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Stress is a normal part of life for everyone, as it is the body’s reaction to change. The Oxford English Dictionary explains stress as the “feeling of being overwhelmed or unable to cope with mental or emotional pressure.” The body’s stress response system is designed to be self-limiting, meaning that “once a perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal” and as adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, one’s heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, allowing other systems to resume functioning at optimal levels. Chronic stress, however, can have a profound impact and even alter brain physiology, according to brain research. Studies have found that “chronic stress leads to structural degeneration and impaired functioning of the hippocampus and the pre-frontal cortex, which may account for the increased risk of developing neuropsychiatric disorders, including depression and dementia.” Stress affects all systems of the body including:

  • Muscular system: the muscular system is an organ system consisting of skeletal, smooth, and cardiac muscles. It permits movement of the body, maintains posture, and circulates blood throughout the body. Stress causes muscle tension, which can lead to unwanted effects like lactic acid buildup, episodic pain, muscle spasms, fatigue, limited mobility, and further stress.
  • Respiratory system: the respiratory system’s primary function is to deliver oxygen and remove carbon dioxide. Stress can cause respiratory symptoms, such as shortness of breath and rapid breathing, as the airway between the nose and the lungs constrict.
  • Circulatory system: the circulatory system is comprised of three independent systems (cardiovascular, pulmonary, and systemic) that work together and are responsible for the flow of blood, nutrients, oxygen, hormones, and other gases, to and from cells. It helps the body maintain a normal body temperature and fight off disease. JAMA Network explains that “stress can cause increased oxygen demand on the body, spasm of the coronary blood vessels, and electrical instability in the heart’s conduction system. Chronic stress has been shown to increase the heart rate and blood pressure, making the heart work harder to produce the blood flow needed for bodily functions.”
  • Endocrine system: made up of a complex network of organs and glands, the endocrine system uses hormones to coordinate and control the body’s metabolism, reproduction, energy levels, growth, and development, as well as response to injury stress and/ or mood. 
  • Gastrointestinal system: the gastrointestinal system includes the mouth, pharynx (throat), esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, rectum, and anus. It also includes the salivary glands, liver, gallbladder, and pancreas, which make digestive juices and enzymes that help the body digest food and liquids. Stress is associated with changes in gut bacteria which in turn can influence mood.
  • Nervous system: the nervous system is the center of all mental activity including memory, thought, and learning, as it is the major controlling, regulatory, and communicating system in the body. Chronic stress causes continuous activation of the nervous system which can trigger problematic physiological reactions. 

Prolonged exposure to toxic stress can cause the body to enter a stage of exhaustion, which is accompanied by symptoms of burnout, fatigue, depression, anxiety, and reduced stress tolerance. This will cause the body’s immune system to continue to weaken. It is impossible to pinpoint an exact timeframe that one’s body may begin to shut down from stress, as there are a variety of contributing factors that inform one’s nuanced and distinct stress response.

Further Information and Support

For most of us, life can be very stressful, leading us to feel emotionally charged, which can cause anxiety, panic attacks, depression, and getting stuck in a cycle of being burdened with negative thoughts. Navigating through the challenges and emotional turmoil of life can be overwhelming, but you do not have to go through it alone. Engage Treatment is a Joint Commission Accredited professional psychological practice. We specialize in treating children, teens, and young adults struggling with depression and anxiety through community-focused treatment plans that incorporate a carefully selected combination of therapeutic interventions. Our compassionate, multidisciplinary practitioners are devoted to providing the highest quality of care that helps ignite positive change and enables clients to reach optimal health and well-being. Please do not hesitate to reach out for guidance. We are happy to answer questions and provide you with any additional information. Feel free to call us at 805-497-0605 or email us at [email protected]. You are also welcomed to get in touch by filling out our contact form. We look forward to connecting and having the opportunity to discuss how we might best be able to support you.

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