The Impact of Chronic Stress on Your Health

04 May, 2020
The impact of chronic stress is similar to a hammer that constantly pounds on your health. But how exactly does it do it? What steps can you take?

The impact of chronic stress on one’s health is hard to measure. First of all, because stress doesn’t only manifest in one way. Secondly, because emotions can produce the physiological symptomatology of stress either partially or in its entirety.

In contrast, you must keep in mind that stress is a natural process that responds to your need to adapt to your environment and, therefore, plays a very positive role in your short term survival. However, it’s harmful if it’s very intense or prolongs.

Frequently, you may find situations that elicit a stress response in your daily life. This stress response arises mainly in situations characterized by their unpredictability or controllability. Also, it can be due to both external factors such as a traffic jam, a threat, or a loss or by internal factors such as self-demand and competitiveness.

However, there’s an influence in the way in which you interpret or confront it. This is because there are different types of tolerance for problems and, also, different thresholds. It all depends on the person for whom stress poses a health risk.

The impact of chronic stress on your health

Stress isn’t only related to emotional states but also to the state of health, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, endocrine, immune, sexuality, and disease behavior through psychophysiological pathways. In other words, stress has branches with different variables. Thus, they largely determine a person’s quality of life.

The mediation of the changes that occur in response to stressful situations in your health happens by psychophysiological pathways of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system (HHS) represented in three phases.

A woman with a headache.

The stages of chronic stress

Stage 1

  • The ANS acts in the 1st phase of stress called the alarm or fight-or-flight phase through its sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic (PNS) branches. There, the sympathetic branch activates the organism in situations of stress in order to face it and the parasympathetic branch inhibits it.  Thus, allowing the situation to be overcome and the stress response to end.

Activation of the sympathetic branch leads to an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, glucose release, increased plasma cholesterol, successive reductions, gastric secretions, dilation of the bronchi, reduced immune competence, increased size or activity of the thyroid, increased muscle tension, sweating, increased respiratory rate, hyperventilation, and stimulates the adrenal glands that release adrenaline and norepinephrine into the bloodstream.

Stage 2

  • The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system stage takes place in the 2nd phase of adaptation or resistance to the maintenance of the stressful situation. This route is slower and requires a longer exposure to the stressor. However, it also has more lasting and less positive health effects.

Activation of HHS leads to an elevation of the level of glucose in the circulation, fluid retention, and the inhibition of the secretion of hormones linked to reproduction, growth, and insulin. In addition, there’s a suppression of the activity of the immune system, an increase in gastric irritation, and the development of depressive feelings. This is due to the glucocorticoids that prepare your body to withstand stress in your health.

Stage 3

  • Finally, the 3rd and final phase of chronic stress occurs when the activation of the organism doesn’t decrease before the stressor or when it persists over time. The resources lose their ability to adapt and you begin to perform well below your physical and mental capacities. In other words, you force yourself and increase the risk of contracting or accelerating the progress of the disease.
A man with a headache.

Therefore, your response to stress is very important for your health. This is because it promotes active coping, thus developing coping strategies and emotional management. It also promotes the expression of feelings and emotions. It does so while identifying emotional discomfort and promoting the search for alternatives. Also, by increasing emotional communication and developing tolerance to frustration, among others.

  • Baeza Villarreal, J. C. (1995). Afrontamiento espontáneo contraproducente en trastornos por ansiedad. Bellaterra, Barcelona: Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.