Physical Symptoms of Stress
How Stress Distresses Your Body
Think about the last time you were startled, scared, or embarrassed. Maybe the phone rang at dawn. ("Bad news," you think.) Or a car pulled out in front of you. ("What an idiot!") Or you were called on to speak in public. ("People are staring at me.")
Did your heart begin to pound? Your mouth feel dry? Your palms perspire? These are all common, easily detectable reactions to a stressful incident. But stress is much more than a state of arousal: It's a three-stage bodywide reaction, a mosaic of measurable changes in virtually every organ of the body.
During the alarm phase, your adrenal glands (endocrine glands perched above your kidneys) discharge powerful hormones (such as cortisone) into your bloodstream. These hormones travel to distant organs such as your heart, brain, lungs, stomach, and kidneys, raising your blood pressure, speeding your breathing, tensing your muscles, and triggering other changes.
As the alarm reaction subsides, your body adapts to the stressful demand-or tries to, anyway-and the initial discomfort fades. The butterflies in your stomach settle down, your palms don't sweat as much, and you get through it. This stage- called resistance- is the opposite of the alarm stage and can last indefinitely, depending on how stressful the demand is and how well you cope with it.
But suppose you never get used to speaking in public? Suppose you grit your teeth as you battle teenage Ninja traffic warriors driving to work every day? Suppose bad news seems to grow every time the phone rings? Under continued stress, the body exhausts its supply of adaptive energy.
During this stage of exhaustion the initial stress reactions- heightened blood pressure and so forth- reappear, but now they're nearly irreversible.
If you feel tired, jittery, or ill when you're under a lot of stress, it's no wonder: Unrelenting stress exerts wear and tear on almost every part of your body, from neurons in your brain to the muscles in your feet.
Stress can alter the way your body handles cholesterol in such a way that the heart can be damaged, for example. And it can weaken your immune system, leaving you vulnerable to infections (like the flu) or cancer.
Anxiety, depression, mouth ulcers, angina, heart arrhythmias, muscular pain, digestive problems, reproductive disorders, and skin ailments are other by-products of stress. In fact, Hans Selye, M.D., the stress research pioneer, said that much disease is caused not by germs or poison, but by failure to cope with stress.
Luckily, relaxation acts as an antidote for stress, counteracting it before it can sabotage your health.