The Long-Term Effects That Stress & Anxiety Can Have on Your Body | Guest Post by Shane McCarthy

Human nervous system model

Stress and anxiety, in the short term, can have strange effects on both the body and mind. They can make us feel concerned, fearful, estranged, loathsome, and paranoid. Physically, they can lead us to feel fatigued, wired, tense, and in pain. The way they affect us depends on the person and the levels at which they are taking place, but they can present other symptoms when remaining in a person’s life for a long period of time.

Long-term stress and anxiety can prove to be significantly harmful to the human body, as they can exacerbate and worsen the symptoms that might already be occurring. If any of these symptoms sound familiar, you might be dealing with a long-term, underlying form of stress and anxiety that has either gone unnoticed or undiagnosed. Here are just a few of the ways that both stress and anxiety can affect you over time.

Stomach and Digestion Problems

There are millions of neurons inside of the gut, and the entire digestive system—intestines to esophagus—is an intricate system that can become irritated by the slightest disturbance. As some might know, the connection between the brain and digestive system is quite strong—it’s one of the reasons we feel “butterflies” when we’re anxious about a nerve-wracking situation. If the brain is feeling stressed or anxious, it can take said effects and branch them to elsewhere in the body. For the gut and digestive system, this usually means a certain type of upset and pain.

In the esophagus, stress and anxiety will usually cause a common occurrence of heartburn and acid reflux, leaving the chest with a burning, aching discomfort. For the stomach and bowels, people will usually feel a great deal of bloating, pressure, and internal pain. These effects can be followed by long-term constipation or occurring diarrhea. The latter outcome is especially burdensome, as the rapid digestion of food means that the body is not able to absorb necessary nutrients required for maintaining health for time to come.

Hair Loss and Thinning

Just as long-term stress and anxiety have an effect on the internal parts of your body, they can have deleterious effects on the outside, too. Most notably, stress and anxiety can both cause and increase the rate of hair loss and thinning. Hair loss happens for numerous reasons and, most often, it is a product of a person’s genetics, brought about by a condition known as androgenetic alopecia. Yet, extreme amounts of stress and anxiety can lead to an overall weakening of hair, both across the body and on the scalp. Under such circumstances, hair can become brittle, thin, and frayed and might even fall out. This can lead to bald spots appearing on different parts of the body, especially on the head, with those affected noticing more hair falling out while showering or combing their hair.

Such an affect is burdensome, and it can lead to an ever-increasing amount of stress, then compounded by a worry over the condition and health of a person’s hair. Thankfully, there are FDA-cleared devices available on the market that can be used for hair regrowth in individuals struggling with genetic hair loss and hair thinning. While this might not solve the issue outright for all people, it can thankfully be a remedy to resolve overall stress concerning outward appearance.

Changes in Sex Drive

As stated before, long-term stress and anxiety can lead to many different types of physical symptoms. In some cases, these symptoms might manifest by negatively affecting a person’s sex life. Effects in men will usually range from impotence to premature ejaculation, while women might have bouts of vaginal dryness; however, both sexes tend to see a loss of sexual desire, which can be a further impediment of a person’s overall sex life. Some people might see effects related to their reproductive systems, too, with women having irregular periods and an inability to become/remain pregnant, while men will see decreases in their overall sperm production.

The Nervous and Immune System

With continued stress comes the compromise of the nervous system. Both the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) can be affected by long-term stress and anxiety. Under anxiety and stress, the SNS will trigger the “fight or flight” response. This response will flood the body with both adrenaline and cortisol, which will cause other autonomic processes to take place, including increased respiration rate, increased heart rate, dilation of blood vessels, and stress upon the digestive system.

Following this SNS response, the PNS will take over, which, when compromised, can lead to exaggerations of further autonomic responses. The issue with having both of these systems being over-reactive is that both the SNS and PNS can become too used to triggers of this “fight or flight” response, which can lead to continued elevated feelings of stress. Furthermore, long-term stress on the nervous system can lead other defensive systems to become fatigued, such as the body’s immune system, which can lead to increased chances of illness, fatigue, and disease.

It is for the best if long-term stress and anxiety can be avoided. While this is a difficult thing to do, it is in your best interest to take the proper steps to ensure you are putting your health first, above all else, and taking the time each day to guarantee you are taken care of. If you ever feel lost or need someone to talk to about ongoing stress and anxiety, consider reaching out to your primary care physician, a therapist, or a helpline. It’s better to seek help than to continue struggling alone.

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