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How Stress Affects the Body

Author: Winnie Mok

Editors: Kevy Chen, Eric Lin

Artist: Emily Hu

We’ve all felt this emotion before—when last-minute studying for a test that could make or break your average, or when rehearsing for a speech you’re about to present to a large crowd—that feeling is stress. You might be wondering now: if it makes us feel so worried, especially over events that aren’t even that important in the long run, why would our bodies develop to be this way? It may seem like self-sabotage; after all, who would want to feel like the world is crashing down because of a 5-minute quiz? 

Stress is the body’s emotional and physical response to an external factor or stressor. That being said, it’s perfectly natural to feel stressed. Back when our ancestors were still cavemen, stress served as a defense against potential threats and predators. When this process happens, our central nervous system kicks off into the famous fight-or-flight mode. This amplifies stress levels and the production of hormones such as norepinephrine, epinephrine, and cortisol. Norepinephrine contracts our blood vessels, epinephrine (more well-known as adrenaline) heightens our senses, and cortisol boosts our sugar levels. These reactions increase our alertness, stiffen our muscles (so they’re more readily available to use), and elevate our blood pressure, which would definitely be helpful when running away from a bear. When that danger is gone, our hypothalamus, the part of our brain responsible for initiating the hormones, signals the body to return to normal. 

So, stress doesn’t seem so bad anymore if it helps us survive. However, this isn’t necessarily true either because there are two versions of stress. The one described above is known as acute stress, which, as its name suggests, is a short-term form of stress that usually only lasts momentarily. Panicking about an upcoming assignment or being late for a meeting are examples since the stress disappears once the stressor does. That is not to say that there are no side effects at all, as people often experience stomachaches and headaches, as well as emotional distress.

On the other hand, chronic stress accumulates over a long time over issues that are not easily resolvable. As we discussed before, stress tenses up our muscles, and when our body is in that state for an extended period, it can lead to other disorders. An instance of this is migraine headaches caused by tensed muscles around our shoulders, neck, and head. Other issues that can result from chronic stress are inflammation in the circulatory system (a trigger for heart attacks), hypertension (an abnormally high force exerted on the body’s arteries), metabolic disorders, immune disorders, depression, insomnia, etc. All of these symptoms can greatly impact a person’s life, so it is essential to take care of our mental health, whether with a medical professional or not. Although we may not be physically fighting our problems every day, we constantly face small internal battles against our schoolwork, relationships, or jobs. 

 

Citations

Felman, Adam. “Why Stress Happens and How to Manage It.” Medical News Today, 12

“How Stress Affects Your Health.” American Psychological Association, 1 Jan. 2013,

Marks, Hedy. “Stress Symptoms.” WebMD, 8 Oct. 2023, www.webmd.com/balance/stress-

Mayo Clinic Staff. “Stress Management.” Mayo Clinic, 10 Aug. 2023,

www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-

“Stress Effects on the Body.” American Psychological Association, 1 Nov. 2018,

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