Emotions have a way of taking up residence in our various body parts. Think about all the ways we express this concept in everyday language. We get butterflies in our tummy. Our hearts skip a beat. Someone is a pain in the neck.
Our physical and emotional worlds are intimately linked, so it’s important when we talk about our physical health that we are also taking into account our emotional health and vice versa.
- Stress and Your Body
- Where Stress and Difficult Emotions are Stored in the Body
- How To Remove Stress from Your Body
Stress and Your Body
The impact of chronic stress on our physical health cannot be understated. Beyond everyday aches and pains, stress can lead to chronic disease, mental illness, and a poor quality of life. Let’s examine where stress makes itself known throughout our body and how it affects our health and ability to function.
What is stress?
First, let’s get clear on what stress is. Stress is feeling overwhelmed or unable to cope with something. It is our body’s response to pressure. Our body’s reaction can be physical, mental, or emotional (or a combination of these).
Types of Stress
Stress can either be acute or chronic.
Acute stress is the day-to-day, one-off events that trigger our body’s stress response. Examples include getting nervous before a big speech or seeing a squirrel run out into the road as you’re driving. It is brief and will pass.
Biologically, acute stress is helpful to us. It causes our senses to become heightened and more aware of our surroundings, which helps us survive when we are faced with danger.
Chronic stress is much more nefarious. When we experience stress constantly, our bodies remain in a state of alertness, which our bodies are not designed to handle long-term.
Where Stress and Difficult Emotions are Stored in the Body
There are so many ways that our bodies physically express stress. Let’s break it down by body part.
Stress causes our muscles to tense up. Our jaws clench. We grind our teeth. Our necks and shoulders feel like they’re hanging on to our ears. Your hands might ball up into fists.
Some of this muscle tension is reflexive, like when we are surprised and our bodies tighten instantly in response.
In the case of chronic stress, our muscles become stuck in a constant state of guardedness. We feel permanently clenched and tied up. Chronic stress can also induce a premature decline in muscle strength, which makes sense when you think about it. Anything that experiences constant physical detention is going to deteriorate eventually, and our bodies are no exception.
Additionally you may experience tension headaches and migraines. Musculoskeletal problems from stress can eventually lead to muscle atrophy. As we experience increased pain in the neck, shoulders, and back, we tend to be come less physically active. This constant muscle tension can also lead to an over-reliance on pain medication, including opiates.
Stress impacts our cardiovascular system as well. It’s supposed to! When we experience acute stress, our body kicks into high gear. It causes our heart rate to increase which triggers the release of stress hormones, little chemical messengers that let the rest of the body know that it’s time to get ready.
The heart starts pumping more blood to various body parts which, under emergency circumstances, allows our body to react swiftly to threats. It’s a wonderful, evolutionary safeguard.
The problem, once again, is when our bodies experience chronic stress. We aren’t built to live with elevated blood pressure and a constant flood of stress hormones. Eventually, we experience serious conditions like heart disease, stroke, and heart attacks.
Stress causes our airways to constrict. When that happens, we experience shortness of breath, rapid breathing, hyperventilation, and even asthma attacks. It can be terrifying. Our respiratory response to stress can induce panic attacks in people who are already prone to them.
Additionally, if you’re someone who struggles with any number of chronic respiratory diseases, stress is going to exacerbate breathing problems.
It probably comes as no surprise, but stress can do a number on your digestive system. Our gut is often referred to as our body’s second brain. It stores hundreds of millions of neurons that are in constant communication with our brain.
Stress presents in the gut as pain, bloating, and other discomfort. It affects our gut’s microbiome, changing the healthy bacteria our body relies on to regulate mood and think clearly.
Let’s quickly examine the different parts of our gastrointestinal system and how stress plays a role in their dysfunction.
We’ve all been guilty of stress-eating at one point or another. When we ingest a larger quantity of food or food we don’t normally consume, it can lead to heart burn and acid reflux. Stress affects our ability to swallow food properly, causing us to take in too much air which leads to gassiness, bloating, and stomach pain.
Stress makes all of our stomach ailments feel worse. We can be so stressed that we throw up. It can affect our appetite (in either direction) and lead to unhealthy food choices, which has a domino effect on multiple other systems in the body.
Stress affects how easily and quickly food moves through our bodies, which can lead to diarrhea and constipation. It impacts our intestines’ ability to absorb nutrients properly, as well as weakens our intestinal barrier, which allows gut bacteria to pass through into the body.
The result is an increase in inflammation as our body’s immune system must now handle the gut bacteria to keep us from becoming sick. Eventually, we might develop chronic, inflammatory conditions like IBS or inflammatory bowel disease.
