Stress is an inseparable part of any human experience, which is why its effects on the body need to be examined further. Although efforts must be applied to reduce the extent of stress and the exposure to it, eradicating the specified phenomenon from an individual’s life is presently impossible and barely productive (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Instead, the effects of stress and their mitigation need to be learned closer to reduce possible health outcomes. Especially after the pandemic of COVID-19 has made the levels of stress in people worldwide skyrocket, the significance of studying the levels of stress on the human body has grown tremendously (Schönrich et al. 3). This paper will examine the effects of stress on different systems within a human body, further recommending the strategies that can be used to alleviate the adverse outcomes.
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Before proceeding with listing the multiple outcomes of stress affecting the human body and its multiple systems, one might want to define the subject matter first. The notion of stress might seem simple enough, meaning mostly feeling of unease caused by negative emotions. However, the concept of stress is far more complex due to the presence of multiple factors determining its development, as well as the numerous ways in which it can manifest itself (Schönrich et al. 2). Therefore, to define stress, one may need to consider several perspectives.
As a separate health issue, stress does not occur in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5). Instead, DSM-5 offers definitions for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), acute stress disorder (ASD), anxiety, and related conditions (American Psychiatric Association 265). The described approach is quite reasonable since the very notion of stress is quite broad. Indeed, examining the subject matter, one will recognize the presence of a twofold nature of it. Namely, stress encompasses both the state of anxiety and emotional unease, while also implying the range of external factors affecting an individual. Collier et al. suggest that stress should be defined as “the environment that places a strain on a biological system” (10367). As shown in the described definition, the notion of stress is seen as a combination of the components that elicit negative emotions and confusion.
Stress and the Human Body
To examine the effects of stress on the human body, a basic understanding of how the human body functions are needed. To simplify the exploration of the complex neurological pathways that the stress response suggests, one may need to isolate eleven primary systems within the human body. These are the musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous, reproductive, digestive, immune, urinary, and exocrine (Rathus and Nevid 17). Since changes occur within every system and are intertwined closely within the human body, it is crucial to consider each with the described connection in mind.
Effects of Stress on the Musculoskeletal and Exocrine Systems
As an immediate and instinctive response to stress, the muscles in the human body become tense. The specified reaction causes muscles to become the shield against a possible injury, also allowing one either to fight effectively or to run (Rathus and Nevid 121). The increase in muscle tension is spurred by the rise in the levels of cortisol, which is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal cortex located in the adrenal gland (Rathus and Nevid 121). In turn, chronic stress causes muscles to be overly tense constantly, which may lead to long-term effects such as muscle cramps (Rathus and Nevid 122). Prolonged stress also affects the exocrine system in the long term, causing hair loss and brittle nails.
Effects of Stress on the Respiratory System
In the event of a sudden introduction of stress factors, the respiratory system responds in increased activity. Namely, the number of breaths per minute increases due to the rise in the need to supply oxygen to muscles and the brain (Hales and Hales 22). The described outcome is linked directly to the aforementioned “fight or flight” instinct, which enables the body to increase the speed and precision of its reactions to external factors. Furthermore, due to the constriction of the air pathways, breaths become shorter and faster (Rathus and Nevid 124). Thus, the respiratory system becomes overloaded in the event of acute stress; in fact, studies show that an asthma attack may occur as a result (Rathus and Nevid 124).
Effects of Stress on the Cardiovascular System
Due to the need to supply an increased amount of oxygen to lungs and muscles, the rise in breaths per minute causes the cardiovascular system to function at a faster pace as well, raising the heartbeat significantly. The observed phenomenon is explained by stronger heart contractions caused by the increase in the levels of cortisol, as well as adrenaline and noradrenaline (Hales and Hales 22). Furthermore, due to the need for a larger oxygen intake for the body, the amount of blood pumped through the blood vessels and the heart increases substantially, causing a faster heart rate and an increased workload for the cardiovascular system.
