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How Stress Affects Our Bodies and Behavior

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When we're stressed, what happens in our bodies? What are the physical symptoms? How does our behavior change? Greenville health coach Aaron Benator explains.

What is stress?

The first thing I'd like to do is talk about the definition of stress. Stress is a response to a change in the environment. There are two types of stress:

  • Eustress, which is a good change. It can be when we are encouraged to accomplish something and we're motivated and we feel positive.
  • Distress, which is what we typically think of. This is going to be an overriding, negative sensation, lack of motivation, a feeling of overwhelm, those kinds of things.

There are also two kinds of stress — acute and chronic. Acute is short-term. And chronic is long-term. Or when we think that something is going to be long-term, that would be chronic stress.

What happens to the body when stressed? 

Three chemicals are made when the body senses something that causes distress is three chemicals — norepinephrine, adrenaline, and cortisol.

Norepinephrine and adrenaline are very similar. The one difference is that norepinephrine is also made in the brain, not just the adrenal glands, kind of as a backup system. It is responsible for alertness and awareness.

Cortisol is responsible for fluid balance and blood pressure and fluid balance is only made in the adrenal glands near the kidneys.

Some symptoms of distress are low energy, when we feel like we just can't do anything, when we feel like we can't accomplish what we might want to accomplish.

Headaches. There can be sleeping changes with excessive levels of distress. This can be insomnia, where we feel like we do not sleep restfully, or we feel like we do not sleep at all. Or it can be excessive sleeping. Stress can also present a loss of libido or impotence and as frequent sickness.

If you're frequently sick or you feel like you get sick more than other people, it might be because there's some chronic distress, that is maybe not at the surface, but somewhere in your experience.

Distress can also cause musculoskeletal issues, like aches and pains, tense muscles, and rapid heartbeat. In the long run, these aches and pains, tense muscles, and rapid heartbeats can cause a lot of serious problems.

There are other symptoms of distress. These are usually seen in the gastrointestinal system. This can be an upset stomach or poor digestion. We can think of something like butterflies in the stomach.

Of course, that can be eustress, when we're nervous that we need to accomplish something, but at the same time, we're feeling kind of good about it. We always remember the butterflies in the stomach from a presentation in elementary school or middle school or high school or college or whatever.

On the other end of this digestive issue is diarrhea or constipation or nausea. So again, we see that wide spectrum.

What happens to our behavior when stressed? 

There can also be emotional changes when someone is suffering through periods of stress. These can be appetite changes, which can go along with changes in weight, either weight gain or weight loss.

Depression can also be a symptom of excessive stress for too long. Anxiety, a sense of nervousness or agitation, or moodiness, irritability, anger. Or the changes of the moods between depression or anxiety and back again, or your ability to anger and back again.

We can also feel overwhelmed when we are under stress, and there's always the issue of loneliness and isolation. There is an argument that when someone is stressed, they want to be alone. It might be a time for recovery.

But of course, there are some long-term issues that might come from long-term loneliness and isolation. We know that loneliness and isolation are associated with a reduced immune function.

More on Stress

Feeling stressed? Check out some of our other articles on stress.