Over the last several years, one of my expanding and dedicated interests has been the impact of chronic stress and how it adversely affects each organ system within the entire body. In our world today, chronic stress is ever-relevant, rampant, and profoundly alarming.
Acute stress from time to time is normal and expected. Our body knows exactly how to handle temporary stress with grace under fire. On the other hand, chronic stress over months, years, and decades is not normal and comes with destructive consequences. As someone who has personally experienced the effects of chronic stress at times in my own life and as a doctor who has evaluated and treated countless clients over the years struggling with the storm (and aftermath) of chronic stress, I have heard and seen plenty of symptoms and illnesses. Stress on the body can take different forms. Here are just a few examples:
Environmental stress: weather patterns, natural disasters, neighborhood crime in neighborhood, pollution
Physiological stress: any illness, disease, health condition, physical injuries, disabilities
Chemical stress: medications, mold, toxic exposures, unhealthy diet, smoking, alcohol
Psychological/Emotional stress: ANYTHING that distresses you whether real or perceived.
As you might imagine, ALL of those examples are deeply interconnected and absolutely affect each other in multiple ways.
Whatever form chronic stress takes on the body, it results in an over-secretion of cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline) from our adrenal glands and floods every cell and organ in our body. The stress signal never really shuts off and the body doesn't have the chance to fully recover and transition into rest and repair.
Over time, the cells and organs become irregular and dysfunctional. And that’s when illness and disease set in and take over. What was once adaptive now becomes maladaptive.
The more severe or traumatizing the stress and the longer it endures, the worse the consequences. The chief organ that perceives and interprets any and all kinds of stress - the brain - takes a substantial hit itself. Here are the consequences of what occurs within the brain (and therefore the body) when it's under the threat of chronic stress:
Pro-Inflammatory immune cells are heightened
Synaptic connections and neural circuitry – how nerve cells connect and communicate - are severely altered
Size and structure of the brain's components shrink
Neuroplasticity - the brain’s ability to reorganize, learn, change, evolve and adapt - is diminished
Hormonal cascade of communication between the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland and the body’s organs become intermittent, inconsistent or halted
Neurotransmitter regulation and metabolism - serotonin, dopamine, GABA, norepinephrine - becomes irregular
Highly functioning, orderly and organized brain becomes dysfunctional, disordered, confused, and chaotic
The physical, psychological & emotional results of chronic stress on the brain & the body?
Impaired memory recall
Challenged decision-making and rational judgment
Difficulty with focus and concentration
Heightened mood swings, turbulent behavior, fear, hypervigilance
Increased depression and anxiety
Anhedonia – reduced ability to experience pleasure
Distressed relationships with others
Weight gain (or weight loss)
Reproductive hormonal irregularities
Other endocrine & metabolism disorders