We’ve all heard the phrase “stress kills”, but how? What are the effects of stress on the human body?
Ever since the 1950s, a guy named Selye paved the way for scientific research into the biological effects of stress on an organism. He identified a number of nasty effects that emotional stress can inflict on the human body. In order to explain them most easily, first, we have to go over a little bit of the nuts and bolts of how your nervous system works. Don’t worry, it won’t hurt.
Stress And Health Is All About The Autopilot
First off, your Central Nervous System (CNS for short), which is your brain and spinal cord, coordinates all of the zillions of activities going on in your body at any particular time. Some of those activities are big and voluntary… such as going for a jog. Some are subtle and automatic, meaning we don’t have to think about doing them.
Digestion is a good example. You don’t have to actually think through each and every chemical reaction to break down your breakfast burrito, and thank goodness for that, because most of us really suck at chemistry.
Since neurologists like to give things big names, they decided to divide the nervous system up into the stuff that you do voluntarily, and the stuff that you do involuntarily (or automatically). The automatic part of the nervous system they named the “Autonomic Nervous System“. Why not the “Automatic Nervous System”? Because that doesn’t sound anywhere near as impressive when you’re trying to show off to your friends, that’s why.
Those darn neurologists didn’t stop there. Once we started learning a lot more about the stress response and how various critters, including humans, respond under stress, they divided the automatic part of the nervous system into two more divisions: the sympathetic and parasympathetic.
Those are big words that really just stand for fairly simple concepts. It’s important to understand the difference, however, because that’s what’s going to explain the effects of stress on the human body.
Parasympathetic: Feed and Breed
Basically speaking, the parasympathetic nervous system (let’s just call it “feed and breed” from now on, it will be easier) is the mellowed-out version of you, physiologically speaking. All the various maintenance issues of the body are handled in this version of your autopilot nervous system. Digestion gurgles along, wounds get healed, tissues are repaired, your immune system is at its best, and reproductive functions are all a go.
You can think of it in terms of keeping house if you like. In Feed and Breed mode, the house gets cleaned, the trash gets taken out, and the lawn gets mowed. There is peace in the valley.
Sympathetic: Fight or Flight
The opposite end of the spectrum is the sympathetic nervous system, also called “Fight or Flight” mode (you may have heard this term before). This is your body in warfare mode. You are under attack, and everything in your body is shifted over to giving you every single edge possible for immediate survival.
Anything and everything that isn’t about fighting like crazy or running like the wind shuts down. In other words, digestion, reproduction… all those things from Feed and Breed mode get the big OFF switch, and instead, vision improves, skeletal muscles (your big mover muscles like your arms and legs) get a boost, and you’re essentially one big old adrenaline boost.
It’s an evolutionary survival mechanism. Remember, things weren’t always so (relatively) calm and peaceful for us. Back in the Stone Age, violence was commonplace. If you go walking down the trail and a huge bear jumps out and wants to eat your face, you want every fiber of your being devoted to running away or fighting your way out. Digestion? Who cares about that? It isn’t much good to be digesting your food nicely if YOU are now being digested nicely by the bear.
Chronic Effects of Stress
Of course, in the good old days, those stress episodes only lasted for a few minutes. Pretty quickly, the situation resolved in one way or another… either you got away from the bear, or you were dead. Either way, the stress response was over. And, so, your body could then switch back into Feed and Breed mode once the threat was gone (well, assuming that you lived).
And here’s the kicker. The stress response is only supposed to last a brief stretch of time. The majority of the time, you should be chugging along in Feed and Breed mode, keeping your body nicely maintained, with little brief bursts of Fight or Flight to get you through the occasional ugliness.
But in our modern world, that isn’t how it works. Our stresses are chronic, and so the effects of stress on our body compound over time. If you’re always in Fight or Flight mode, the house never gets cleaned (going back to our keeping house metaphor). The dishes pile up in the sink, the trash overflows out the trash can and onto the floor, the lawn gets all overgrown and nasty and the neighbors start eyeballing you for bringing down property values all around the neighborhood.
Or, more literally, our body can’t do all the many, many maintenance chores that are necessary to keep the machine running smoothly. And so, we start to fall apart, little by little, because we’re stuck in Fight or Flight and can’t get back to Feed and Breed.
Parts are Parts, and Stress is Stress
Hold on there, you say. I’m not being chased by bears. That’s stupid. I’ve never even seen a bear. So how can you say my stresses are chronic?
Simple. Your body responds to all stresses the same. Positive or negative, physical or emotional, it doesn’t matter… you pop into Fight or Flight mode.
So no, we don’t get chased by bears any longer, which is nice, but we do have things like jobs, mortgages, families, and all kinds of other sources of emotional stress that never seem to let up. And since our stress is chronic, the effects of stress follow suit. We get sick more easily. We have trouble focusing. We have trouble having kids.
Ever notice a couple who keeps trying and trying and trying to have kids, and they’re practically going nuts because it just isn’t happening, and finally they just throw their hands up and give up? Two weeks later, there’s a bun in the oven.
Well, sure. Because before, they were all riled up and stressing themselves out. Remember, one of the effects of stress is to depress reproductive function, because that’s Feed and Breed stuff, and not Fight or Flight. A fantastically fertile uterus never saved ANYONE from a charging bear.
And since our body doesn’t know any better… because it doesn’t think, it responds… you get two stressed out people who are stressed out because they can’t conceive BECAUSE they’re stressed out. Once the stress goes away, Feed and Breed kick back in, and suddenly yet another couple is out shopping for car seats.
It’s Not Absolute
I’ve kind of made it sound like there’s a big switch, with Feed and Breed on one side and Fight or Flight on the other, and never the two shall meet. Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. While one does tend to cancel the other out, it’s not an all-or-nothing sort of thing.
Instead, you sort of blend into stress, along a continuum. So instead of a switch, it’s more like a dial, with STRESS on one side and MELLOW on the other, and the more intense the stress, the more the dial gets turned in that direction. That’s a crude metaphor, but you get the idea.
And really, I haven’t gone into a lot of the specific physiological responses, like cortisol release, because frankly, this is already a really long article. However, now you have a good basic understanding of the effects of stress on the human body and why stress and health are so closely related.
So what’s to be done? Simple, really. Start reducing or removing sources of stress whenever possible.
Oh, I know, easy for me to say. Modern life is chock full of chronic stress. But sometimes, we set ourselves up for more than our fair share.
Try not to take on too much at once. Don’t expect yourself to be a superhero or cyborg of perfection. Let the little stuff go.
And remove other, non-emotional sources of stress. It all adds up like a bar tab; your body can’t distinguish between emotional, physical, chemical, or thermal stress. So, reduce your exposure to nasty chemicals like pesticides in your food. Take the stress off of your spine with chiropractic. Finally, give those cigarettes the boot. I know, some of this stuff we mentioned in earlier episodes- funny how it all overlaps.
The more you reduce those other sources of stress, the more you can take on surges of emotional stress without going so far into a stress state that your body can’t repair itself. And that’s how you say younger, longer.