations and human-resource management, Amy Pusey uses her skills in her consulting and freelance writing activities. She is a freelance writer for, as well as a resume writer for ...


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