by Alejandra "Alex" Ruani — Get free science updates here.
Worry, tension, panic, mental exhaustion, anger, rumination, sadness, anxiety, fear, burnout…
When felt intensively or often, then you’re subject to ‘psychological stress’.
But, how many ways can psychological stress damage your health?
You may be shocked. In fact, you will be if you keep reading this article, as you’re going to get an education on the nasty impact that mental stress can have on your body in three particularly sneaky ways.
I’ll start by separating ‘normal’ stress from major life stressors and go onto explain how they can both end up damaging your health in some pretty alarming ways.
‘Normal’ stressors are those daily crunches: meeting deadlines, paying your bills, commuting to work, juggling family responsibilities, couple communication challenges, finding time to exercise, planning dinner, and a lack of sleep, just to name a few.
They have a weight of their own, but by themselves, they don’t exactly squash you.
If they’re piled together, that’s another story.
Major life stressors
Then there are the bigger ones: chronic illness and disease, tragic accidents, having a loved one pass away, moving home, dealing with a bad boss/colleague/client, losing your job, family issues, personal relationship problems, planning a wedding, and even holidays! Stressors like these can increase your risk of illness.
Obviously, the answer is wide open depending on what’s going on in your life. However, it is clear that stress can trigger a tsunami of negative reactions and automatic responses that flood us at various levels.
Stress can affect us physically through stomach aches, tension in our shoulders, diarrhoea, cold sores and headaches. You’ve probably experienced at least one of those in the past – probably all of them.
What you may not be considering are the insidious ways stress damages your health — emotionally, cognitively, and even on a deeper systemic level.
Here are three significant ways stress damages your health. It might be a good idea to take an introspective tour. See if things make sense to you, and hone in on better awareness.
1. Stress rips your gut apart
We’re not just talking about aches, ulcers and diarrhoea. That’s bad enough.
Our gastrointestinal track, otherwise known as the gut, is impacted at a much deeper level than simply digesting, assimilating and eliminating the food you eat.
When you’re stressed, three major things happen in your gut:
- nutrient absorption is decreased,
- oxygenation is diminished and
- blood flow slows as much as four times.
Chronic stress can slowly decimate gut health; especially if you’re cutting off oxygen and blood flow.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a kind of umbrella term for diarrhoea, discomfort, cramping, constipation, and bloating, affects up to one in five people in Britain.
Those who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome often notice symptoms during stressful periods in their life. Even healthy people can have an escalation of these symptoms during stressful life events.
2. Stress weakens your immunity
If you experience short-term drips of stress, the body can usually deal with it. Sometimes there are even benefits of this sort of stress, as the fight-or-flight response can keep us mentally sharp by boosting our brain with an adrenaline rush.
However, long-term stress will play havoc with the immune system. Researcher Professor Sheldon Cohen, of Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, says: “The immune system’s ability to regulate inflammation predicts who will develop a cold, but more importantly it provides an explanation of how stress can promote disease. Because inflammation plays a role in many diseases such as cardiovascular, asthma and autoimmune disorders, this model suggests why stress impacts them as well.”
3. Stress prematurely ages you
Ever heard of telomeres?
Telomeres are the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes (DNA molecules) that affect how quickly your cells age. They are sort of like the plastic at the end of shoelaces, keeping the end of chromosomes tied.
Scientists have evidence that lifestyle changes to reduce stress can prevent the chromosomes in our cells from unravelling.
Unravelling is bad.
You see, stress shortens telomeres. And shorter telomeres impair the ability of cells to divide properly. This means cells either undergo death or continue to function poorly. And these hobbling-along cells will alter the balance of your body and the success of healthy ageing.
On average, women with high stress levels have shorter telomeres. That’s equivalent to at least one decade of additional ageing compared to low stress women.
That is an incredible, eye-opening statistic that links telomeres, stress, and premature ageing.
And if that wasn’t enough damage, telomere shortening is associated with many forms of cancer, brain stroke, vascular dementia, cardiovascular disease, obesity, osteoporosis, and diabetes.
All three of these ways actually come full circle and tie in together.
Chronic stress decimates your gut health. This gut response produces inflammation. Inflammation in the body weakens your immune system. A weakened immune system will shorten telomeres. And shorter telomeres have been compared with a ‘bomb fuse’ that can detonate cancer and accelerate ageing.
You see how it works?
All these treacherous ways stress damages your health, your body cells and your well-being.
So, what can you do about it?
Simple things like tuning into a good song, deep reading, getting enough sleep, putting on a sweat every now and then, nurturing your body with superfoods, and even yoga and focused breathing can protect you, your mind, and your DNA from the negative effects of acute stress.
What do you think?
Share your story in the comments section below, and pass this onto any stressed-out friends and family members so they’re aware of the damage.
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