Welcome to the new normal, where the fear of getting sick from a global pandemic is driving even the healthiest into a cyclone of stress.
Stress isn’t always bad of course; feeling stressed is a necessary part of our survival mechanism. When humans sense an oncoming threat approaching at top speed, the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for processing emotions, sounds the alarm to the rest of your body, alerting the nervous system’s control centre, the hypothalamus, that you’re at risk. The hypothalamus then triggers the release of adrenaline and later cortisol hormones to push your body into action and prime yourself to respond to the said threat. All of this together is what’s referred to as the “fight or flight” response.
It was really designed for acute, short-term stressors. Our traditional stress response was not designed for the constant stressors of modern life, such as demanding jobs, poverty, unemployment and racism. For one, long-term stress weakens the immune system, making the body more susceptible to illness as well as flare-ups and outbreaks of pre-existing conditions that may have been previously under control.
Additionally, the chemicals released into the blood stream as a result of stress can have their own unwanted side effects. Stress can manifest emotionally where you may feel anxious or depressed or physically with symptoms such as headaches, palpitations and chest tightness.
Even though we can’t control what’s going on in the world around us, we do have some control over our stress levels as well as the ability to veer away from the types of behaviours that will only make matters worse. Maintaining a steady sleep schedule wherever possible, keeping alcohol and coffee intake to a minimum and physical activity in some capacity can all have a steadying effect.
Here’s how stress can affect your body
Disrupted sleep - Are you waking up every hour or unable to fall asleep? Are you tossing and turning with strong emotions? Stress and anxiety work to make us more vigilant and reactive, so you may feel both ‘tired and wired’ during the day but have trouble relaxing or unable to take a nap. Stress also makes it harder to get REM sleep - the super restful kind that our bodies need to recharge, which further exhausts and stresses the body. Lack of refreshing sleep can in turn make us more impulsive and reactive, which can make stress worse as essentially it becomes harder to stop thinking about the stressor.
Skin break-outs - The jolt of cortisol released when you’re stressed leads to a responding increase in the production of other hormones like testosterone. Increased testosterone levels stimulate sebaceous gland activity in your skin, which boosts oil production and leads to blocked pores and more.
Skin condition flare-ups - Conditions like eczema, psoriasis and rosacea can all be triggered by stress, as the increased cortisol and adrenaline responsible for the fight-or-flight response can lead to inflammation. All of these conditions are inflammatory ones.
Thinning hair - When there’s overproduction of oil on the scalp it can cause Seborrheic dermatitis resulting in dandruff and hair shedding. Hair loss occurs a few months after the initial stress inducer.
Migraines and headaches - These are caused by major shifts in neurotransmitters like cortisol and adrenaline. They can also cause muscles, including those around your eyelids to seize up and twitch.
Teeth grinding - Teeth grinding or clenching of your jaw is frequently spurred on by stress and pent-up energy. You may not even notice you’re doing it until a headache sets in or your jaw hurts.
Sore muscles and low back, hip, knee or ankle pain - Our diaphragm is our main breathing muscle. When we get stressed, it gets tight and cannot fully contract to allow a full inhalation or fully relax to allow a full exhalation. Instead of engaging in healthy, deep breathing, we begin taking shorter, shallow breaths that emanate from our neck and shoulders rather than our core - similar to hyperventilating which results in pain or tension in both regions. When we are stressed, we lose the ability to control our diaphragm and create good quality core stability which may contribute to low back pain, hip pain, knee and ankle pain, even pelvic floor disfunction.
Digestion - Your gut houses hundreds of millions of semi-independently functioning neurons which send and receive signals to and from the brain called the gut-brain axis, making your digestive system deeply sensitive to stress and other emotional responses. When your body enters fight or flight mode, it reroutes all your internal energy to battling whatever force of evil is coming your way, putting your digestive system on pause until the threat is alleviated. This disrupts your normal digestive flow and could potentially contribute to constipation, diarrhoea or stomach aches. Stress can also impact the functioning of your gut microbiome which are the organisms that live in your gut that help you digest food, produce hormones and support your immune system.
Low sex drive - Daily stress in general is associated with a low libido with a reduced amount of sex. When we are in a state of flight/flight/freeze due to many stressors we are unlikely to want to have sex. The primitive parts of the brain cannot seem to switch off sufficiently to relax sufficiently to enjoy sex.
Menstrual cycle - Stress can even disrupt your entire menstrual cycle. The hypothalamus controls the hormones in your ovaries and your uterus through the endocrine system. Elevated cortisol levels caused by stress tell your hypothalamus to stop producing gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH); low levels of GnRH mean that the pituitary gland doesn’t know to release other hormones that spur ovulation in the ovaries, which then throws off your menstruation. A person could stop ovulating, or have a late or skipped period, among other potential effects. Your body doesn’t want you to be menstruating or ovulating, it wants to save all your hormones to keep the cortisol functioning so you can run away faster from the stress.