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How chronic stress impacts your health

Julia Park

Do you remember the last time you were getting ready for a big presentation or had an important meeting coming up? You likely felt a bit stressed. This
stress often translates into physical symptoms, like clammy hands, faster breathing, or sweating. Typically, our stress is acute, meaning that stress symptoms fade once the event is over. 

Chronic stress, on the other hand, is a different story altogether. When we experience long-term stress, our physical and mental health often suffer as a result. The truth is that our emotions, especially stress, have a huge impact on our health.

Stress does not discriminate—it affects individuals of all ages. According to the 2024 Muse Brain Health Report, Gen-Z experiences the highest levels of regular stress (65%) and burnout (52%), significantly more than Boomers, who report feeling stressed (29%) and burnt out (15%).

The mind-body connection is crucial, making stress management an essential daily practice. Continue reading to learn about its impact on our health and the tips to strengthen this connection, including using a neurofeedback tool, the Muse EEG headband.

The connection between your emotions, stress, and health

While we may consider stress an emotion, its medical definition is “the body’s response to physical, mental, and emotional pressure.” So when we experience emotions like anxiety, worry, overwhelm, or stress, our bodies translate those emotions into physical symptoms.

How does the stress response work?

Whether you have a big presentation coming up or are being chased by a bear, your stress response is virtually identical. That’s because the brain doesn’t distinguish between life-threatening stress and the stress most of us experience every day. 

Here's a step-by-step breakdown of how the stress response works:

  1. Initial trigger: When you experience stress, the hypothalamus in your brain acts as an alarm, setting off a chain reaction throughout the body.
  2. Activation of the sympathetic nervous system: This alarm triggers the "fight or flight" response, signaling through the central nervous system to the adrenal glands located above your kidneys.
  3. Hormone release: The adrenal glands release stress hormones, including adrenaline, which increases heart rate and blood pressure, and cortisol, known as "the stress hormone."
  4. Cortisol's effects: Cortisol raises glucose levels in the bloodstream for quick energy. It also primes the brain to use this energy and mobilizes resources for tissue repair.

However, the redirection of resources by cortisol has its trade-offs. It diverts energy from "non-essential" systems, such as the reproductive and digestive systems.

While the acute stress response typically doesn't lead to long-term health effects, chronic stress, where cortisol levels remain elevated, can significantly harm health over time. This prolonged exposure to high cortisol can lead to serious health issues.

The effects of chronic stress on the body

Stress affects many different systems throughout the body. According to the American Psychological Association (APA) and medically reviewed studies, the symptoms of chronic stress can include: 

  • Headaches and migraines
  • Muscle tension
  • Difficulty sleepingHelpful tip: The Muse S headband features the non-pharmaceutical Digital Sleeping Pill. This smart fade technology adjusts to your brain activity to provide audio cues that lull you to sleep and help keep you asleep.
  • Digestive issues
  • Shifts in appetite
  • Weight gain
  • Problems with memory
  • Impaired cognitive functioning (like concentration)
  • Difficulty with fertility and getting pregnant
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • High blood pressure and heart disease
  • Ischemia (lack of blood) and stroke

Proactive stress management is crucial for enhancing well-being. Research demonstrates that EEG-based devices like the Muse 2 headband are highly effective in managing stress. Muse, in particular, boasts a 92% accuracy rate in detecting perceived stress, offering a personalized approach to effectively manage your mental health.

It's important to understand that everyone experiences stress differently; not all stressors lead to the same symptoms. The impact of stress can vary based on its duration, severity, and an individual's unique physiological responses.

Stress and the brain

Studies show that long-term stress can significantly impact our brains, affecting memory, learning, and cognition. 

Stress and memory

The conversion of memories from short to long-term memories depends on the hippocampus, which reacts strongly to the stress response. When cortisol floods the hippocampus over the long term, it undergoes structural and functional changes. These changes often include atrophy, neurogenesis disorders, issues with spatial memory, and more. 

Stress also affects the amygdala, which regulates the emotional experience attached to a memory. 

On a positive note, research has found that as cortisol decreases, brain structure and functioning often return to normal.

Experiencing burnout and stress? You can improve your memory with these tips >>

Stress, learning, and cognition

Cognition refers to learning, decision-making, attention, reaction time, and judgment and involves the hippocampus, amygdala, and temporal lobe.

