How many of us have had some new kind of stress enter our lives during COVID? We at CVC can name a few pretty easily. Stress is when our body perceives a challenge or damaging event. Stress is generally seen as unpleasant, but it comes with both positive and negative effects in our body. Usually stress response involves moving resources from long term stores for short term use and this can impact lots of areas of our health. So while going through your day keep in mind a few areas of the body that can be impacted by stress:
1. Digestive changes
One of the best examples of how stress can be a double-edged sword is in the digestive system. Stress leads to many changes in function of our gut. Most notably, when we are stressed, blood flow gets diverted away from our digestive tract and the motility of objects moving through increases. This means that your food does not get digested as well. If you think of this in the context of a survival event, more blood is needed in structures like our muscles to potentially keep us alive. This is a good response for a short time, but over a long time stress can lead to a variety of gut disorders. Things such as esophageal reflux, diarrhea, and irritable bowel syndrome are closely linked to stress. Managing long term stress is one of the best lifestyle changes we can do for our gut health.
2. Inflammation with stress
Inflammation is one of the most commonly revisited topics on our blog posts. We like to keep coming back to this process in the body because it greatly impacts every area of health. Something important to keep in mind is that our mental health directly affects our physical health. An article published in The Frontiers of Neuroscience put it best saying, “There is considerable evidence that psychological stress can activate the inflammatory response.” The article further detailed how stress activates inflammation, which can lead to depression. Stress in our bodies is meant to be short term, and long term stress can have systemic impacts on the body by increasing inflammation.
3. Impacts on the Immune System
Both short term and long term stress release hormones in our bodies that directly impact our immune system. When we are in a short term stress period our body uses the hormones epinephrine (sometimes known as adrenaline) and norepinephrine. Epinephrine enhances our immune system, and can lead to interesting immune changes. Many of our patients who are students are familiar with the idea, because they tend to get sick immediately after the end of the semester. During finals week their bodies are pumped full of epinephrine from the acute stress of tests, but when that stressor is immediately removed so is the immune boosting function. On a different note, our bodies use the hormone cortisol for longer term stress. Cortisol depresses the function of the immune system, so individuals with long term stress are more susceptible to getting sick. Stress isn’t inherently evil, but can produce either desirable or not desirable effects on our immune system.
4. Neck Pain and Tightness
It is very common in our practice for patients to come in and tell us that they, “carry their stress in their neck.” But why does this happen? In reality, stress isn’t just hanging out in their neck, but there is an anatomical reason for this sensation. We have a set of muscles that go from the bones in our neck to the top of our rib cage called the scalenes. Named after the type of triangle they form, these muscles work as a secondary respirator. When we breathe the primary muscle driving air into our lungs is the diaphragm, but there are others that assist it. So when we become stressed, our breathing becomes heavier, and requires the use of the secondary respirators more. This causes the scalenes in our neck to become tighter leading to neck pain and stiffness with stress
5. Stress isn’t always a bad thing.
In summary, stress is not always a bad thing but like most things, with excess there will be consequences. During stressful events we need the short term gains in order to keep thriving, however this is not intended to be a long term solution. So if you are struggling with health complications there is a reasonable likelihood that stress levels are related. And from a preventative mindset, managing our mental health is a very important component to long term wellness.