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Stress is a normal part of life. We experience it, to varying degrees, almost every single day. But when things really start to feel overwhelming, you’ll likely notice stress starting to affect your physical health.
According to primary care physician Pouya Shafipour, there are two categories of stress. “Acute stress is [the] body’s reaction to a [short-term] stressful event, such as an injury, traffic jam, [or] argumentative fight with someone,” she says. “On the other hand, chronic stress is usually a result of ongoing psychological or environmental demands, such as work, monetary problems, marital conflict, etc. In chronic stress, the acute sympathetic response, which is basically a fight-or-flight [reaction], gradually diminishes, but the cortisol levels remain high—which in the long-term can have adverse effects on the body.”
However, it’s important to keep in mind that stress doesn’t affect everyone the same way. Aditi Nerurkar, integrative medicine physician at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and medical director of the Cheng-Tsui Integrated Health Center, says that “some people might complain of difficulty sleeping or concentrating; some people might become anxious or have a flat affect. There’s a wide range of how people present with similar underlying issues of stress.”
Either way, the long-term effects of stress can negatively impact our bodies if we don’t use tactics that will keep it at bay. While it may manifest differently for each person, this is how you might start to feel the physical effects of chronic stress over time.
After One Day
Luckily, our bodies can handle small everyday stressors. According to Pooja Amy Shah, M.D., after one day, “if you have enough resilience, you can bounce back from it because your body can take care of the stress you’re experiencing.” While Shafipour explains that some people might experience fatigue, the overall consensus from experts is that your body can withstand a singular stressful day just fine.
After One Week
“One week of stress makes us prone to viral infections, cold sore outbreaks, acute stress, and sleep deprivation,” says Shafipour. “Elevated cortisol levels interfere with sleep, which can result in poor memory, lowered defense of the immune system, depression, fatigue, and weight gain.”
While your body can probably endure bouts of stress every so often, Shafipour says that elevated cortisol levels can make individuals prone to getting sick more often. “[A] good example of this is [an] increased risk of viral and bacterial infections in college students during finals, when they’re studying and pulling a lot of all-nighters,” she explains.
After One Month
If you’re constantly feeling high levels of stress, you may notice both psychological and physical symptoms of burnout. “You may begin feeling irritable, tightness in your body, a change in your appetite, and start having anxious thoughts,” says Shah. “You may even feel exhausted and become cynical and detached.”
Unfortunately, that’s not the only thing that could happen to your body. “Acute stress can cause patchy hair loss, diarrhea, or constipation,” says Shafipour. “Chronic [stress] can cause chronic gut issues, either diarrhea or constipation, as well as abdominal pain and bloating.”
After Six Months
“If you’re constantly stressed out, you could experience all of those symptoms and reach a true point of burnout, where you might feel a lack of enjoyment, become really pessimistic, and unconsciously isolate yourself from others,” says Shah. “You might not want to show up to work or could look toward other things to self-medicate, such as drugs or alcohol. You’ll probably have a hard time taking care of yourself by sleeping enough or eating well. It can become a more holistic issue.”
While these issues can be detrimental to your health in the short-term, consistent high levels of stress can create long-term problems, too. “Chronic stress has also been linked to joint pain and development of arthritis in the long-term,” says Shafipour. “[It can also] raise blood pressure and increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.”
If you believe your mental health is suffering, please talk to a mental health professional. If you or someone you know needs support, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.