Stress is a natural reaction to many of life’s challenges. Whether you’re running late to work or facing the death of a loved one, it can help you cope with various situations, prime your muscles for a quick response and — quite literally — survive.

However, stress isn’t always helpful. When you experience prolonged periods of it or too much at once, your mental and physical health may suffer. Here are a few ways the body responds to stress and why you should throw on a pair of sweatpants and chill for a while.

1. Affects Your Digestive System

If you’ve ever felt butterflies in your stomach, you’ve experienced the connection between the brain and the digestive system. Your gut contains hundreds of millions of neurons and bacteria that are in constant communication with your mind. When one is upset or happy, the other usually is, too. Thus, stress may trigger pain, bloating and other discomforts in your abdomen and bowels.

If stress is severe enough, you may even experience muscle spasms, vomiting and diarrhea. These unpleasant symptoms are especially debilitating for people with chronic bowel disorders like inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome. In these cases, the gut bacteria may be more sensitive to stress and experience more serious symptoms.

2. Accelerates Aging

Wrinkles naturally form on your face and body as you age. However, stress can accelerate this process and hasten skin aging. When you experience stress, cortisol levels skyrocket, breaking down collagen and elastin — two components that keep your skin youthful. Stress also causes inflammation and prevents the body from healing itself, further contributing to early aging and wrinkles.

Emotional distress can also accelerate aging at a cellular level by shortening the length of DNA telomeres. At a certain point, the DNA strands can’t divide any further, so they enter a stage of replicative senescence. This phase contributes to premature aging, chronic disease and even early death.

3. Impacts Your Smile

Stress can put anyone in a bad mood, but it does much more than put a frown on your face. Experiencing stress regularly can dramatically impact your teeth in many ways. For instance, many people tend to load up on soda and sugary snacks to combat anxiety. However, eating your feelings may lead to plaque buildup, tooth decay and cavities.

Too much stress can also cause you to clench your jaw and inadvertently grind your teeth. Whether you do this while you’re awake or asleep, this habit can cause several issues, from receding gums to increased tooth sensitivity. Grinding can even impact other parts of your body and cause headaches, jaw pain and ringing in your ears.

4. Decreases Immune Functioning

Sometimes, your immune system can benefit from stress. For example, wounds typically contain pathogens that could cause infection. However, they also cause stress, which the body uses to accelerate healing, make repairs and fight off infection. Therefore, short bursts of stress can actually help you survive.

However, your body can start to shut down if it experiences stress in more than short bursts. When anxiety and stress are ongoing, they can weaken the immune system, thereby reducing your body’s response to foreign invaders like bacteria. Consequently, you may become ill more often and have a difficult time recovering.

5. Reduces Productivity and Focus

Deadlines and due dates are healthy stressors that pressure employees to stick to a schedule and get things done. However, too much workplace stress can actually hinder productivity and focus.

More than half of Americans admit they’re stressed during at least 60% of the workweek. Whether they’re dealing with challenging assignments or long, erratic workdays, employees are dealing with a fair amount of stress, and it’s affecting their performance. During periods of prolonged stress, workers may experience a lack of energy, focus and creativity. They could lose interest in their job and worry all the time. Ultimately, these symptoms could negatively impact their productivity and quality of work.

6. Harms Respiratory and Cardiovascular Systems

When you experience stress, you may notice your breath quicken. This automatic response helps your body pump more oxygen-rich blood to your organs. If you have breathing problems like asthma or emphysema, this reaction can make it even harder to breathe. If you can’t slow your breathing, stress can cause panic attacks, hyperventilation and other serious issues.

Stress can also affect your cardiovascular system. Just as your breath quickens, so does the beating of your heart during stressful situations. If your ticker works too hard for too long, it can raise your blood pressure and increase your risk of coronary heart disease. Long periods of stress can also increase the likelihood of heart attack and stroke, especially in older individuals.

How to De-Stress

Stress can have a negative and lasting impact on your body and every part of your life. Therefore, it’s important to take the initiative in caring for your health by de-stressing often.

Practice meditation or short breathing exercises to slow your heart rate and breath. Get outside to soak in some vitamin D and boost your mood. Take a walk on your break and exercise daily to increase energy and endorphin levels. The most important thing is finding your version of self-care and practicing it often, whether it includes some or none of these activities.

Most importantly, know which situations, emotions and people trigger your stress and avoid them as much as you can. If your stressors are unavoidable — think work or home life — these de-stressing tactics will come in handy.

Mia Barnes

Mia Barnes is a health and wellness writer with an interest in mental wellbeing and growth! She is also the Editor-in-chief of Body+Mind.

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