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Effects of Stress on the Nervous System
Being under the influence of stress-inducing factors, the nervous system also produces an immediate response. However, before assessing the effects of stress on it, one should mention that the nervous system is typically split into two main parts, namely, the autonomic and somatic ones (Hales and Hales 24). The former, in turn, is subdivided into the sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic (PNS) nervous systems (Hales and Hales 24). The latter plays a direct role in activating the aforementioned “fight or flight” response as it sends signals to the adrenal medulla and the pituitary gland (Hales and Hales 22). As a result, the glands releasing cortisol, adrenalin, and noradrenalin are activated, causing immediate changes in the rest of the systems, particularly, the endocrine and the respiratory ones. Thus, the chain of immediate responses toward the emerging risk is launched. When affected by stress in the long term, the nervous system continues to respond, causing further deterioration of the body.
Effects of Stress on the Endocrine System
As emphasized above, stress factors cause an immediate release of the hormones that activate the rest of the systems. Therefore, what is known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis within the endocrine system is activated once stress factors emerge. As a result, stress-related hormones, primarily, cortisol, adrenalin, and noradrenalin, are produced. Cortisol, in turn, supplies the energy needed to address a stress-related situation.
Effects of Stress on the Gastrointestinal and Reproductive Systems
The gastrointestinal system also responds to stress quite promptly due to the immense number of neurons in it. However, due to the disruption of the standard functioning of the gastrointestinal cells, stress can result in muscle spasms within the gastrointestinal system. The described phenomenon may entail a variety of effects ranging from diarrhea to constipation.
Examining the effects of stress on the human reproductive system, one should consider the differences between the male and female ones. In the male system, due to the rise in the levels of testosterone, which is activated through the parasympathetic path, the phenomenon of arousal is often observed as a response to immediate threat and stress (Hales and Hales 23). In the female reproductive system, long-term effects such as the disruption of the menstrual cycle and the inability to conceive can be seen as the key outcomes.
Effects of Stress on the Urinary and Excretory Systems
In an overactive bladder, the increased level of stress may lead to more rapid functioning and the need to urinate more frequently, leading to incontinence. In the long term, the specified effects may cause additional health conditions, such as bladder inflammation. Similarly, the excretory system’s functioning is disrupted to a considerable degree under the influence of both short- and long-term stress. The specified effects are likely to aggravate until the stress factors are removed from an individual’s environment, which is why the threat of kidney damage must be considered for those experiencing constant emotional distress.
Effects of Stress on the Immune System
As a rule, a significant drop in the functioning of the immune system is observed after individual experiences severe stress. When considering short-term stress, the immune system of an individual remains unaffected for the most part; however, in the long term, the immune system suffers significantly. Due to the focus on managing a specific set of stress factors, the human body loses the ability to produce antibodies as effectively as it used to do. Consequently, one’s ability to withstand the impact of multiple health threats is diminished to a large extent, causing one to become more susceptible to infectious diseases and, overall, more vulnerable to health threats. The described outcomes suggest that the immune system must remain one of the priorities when addressing stress as a health concern.
Effects of Stress on the Lymphatic System
Finally, the effects that stress produces on the lymphatic system of an individual need to be touched upon. The lymphatic system is also affected once an individual is exposed to stress, causing the neural-inflammatory signaling to be reduced significantly. Long-term exposure to stress may cause the development of cancerous cells in lymph nodes, as a recent study explains (Le and Sloan 3). Therefore, addressing the problem of stress promptly is essential to prevent oncological issues from developing.
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Although stress is often taken for granted and believed to have mostly superficial effects solely on the nervous system, it affects profoundly the entirety of the human body. Even in the instances when stress occurs for a short amount of time, the changes taking place in one’s body are very noticeable, causing a string of adverse effects. In the long term, the effects of stress on one’s health are detrimental since stress affects every single system. Thus, creating strategies for managing stress as a tangible threat to one’s well-being is instrumental. Moreover, promoting patient education concerning the strategies for managing stress and preventing it from taking place needs to be designed.
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