Ever been stressed? Of course you have! We all have. You’re probably quite familiar with the feeling, maybe it causes a knot in your stomach, a sleepless night, or a raging craving for something sweet.
We know that stress affects our physical and emotional health in many ways, but we most often think about the immediate effects of acute stress. However, stress isn’t just a feeling or emotion in the moment, it causes all sorts of havoc with our bodies over the long term. Learn how your body responds to stress, how stress can impact your health over time, and how to manage stress to optimize your well-being both now and into the future.
The Stress Response
To understand how we respond to stress, it’s helpful to understand how our autonomic nervous system works, so here’s a little refresher. The autonomic nervous system controls and regulates our internal organs without any conscious effort, and it also regulates our stress response. It has three parts: the sympathetic, parasympathetic, and enteric nervous systems.
- The parasympathetic system is often referred to as the “rest and digest” state. It’s a state of calm in which the body and brain are relaxed, and all systems are fully functioning.
- The sympathetic system is often referred to as the “fight or flight” state, is designed to respond to acute stress. When we evolved as humans, this system was designed to arm us to survive in threatening situations. When faced with a perceived threat, the sympathetic system causes the heart to beat fast; as your body directs blood to muscles and lungs, your pupils dilate to see better, and body systems that aren’t immediately essential, like digestion and reproduction, shut down.
- The enteric system is the fundamental nervous system of the gastrointestinal system. It regulates secretions in the gut and controls movement of food through the digestive system. While it can act independently of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems, it is often influenced by them. If the body is not stressed and is in a parasympathetic state, the enteric nervous system functions as intended – digestion and absorption of nutrients happens as it should. If not, it becomes disrupted and so do gastrointestinal functions.
Turning Off the Stress Switch
Your body was designed to respond to acute stress by shutting down unnecessary systems so that it can focus on critical systems to fight a perceived threat. It’s a normal response, but it’s only healthy if the body can return to a parasympathetic state soon after the threat is over. As many of us know, that isn’t always the case. When stress is ever present in our lives and we can never take the time to return back to a calm state of rest and digest, our bodies become chronically stressed and “stuck” in the fight or flight state.
When our bodies feel constantly stressed, they are constantly triggered to release stress hormones. Over time, the constant circulation of stress hormones throughout the body makes our adrenal glands tired and desensitized which can have detrimental effects on the body in both the short and long term.
Long Term Effects of Stress
You may have felt some of the short-term effects of stress, like an upset stomach, trouble sleeping, sugar or carbohydrate cravings, inability to focus, and getting sick easily. But these symptoms compound and manifest to cause complications that can become more severe in the long term.