“Stress is an ignorant state. It believes that everything is an emergency. Nothing is that important.” – Natalie Goldberg
Stress manifests when someone experiences excessive levels of emotional or mental pressure. This emotional or mental pressure creates distress – a harmful psychological state that can damage both mind and body.
It is not hyperbole to say that stress can kill you. This fact and the near universal presence of stress in daily life does not bode well for individual and public health. Consider some of these alarming statistics:
- 77% of people regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress.
- 73% of people regularly experience psychological symptoms caused by stress.
- 33% of people feel “they are living with extreme stress.”
- 48% of individuals report lying awake at night due to stress.
- 48% of people cite stress as having a negative impact on their personal and professional life.
The human body consists of 78 organs total; all of which are divided into 13 “major” organ systems.
Of all organs, five are considered vital: the brain, heart, kidneys, liver and lungs. Why do we mention this? Because stress negative affects them all, particularly the vital organs.
In this article, we discuss stress’ impact on 10 major organ systems. We’ll also provide some effective ways of destressing the body and mind (including the organs of course)!
This Is What Happens To Your Body When You’re Overstressed
1. Cardiovascular System
The cardiovascular system consists of our heart and blood vessels and is a potentially life-threatening target for chronic high stress. Cardiovascular disease accounts for approximately 610,000 deaths every year in the United States – or 1 in every 4 fatalities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is the leading cause of death for both men and women.
More research continues to link cardiovascular disease and stress. The presence of stress, particularly combined with other risky behaviors (e.g. smoking, alcohol abuse), is thought to increase one’s risk drastically to this disease.
2. Nervous System
The brain and spinal cord are “the central division“ of the nervous system. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) “has a direct role in physical response to stress); which is divided into the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).
Stress starts, ends, and everything in between, within the brain. Stress initiates the “fight or flight” response and releases stress hormones that spread throughout the body, causing “the heart to beat faster, respiration to increase, blood vessels in the arms to dilate,” in addition to other side effects.
In short, chronic stress is not good for the brain.
3. Respiratory System
The bronchi, larynx, lungs, nose, pharynx, and trachea forms the respiratory system. The brain’s fight or flight response causes one to breathe harder, sometimes to the point that one experiences hyperventilation.
Panic attacks – a sudden feeling of acute and disabling anxiety – is a common medical condition in those with chronic stress.
4. Musculoskeletal System
Our bones, joints, and muscles make up the musculoskeletal system. As we’re all privy to, stress has a way of causing our body to tense up. In an acute state, this tension is released and “that is that,” as they say. However, chronic stress “causes the muscles in the body to be in a more or less constant state of guardedness;” chronic painful conditions and musculoskeletal disorders can manifest in this state.
5. Reproductive System
Our reproductive system encompasses the gonads, accessory organs (e.g. prostrate, uterus), Genitalia, mammary glands, and genital ducts (male).
For both men and women, the reproductive system is influenced by the nervous system. In men, the ANS produces testosterone and activates the sympathetic nervous system to create arousal. For women, stress adversely affects women across a range of functions: menstruation, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), menopause and sexual desire.
During times of stress, the brain releases cortisol which, over a period of time, may disrupt the normal function of anatomic reproductive components.
6. Endocrine System
The adrenals, hypothalamus, pancreas, parathyroid, pineal gland, pituitary gland, ovaries, testes, and thymus and make up the endocrine system.
One again, the brain initiates the release of stress hormones, cortisol and epinephrine, via the hypothalamus. The adrenals, located near the kidneys, produces cortisol and epinephrine; this heightens the body’s stress awareness levels.
The liver produces glucose during the abov-ementioned process, which would generally provide aid during fight or flight mode. However, this excess blood sugar could lead to Type 2 diabetes in vulnerable demographics, including the obese and some races (e.g. Native Americans).
Managing stress is important to maintaining a normal blood sugar level – and potentially avoiding diabetes in certain situations.
7. Integumentary System
This system includes the hair, nails, and skin. The integumentary system plays an important role in maintaining the body’s equilibrium, “including protection, temperature regulation, sensory reception, biochemical synthesis, and (nutrient) absorption.”
For the integumentary system to function properly, other internal systems must also be maintained. Stress disrupts the systematic operation of this system, which can result in decreased blood flow to the skin, skin inelasticity, destabilization of glandular functions, and disrupt tissue restoration.
8. Digestive System
The digestive system includes primary organs – the esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines; and accessory organs – the rectum, appendix, gallbladder and pancreas.
Consuming more food, alcohol, and nicotine can result in acid reflux or heartburn – a common problem for those with chronic stress. Stress also increases stomach sensitivity, which can worsen the symptoms mentioned above.
Chronic stress may lead to severe stomach pain, ulcers, and other conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Ways to combat stress!
Learning how to properly manage stress is essential to both preventing and treating any real or potential medical conditions. Below are some effective methods of stress reduction according to the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC).
- Lifestyle changes: stress reduction and positive changes to one’s lifestyle are inseparable. Improving overall health and ability to manage stress is often accomplished through getting regular exercise, eating a well-balanced diet, and avoid excessive consumption of alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco.
- Relaxation methods: UMMC is an academic institution with an acute focus on relaxation methods and alternative therapies. Some of their recommendations include: acupuncture, deep breathing, meditation, muscle relaxation, massage therapy, and biofeedback.
- Herbal remedies: These include aromatherapy, consumption of valerian – an herb with sedative qualities, and use of kava – a root that has been effective in reducing anxiety and stress.
(Note: herbal therapies are not well-tolerated by all. Depending on past and current medical history; herbs, supplements, and other homeopathic medications may cause serious side effects. As with any type of treatment – holistic or prescriptive – it is advisable to consult with a physician or schedule a physical examination.)
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