Expert Insight: What Stress Can Do to Your Body

Stress is a powerful thing. While you’re trying to get the kids off to school, you can’t find your cell phone, and you’re sitting in traffic, your hypothalamus, a tiny control tower in your brain, decides to send out the order: Send in the stress hormones!

These stress hormones are the same ones that trigger your body’s “fight or flight” response. Your heart races, your breath quickens, and your muscles ready for action. This response was designed to protect your body in an emergency by preparing you to react quickly.

But when the stress response keeps firing, day after day, it could put your health at serious risk. Dr. Sanam Hafeez is a New York City Neuropsychologist who breaks down some of the effects of stress on the body. 

Expert Insight: What Stress Can Do to Your Body

Respiratory System

Stress can make you breathe harder. That’s not a problem for most people, but for those with asthma or a lung disease such as emphysema, getting the oxygen you need to breathe easier can be difficult. And some studies show that an acute stress, such as the death of a loved one — can actually trigger asthma attacks, in which the airway between the nose and the lungs constricts.

In addition, stress can cause the rapid breathing or hyperventilation that can bring on a panic attack in someone prone to panic attacks. Working with a psychologist to develop relaxation and breathing strategies can help.

Fat storage

You can clearly correlate stress to weight gain. Part of that link is due to poor eating during stress, but the stress hormone cortisol may also increase the amount of fat tissue your body hangs onto and enlarge the size of fat cells. Higher levels of cortisol have been linked to more deep-abdominal fat—yes, belly fat. Luckily, exercise can help control stress and help keep belly fat under control.

Insomnia

Stress can cause hyperarousal, a biological state in which people just don’t feel sleepy.

While major stressful events can cause insomnia that passes once the stress is over, long-term exposure to chronic stress can also disrupt sleep and contribute to sleep disorders.

What to do? Focus on sleep hygiene (making your surroundings conducive to a good night’s rest) and try yoga or another stress-busting activity during the day. 

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Headaches

“Fight or flight” chemicals like adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol can cause vascular changes that leave you with a tension headache or migraine, either during the stress or in the “let-down” period afterwards. Stress also makes your muscles tense, which can make the pain of a migraine worse. Beyond treating the headache itself, focus on headache-proofing your home, diet, and lifestyle in general.

Memory

Too much of the stress hormone cortisol can interfere with the brain’s ability to form new memories. During acute stress, the hormone also interferes with neurotransmitters, the chemicals that brain cells use to communicate with each other. That can make it hard to think straight or retrieve memories. While it’s tough to limit stress in our hectic lives, some experts recommend trying meditation, among other solutions.

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About the Doctor:

Dr. Sanam Hafeez PsyD is a NYC based licensed clinical neuropsychologist, teaching faculty member at the prestigious Columbia University Teacher’s College and the founder and Clinical Director of Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services, P.C. a neuropsychological, developmental and educational center in Manhattan and Queens. Connect with her via twitter @comprehendMind or www.comprehendthemind.com

HEALTH

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