Glucocorticosteroids released during stress responses can cross the blood-brain barrier and cause long-term effects on cognition and processing. The pathophysiological manifestations of stress can elicit mood, behavioral, and cognitive disorders. In fact, research has found that chronic stress leads to changes in the brain similar to depression and mood disorders.

Additionally, chronic stress can halt neuron creation in one of the few brain regions where adults experience neurogenesis. Neurogenesis is essential to brain plasticity and health.

Stress and the immune system

Research has found that chronic stress downregulates immune system functioning. Stress hormones inhibit the production of cytokines and immune system mediators and decrease their effectiveness on target cells (like viruses). 

Severe stress also reduces the production of growth hormones. Growth hormones are responsible for regulating cholesterol, bone density, how our bodies collect fat, and muscle growth. By suppressing the immune system, stress hormones can lead to genetic instability, malignant cell formation, and tumor expansion.

Stress and the heart

Whether acute or chronic, stress negatively affects the cardiovascular system. A sympathetic nervous system response usually leads to:

  • Vasodilation (expansion) of arteries in skeletal muscles
  • Narrowing of veins
  • Increased heart rate
  • Stronger contraction of the heart
  • Contraction of spleen and kidney arteries 

By increasing vasoconstriction (narrowing of blood vessels), stress can increase the risk of: 

  • High blood pressure
  • Blood clotting disorders
  • Atherogenesis (plaque build-up in arteries)
  • Cardiac arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats)
  • Myocardial infarction (heart attack)

Long-term stress also increases the risk of ischemia (when part of the body isn’t receiving enough blood) and thrombosis (blood clots).

Meditation has proven to support heart health, including lowering blood pressure >>

Stress and the digestive system

Stress affects the digestive system in several ways. First, it often affects appetite. Second, it interferes with normal, healthy function of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. 

Studies show that stress can:

  • Inhibit the absorption process of food and nutrients
  • Prompt GI inflammation
  • Hinder mucus and stomach acid secretion (helps prevent intestinal infections, limit bacterial growth, and kill microorganisms in food)
  • Increase intestinal permeability (prevents food from crossing into the bloodstream, adipose tissue, and other organs)
  • Impacts GI mobility (either preventing or accelerative stomach emptying)

Stress’s impact on GI inflammation is particularly important. Stress heightens the GI tract’s sensitivity to inflammation, which can prompt even more inflammation. When left unchecked, this GI inflammation can lead to GI inflammatory diseases. Colitis, Crohn’s disease, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are all highly associated with stress.

5 ways to strengthen your mind-body connection

Strengthening your mind-body connection is one of the best things you can do to manage stress. Additionally, exploring the mind-body connection can give you greater insight into your body’s signals and needs. This can help you proactively preserve your emotional and mental health.

1. Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness is a powerful mental state that can help calm a busy mind and focus on the present moment. Often, a mindfulness practice can help manage stress, as it helps us accept what we can and can’t control. Research has found that a mindfulness routine can help manage depression, anxiety, and depression.

2. Try meditation

Meditation is an incredibly helpful tool for strengthening mindfulness. Although there are many types of meditation, most meditations help train concentration and acceptance

Consistent meditation practice can lead to structural and functional changes in the brain, bolstering resilience to stress. Our recent brain health report supports this, showing that millennials who meditate daily experience a remarkable 24% improvement in their brain health scores.

Incorporating tools like Muse, the meditation wearable, into your routine can foster better meditation habits. With over 500 meditation programs, Muse aids in achieving calm and focus. Among our users, 77% have reported gaining a better handle on their stress, and 78% felt more calm and relaxed.

Explore the Muse headbands and find the best one for you >>

3. Build a lifestyle that supports stress management

Invest in yourself and strengthen your resilience to stress by incorporating healthy habits into your life. Paying attention to your health, nutrition, exercise, doing activities you love, and limiting stressors is a great place to start.

4. Explore exercises to strengthen your mind-body connection

There are plenty of practices that can connect you more deeply with your body. Gentle movements like yoga and tai chi are great options. You can also try journaling, coloring, and progressive muscle relaxation to better manage stress.

5. Try cognitive behavioral therapy

If you try everything and your stress is still at an all-time high, you might want to explore cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is widely considered the gold standard of talk therapies. It is most often used to help shift our thought processes to improve mental and emotional health.

If you’re interested in learning more about lifestyle changes to reduce stress and optimize health, here’s an Untangle episode we highly recommend:

Get Ready to Experience More Calm & Focus in Your Life With Muse

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