This column, Stress Test, is a series about the science behind our busy lives and how stress affects our bodies. The biweekly column uncovers the latest research and explains how to put it to use in a practical way. Look for the science behind epigenetic markers of stress, mindfulness, meditation and deep brain stimulation.
Stress can show up across your body, sometimes in ways you may not realize. Insomnia, depression and absent work ethic could link to what’s happening 9-to-5 in your workplace or back home at your dinner table. Stress research has been clear for years — bursts of adrenaline can be good for your body and invoke your inherent fight-or-flight response to make decisions. But long periods of adrenaline bursts can pummel your body and lead to burnout.
Researchers are documenting this burnout across professions. In November and December 2016 alone, studies popped up about stressed-out IT workers, nurses, ICU surgeons, anesthesiologists and staff at correctional facilities. Researchers are also digging into how stress affects the body, documenting evidence that it changes our white brain matter and possibly even our genes. Are you feeling the stress? Check the list below.
Your brain is incredibly powerful and controls almost everything in your body. It releases the stress hormones that tell your body how to react. It controls the nerves, muscles and ligaments that tense up and bear stress-related injury. It control the immune, heart and stomach reactions to stress as well. When your body tenses in any area for too long, it can lead to headache issues, whether that stems from tension at the back of the neck or sinus complications from a reduced immune system.
Muscle tension is the body’s reflex reaction to stress, says the American Psychological Association. It’s a gut-reaction guard against injury and pain. Tense shoulders, neck and back can hurt daily — and lead to those migraine and tension headaches mentioned above.
We’re tired. We’re exhausted. We’re running and running on a treadmill and can’t stop. If you haven’t taken a break from a non-stop schedule in awhile, your body feels it. Psychological distress elevates significantly when we don’t take 12-hour breaks between work cycles, according to a December study from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health in Japan. These daily breaks are “essential to work recovery,” the researchers said, especially for white-collar workers such as IT professionals who stare at computer screens all day.
When in “fight or flight” mode, the body releases hormones such as adrenaline, epinephrine and cortisol, which change the digestive process and boost glucose levels. Cortisol has received major attention in recent years as a weight-gain culprit, and newer studies show that we have more in our system than ever before thanks to non-stop accessibility on our computers and phones. One of the best ways to cut the hormone down is to reduce the stress in your life, according to the American Institute of Stress.
The range of GI issues related to stress is long — chronic heartburn, acid reflux, diarrhea, constipation, stomach ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome and so on. Essentially, stress hormones cause you to eat more or less than usual or pick up vices such as tobacco and alcohol. It can also change what nutrients your body absorbs. Doctors are seeing more GI cases that can’t be diagnosed and might be related to stress.
It’s no joke — stress can really mess up your reproductive system. For dudes with too much cortisol, testosterone and sperm production goes down. For women, menstrual cycles can become irregular, painful or disappear altogether.
Stress and sleep create a powerful feedback loop. When you’re stressed, your mind whirrs through tomorrow’s to-do list, and you can’t get rest. When you don’t have enough sleep, you make poor decisions, take more risks and get more stressed, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, said in December. They took MRI scans while study participants completed risky decision-making tasks and saw that those with little sleep tended to make poorer decisions that led to even more stress.
High stress work environments — the ones where you face high demand, have little control and receive little support from others — are the most dangerous to your health. You feel helpless in the never-ending workday cycle, and that kills job satisfaction and motivation. It also bumps up absence, depression and intention to quit, researchers reported in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in December.
When stressed, you may find it tough to control your emotions or reactions to relatives, coworkers, children or significant others that drive you crazy. With amped up blood pressure, anger can also increase your chances of developing heart disease, insomnia, headaches and digestive issues, says the American Psychological Association. Hey, all these symptoms are related – we’re not surprised.
If you checked the list and nodded along, think about implementing some stress-reduction techniques in your New Year routine. Stress left unchecked can lead to autoimmune diseases, neurological disorders, high blood press, heart disease, obesity and diabetes, the Mayo Clinic says. Throughout 2017, Stress Test will suggest new research-backed strategies to clear your mind and cope.
Top image: Gonzalo Malpartida, Flickr, CC-BY
Carolyn Crist is the assistant editor of Paste Science. She is a freelance health and science journalist for regional and national publications and writes the Escape Artist column for Paste Travel.