Health Risks and the Long-term Impact of Stress
A short period of stress may not have significant effects because the body resets to “normal” after the threat passes. However, chronic stress and stress symptoms can wreak havoc on many parts of the body.
The musculoskeletal system is a common source of trouble for chronic stress sufferers. When muscles remain in a tense, guarded state for a long time, it can cause tension and migraine headaches and shoulder, back, and neck pain. Chronic pain can also prompt the release of more stress hormones, creating a vicious circle.
While the immediate respiratory effects of stress might not be troublesome for people without respiratory conditions, it can be dangerous for people with some disorders.
Research has also found acute stress can trigger asthma attacks and, in people with some anxiety disorders, may prompt panic attacks, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). Chronic or acute stress can also exacerbate conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Chronic stress is also notoriously hard on the cardiovascular system. Severe, potentially life-threatening conditions and events, such as high blood pressure (hypertension), stroke, and heart attack, can occur because of chronic or extreme stress.
Chronic stress can influence neurons and bacteria in the gut, causing difficulties including pain, heartburn, diarrhea or constipation, bloating, and acid reflux.
Research also indicates a strong connection between the brain and the gut. Chronic stress may contribute to or exacerbate conditions such as depression and anxiety. While stress does not cause stomach ulcers (a common misconception), it may aggravate ulcers’ symptoms.
Prolonged stress impacts the nervous system as well. It can lead to overall wear-and-tear on the body, decreased immune system efficiency, increased risk of illness, and slower healing.
According to Healthline, while the initial stress response can boost testosterone, it can decrease sex drive long-term. It can also affect menstruation, causing intense premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and irregular or heavy periods. It may also reduce fertility and exacerbate symptoms of menopause.
Chronic stress can influence a person’s dietary habits, too, leading to weight loss or, more often, gain. For people who struggle with overeating, emotional eating, or eating disorders, this can be particularly problematic and may lead to dangerous weight changes.