For greater, in-depth analysis of the brain-gut connection as it pertains to chronic disease and mental health, I highly recommend The Mind-Gut Connection by Emeran Mayer, MD.
5. Reproductive and Sexual Health
Chronic stress can have major implications for our reproductive and sexual health. For men, this can mean decreased sex drive or erectile dysfunction. They may also experience decreased sperm count which can lead to fertility issues for couples trying to conceive.
In women, chronic stress can disrupt menstrual cycles which can lead to irregular and painful periods. Like men, women experience excessive levels of stress can experience fertility issues as well as experience complications during and after pregnancy.
Stress can impact fetal development and exacerbate postpartum depression. It also makes pre-menstrual syndrome significantly worse, can lead to even more hormonal fluctuation in women experiencing menopause, and can cause reproductive diseases like herpes or polycystic ovarian syndrome to flare.
6. Endocrine System
Stress triggers the release of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol spikes your energy to help you deal with whatever threat has triggered the stress response. But your body is not built for constant cortisol spikes.
The influx of cortisol also affects our body’s immune system. It impairs the body’s ability to fight off infection and can lead to an overactive immune system which increases inflammation in the body. It also disrupts metabolic activity, leads to weight gain (for a whole host of reasons), and increases our risk for chronic diseases.
How To Remove Stress from Your Body
Stress management is complicated and varies across individuals. Here are some tried and true things you can do to manage the stress in your body and start to heal the damage chronic stress has already wrought in your life.
Yoga & Exercise
At the risk of sounding a bit crunchy, you can start by “moving” the stress out of your body. Yoga is a particularly effective method of stress management because it addresses the problem from a variety of angles.
- It activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which relaxes the body and diffuses the fight or flight response.
- Yoga allows you to stretch and move the body in very deliberate ways, which is helpful for tense muscles.
- The focus on breathing and breathe work also helps your body to relax and tamp down the stress response in the body.
Other forms of exercise are also great because they help loosen up stiff and tense muscles, improve blood flow, release happy chemicals into the brain, and gives you a healthy outlet for pent up emotions.
Are you going to attend one yoga or Crossfit class and expel all your demons? No. Stress management, in any form, is an ongoing process. But it will help set you on the right path.
Meditation and Mindfulness
Meditation is one of the best, scientifically proven ways to reduce stress, gain clarity of mind, and form new connections in the brain.
You can literally reprogram your brain to manage stress more efficiently. Additionally, a daily meditation practice can actually increase your brain’s volume and make you better at emotional regulation.
There are so many great benefits to meditation and it does not take a lot of time – even 10 minutes per day will work wonders when done consistently.
Sometimes we can’t manage stress on our own. When that happens, we turn to professionals to guide us. Talk therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy are great tools for stress management. There is zero shame in asking for help.
Mental health specialists can offer you individualized tools and strategies for managing stress. What works for one person might not be the right solution for you. When you have a counselor, you have someone who understands your background and struggles. They can tailor a stress management plan to your specific needs and abilities.
As I’ve mentioned before, BetterHelp is now a sponsor of Soberish and it is the service I use for talk therapy. It is hands down the best counseling experience I’ve had. They have therapists who specialize in stress management as well as a number of other specialties. It is 100% worth checking out.
Food and stress have such a complicated relationship to one another. Stress can often lead us to make unhealthy food choices which, in turn, further disrupt our mood and emotional wellbeing.
So we eat trash when we are stressed which only makes us more susceptible to explosive reactions and emotional volatility because bad food makes us feel sluggish, moody, and like a big lump of blah.
Eating healthy food and avoiding things like caffeine and alcohol can help you reduce stress over time. Because feelings and food are often interconnected for many of us, this is another area I’d recommend getting a good support system for or even counseling.
Though we don’t like to admit it, there are choices we make every day that can add to or reduce our stress. For example, we can choose to stay up late doom scrolling Twitter or we can turn off our technology an hour before bed and read a book to wind down.
We can choose to give oxygen to toxic people and situations or we can direct our attention elsewhere. With so many stressors beyond our control, it is always a worthy endeavor to take inventory of the stress we can control.
Are you overbooked? Do you stretch yourself too thin? Are there people in your life who shouldn’t be?
Find opportunities to slow down.
Stress Manifests All Over the Body
Sometimes stress is easy to detect. We feel it in our shoulders or in the headache that won’t let us be great. But stress also lodges itself into deeper parts of our body that we can’t necessarily see or recognize.
The sooner you prioritize stress management, the sooner you can begin repairing the damage chronic stress inflicts on your body.