The stress-disease connection – how does stress affect the body and our health? When we first get stressed, like right now, as I give this presentation, the body experiences physical changes.
How Stress Affects the Body
My heart is racing. I have no saliva in my mouth, and fortunately, I had breakfast four hours ago because my digestion has stopped. Instead, all the energy is being redirected to my extremities. I can feel my palms sweaty. What else is happening? As my heart is accelerating, my body will actually retain salt and keep me from urinating to raise the blood pressure. This is done so that oxygen can be delivered quickly to power muscles. When we stress, our bodies prepare us for action. Another thing that happens in the body is that the liver releases glucose to produce more energy. The muscles are also contracting to get tense and ready to leap, run, and respond in whatever way necessary. In the first moment of stress, we actually don’t feel pain or barely feel pain. This is the case, for example, when you see people in sports. They don’t feel the pain until they’ve stopped. If you’ve ever had an accident, you won’t feel any pain at first. This happened to me in November when I sliced my finger. It wasn’t until I got to the hospital to get stitches that I started noticing my finger hurting. But until that moment, I was in this initial stress response, and nothing hurt.
Also, to avoid getting an infection, your body will raise your inflammatory markers at the first sign of stress. Imagine that if you are running away from a saber tooth tiger and cut your foot on a sharp stone, your body will make sure you don’t bleed out or get an infection as you escape from danger. And the immune system is not focused on detecting and killing cancer cells and repairing the body. In the moment of a stress response, these day to day tasks is not a priority. Also, the body’s body is the serum cholesterol, and the free fatty acids are released into the blood. And at first, our ability to focus increases, and it even feels like time slows down.
Short-term Stress Response
- Reduced saliva, peristaltic muscle movement altered (too fast or too slow), increased hydrochloric acid in the stomach. Redirecting energy to power other parts of the body.
- Heart rate is accelerated, salt is retained, and urination is reduced to raise blood pressure to deliver oxygen to power muscles.
- The liver releases more glucose to produce more energy.
- Muscles contract to prepare for action & pain is lessened.
- Inflammation increases to prevent infections from injury.
- Cancer cell death decreases
- Serum cholesterol and free fatty acids in the blood increase
- Focus increases.
This stress response happens if you are chased by a cyber tooth tiger, fighting traffic, or worried your spouse is upset with you. The same stress response is produced. The problem with this is when your thinking or ruminating about something you did wrong or worried about something you might do wrong, your body prepares for action.
“When we encounter symbolic stressor, our bodies are altered in the same manner, although we do not use the changed physiology by responding with some action. Therefore we build up stress products.” – Greenberg, J. S. (2017), Comprehensive Stress Management
We build up stress products in the body. And when this happens over, and over every day, the minute the alarm clock goes off, hurry to get dressed, hurry to have breakfast and pack lunches, hurried in slow traffic, deadlines, hurrying to pick up the kids…and all the while worrying about what your boss said last week, the stress response becomes ongoing. The body continues to send energy away from digestion, and the gut becomes dysregulated. You get bloating all the time, constipation, diarrhea or both. Anytime you eat, you have stomach cramps. Your blood pressure goes up, and it tends to stay at those levels. Your body has increased the pressure to respond quickly, but you are not going anywhere. The liver continues to release glucose, yet your body doesn’t use it. And then we have the muscles that are tensed and ready for action. But if the action is just you thinking about a deadline and thinking about 101 ways it can go wrong; you begin getting these strange aches and pains. And what’s interesting about stress is that, though at first with that first adrenaline shot, we don’t feel pain, as time unfolds and we continue to stress, and the body releases cortisol and the glucocorticoids, and the perception of pain actually increases. And if the immune system is still on overdrive – over inflammation – our wounds can’t heal well.
I had a client who had broken her wrist in the middle of completing a work project. And three months later, her doctor was telling her that the bones weren’t healing properly. And so we investigated what was happening in the body and found that the body wasn’t in repair, replace, restore mode because of all the stress. It was still in fight or flight. Stress was not letting her body heal.
Another thing that happens is that stress creates inflammation to keep infection at bay. Once that first stage is complete, cortisol will kick in. This will regulate the inflammation and calm the body down to begin the process of repair. When the stress is ongoing, however, the body no longer reacts to that cortisol. And the inflammation keeps increasing and increasing, affecting other parts of the body. The immune system stopped searching and killing cancer cells at the start of our stress and has continued to be on overdrive and thus continues not to pursue cancerous cells. So those cancer cell begins to proliferate. And then as well, the cholesterol and the free fatty acids accumulate in the blood, and the sympathetic nervous system gets dysregulated. Lastly, our concentration that at first was very focused gets fatigued and we can no longer concentrate properly. Yet, we continue to have persistent thoughts about, ‘what am I going to do?’ and ‘What if…’. And that keeps us from sleeping. And thus keeps us relaxing and letting our bodies repair, replace and renew as we sleep deeply.
Long-term Stress Response
- Dysregulation digestive system.
- High blood pressure
- Dysregulation glucose
- Chronic muscles tension & increased perception pain
- Decreased wound healing and resistance to infection
- Increased inflammation in the body
- Cancer cell proliferation
- Serum cholesterol and free fatty acids accumulate in the blood
- Dysregulations sympathetic nervous system
- Decreased concentration, and disturbances in sleep and mood
And so then what happens? Over the long term, stress produces chronic disease.
Overstress Leads to Chronic Disease
Over time, the ongoing stress can lead to chronic disease.
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Chronic lower back pain
- Heart disease
As you look back at the stress response markers, you can see how these diseases can develop. Thus to stay healthy or return to health after getting diagnosed, we need to address stress. The mind has an important role in our health and in healing.
Stay tuned for part II: Stress Management or sign up for our Reducing the Stress Response Course for hypnotherapists and NLP practitioners.