Everyone has experienced stress at some point, and a solid part of the Psych2go readers might have experienced clinical anxiety as well. But what is stress exactly? What happens to your body when anxiety overtakes you, and what does stress do to your veins?
Let’s start off with what stress and anxiety are…
Stress is commonly defined as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension” that people experience when there are negative or emotionally and physically draining circumstances. Anxiety is defined as “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome” and in psychology, also when perceiving a real or imagined threat. That of course, as you will know if you’ve experienced clinical anxiety, sometimes you experience it even though you know there is no ‘real’ threat. Both of these definitions focus on the mental aspects, but of course both stress and anxiety have a lot of physical aspects too. Today we will be discussing how stress and anxiety affect your body.
Trigger warning: these descriptions of physical symptoms can sometimes have the effect of subconsciouly eliciting them in the reader. Please be watchful of your body while reading and stop i fit gets too much or if you’re particularly sensitive to these things.
1. Nervous system (no pun intended)
Yes, stress and anxiety can definitely make you feel nervous. You’ve probably heard of the fight-or-flight response, and stress and anxiety tend to activate this fight-or-flight feeling at least a little bit. This is related to your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Both your SN system and PN system are part of the autonomous part of the central nervous system, which controls most bodily functions you don’t have to think about: breathing, digesting your food, your heartbeat (x) .
The main difference between these is that the parasympathetic system takes care of the resting functions such as lowering your heartbeat at rest and taking care of your digestive system. The SN system controls the action state and the functions that are part of it. Your breathing rate goes up and your lungs expand a little so more oxygen can get to your lungs, your heartbeat quickens so that oxygen gets to your muscles. In this state the PN system is more suppressed, and digestion slows. When stressed or anxious your sympathetic nervous system becomes much more active, sometimes perhaps even overactive.
2. Digestion slows (and that can get pretty bad)
As – broadly speaking – the PN system takes care of resting and the SN system of activity, they have different effects on digestion. Most digestive processes take place during a calmer resting state. So naturally, the two systems have different effects during stress. When stress and anxiety get you into an “action” state, the digestion process is suppressed. This causes your food to be digested more slowly (x).
As most stress or fear responses don’t last super long, this is normally not that much of an issue. However, if your stress and anxiety last for a longer time, hours, maybe even days this can result in diarrhoea or a decreased uptake of nutrients. Not getting enough nutrients can increase other symptoms too, such as decreased sleep quality.
3. Unwanted or unhealthy weight loss
Because prolonged stress and anxiety decreases your digestion, your appetite is likely to suffer too, eventually (x). You might not feel as hungry as usual because of the stress, or just mentally not be in the mood to eat (x). There can be several reasons though, for weight loss, so if you are worried it’s always best to consult a health professional.
4. Sleep problems and exhaustion
When your mind and body are going 100mph because of the anxiety you’re experiencing, it sounds quite logical that your sleep will be affected too. You body won’t properly go back to its resting state, which can really keep you up at night. In the 2007 Stress and Anxiety Disorders Survey the researchers found that around 7 out of 10 adults with anxiety experience sleeping problems. Lack of sleep can really take its toll on your body, but we’re also prepared. We have an article on “11 sleeping tips for people with anxiety” (x). Sleeping troubles range from waking up during the night, trouble falling asleep or not feeling rested in the morning (x). Lack of sleep can have many effects on its own, but it can also increase the effects you are already experiencing from the stress and anxiety. These can include mood changes, trouble focusing, high blood pressure and possibly even a weakened immune system (x).
5. Muscle tension
Apart from difficulty relaxing mentally, also make it harder to relax your muscles. The constant tension can result in muscle aches that can last anywhere from a few minutes to days (x). There are muscle relaxation exercises that could help, so feel free to give those a try.
6. Very long-term effects include…
… wear and tear on your veins. Stress and anxiety cause your blood pressure to rise and research suggests that this increased pressure over a longer period of time can wear your veins more than average. In that way it could possibly slightly increase your chances of cardiovascular disease. It’s unclear by how much this chance would increase, and naturally it is neither a guarantee nor does it occur in everyone who has long term stress (McEwan & Stellar 1993).
Ah yes, the dreaded anxiety sweats; that horrible feeling when your hands get clammy and just wont dry anymore. Trust us, it is a normal response that the body has to stress. It’s actually also part of the fight-or-flight system we mentioned earlier. As your heart rate rises and gets your body ready for action and reaction, you get energized. This energizing process also raises your body temperature and sweating helps to cool it down better (x). But when you are anxious or stressed, and not in need of a primed body to run away from something, it’s just an annoying thing at a moment you don’t need it. All things considered, it’s interesting to see how some things like stress and anxiety can have effects beyond the mental ones. What others do you know or have you experienced? Let us know in the comments below or on Tumblr and Facebook.