What stress does to the body
Good stress vs. Bad stress
Stress isn't always a bad thing! Stress is simply the body's response to changes and can be positive or negative.
Good stress helps you focus on an objective and can be invigorating. It includes things like having a new baby, retirement, or learning a new skill.
Bad stress, on the other hand, makes you feel progressively worse both physically and mentally. It includes situations that seem to have no escape, like relationship problems, death of someone close, or legal troubles.
An ancient response to modern problems
We live in modern civilizations, we still have the brains of our ancient ancestors. Thousands of years ago, fighting stress was existential: hunter-gatherers had to worry about basic survival related to predators and finding food, and a misstep could mean the end of life.
Even though losing a job or relationship isn't a threat to our survival, our body still reacts as if it were. The response to stress is called the "fight-or-flight response" (based on when stress was literally a choice to fight or flee from a bear, for example).
Your body is flooded with hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which sharpen the senses and prepare you for emergency action. This can be incredibly helpful when you actually need to flee danger, act quickly, or perform well (like when giving a presentation), but the problem is that your body has the same response to all stressors (like ongoing legal troubles).
When the stress is ongoing and the response is as well, it becomes chronic stress, which wreaks havoc on your body.
What chronic stress does to the body
Nearly every system in the body is impacted by chronic stress:
You're more susceptible to contagious illness because of the negative impact of stress hormones on your immune system.
It makes you vulnerable to heart problems, including strokes and heart attacks.
Your digestive/gut health will be negatively impacted.
Stress impacts your reproductive system and can make you gain weight.
It impacts your mental health by rewiring the brain and making you more prone to anxiety and depression as well as memory problems.
You're more likely to experience chronic sleep disturbances.
The Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale
The stress scale from Holmes and Rahe lists 43 life events that can contribute to illness with "life change units". Using this scale you can assess your risk of life breakdown (for example, a score fo 300 would mean a 80% chance of health breakdown within 2 years).(1)
The top 10 most life-changing events are:
1. Death of a spouse
3. Marriage separation
5. Death of a close family member
6. Injury or illness
8. Job loss
9. Marriage reconciliation
As you may have noticed, some of the most stressful life events are actually positive changes.
The good news is that while you can't necessarily change your circumstances, you can change how you handle them. Check out this article for 11 ways to handle stress.
(1) Marksberry, Kellie. "Holmes- Rahe Stress Inventory". The American Institute of Stress.