Chronic Stress and the Body

When we think of stress we often presume that it is an experience isolated to the mind. While stress is a psychological phenomena that is often reflective of our internal and emotional experiences, it also has a significant impact on our physical bodies. As a stress and social anxiety therapist in NYC , I find that it is important to pay attention to what the body is telling us when we experience stress. In conjunction with psychotherapy, implementing mindfulness, relaxation exercises and breath work, helps to manage the impact that stress has on all of us.

Stress serves many purposes that are essential to keeping ourselves alert, safe and responsive to any potential threat. Stress can be normal and healthy when our bodies self-regulate and become less activated after the stressful event has subsided. Chronic, or persistent stress, is where the trouble lies. Chronic stress keeps us in a consistently hypervigilant state of being and doesn’t allow our bodies to regulate as they should in response to a stressful event because we are repeatedly exposed to a perceived threat without any break in between. Chronic stress affects how we feel and how we think, but it also impacts our physiological systems, including: the musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, nervous, gastrointestinal, endocrine and reproductive systems.

Our bodies can become rigid and tight when exposed to stress, resulting in muscle tension. Chronic muscle tension is a stress reflex that, when sustained, can result in physical symptoms such as migraine headaches and neck or back pain. Stress can cause the lungs to constrict due to short, shallow breathing, hindering the flow of oxygen throughout the body resulting in our feeling lightheaded or dizzy. Chronic stress can increase your heartbeat, causing sustained levels of adrenaline continuously pumping blood throughout the body, resulting in high blood pressure. Chronic stress can cause increased production of cortisol, a “stress hormone.” Cortisol is normally regulated by the body, and increases and decreases based on what the body determines is necessary to help control your mood, fear and motivation, as we manage stress in our lives. If you are in a constant state of heightened stress, your cortisol levels may remain elevated, commonly resulting in anxiety, depression or insomnia. Neurons, or nerve cells, play an important role in the body, transmitting information and stimuli throughout the body. The neurons in the gut are in constant communication with the brain. Stress impacts our neurons, altering the functioning of the gut-brain communication and affects our ability to think, concentrate, our moods, our appetite and digestion. When stressed, the body can direct its energy toward the “flight, fight or freeze” response, causing the nervous system to release adrenaline and cortisol in the body. This can cause the heart to beat faster, respiration rate to increase, blood vessels to dilate, digestive processes to change and glucose levels in the bloodstream to rise. Normally when the stressful event is over, the body reverts back to normal levels of functioning. Chronic stress consistently puts strain on the nervous system, failing to allow for the body to relax back to its homeostatic state, slowly wearing down the physical body. Chronic stress can affect testosterone and sperm production, as well as sexual desire and menstrual cycles. Bottom line, chronic stress can take a serious toll on the body, leaving us both emotionally and physically depleted.

I mention all of this because we can sometimes lose track of how vitally important it is to tend to our bodies as well as our minds when we experience stress. This is just one reason why engaging in mindfulness, relaxation and breath work is so important to pair with your psychotherapy. By making these exercises a part of your routine, you are giving yourself an entirely additional toolset to combat, manage and lower your stress level. To use therapy as an example: As a therapist who deals with depression, I know that keeping all of our thoughts, fears and worrisome behaviors bottled up inside can result in our feeling sad, lonely, isolated, angry or afraid. By releasing what you hold inside of you, you are taking steps to reduce how overwhelmed you are emotionally. It is the same with the body. The more you allow yourself to tend to the impact that stress has on the body, the greater the opportunity there is to reduce the hold those same emotions have on you. A calmer and more relaxed body is a more emotionally regulated and less stressed person.

Here are three different techniques that are simple to learn, easy to integrate into daily life, and help to address physical symptoms resulting in stress reduction. Diaphragmatic Breathing, Body Scan and Progressive Muscle Relaxation. Try to commit to one of them that appeals to you and try to perform it every day, or every other day, over the course of week or so and see if it has the intended effect of relaxing your body and mind. By tending to your physical self, you are taking proactive steps to reduce the impact that sustained stress has on the mind as well as our bodies.