There is a strong relationship between stress and illness, both physical and psychological. This is because the acute stress response takes a toll on your body over time if these biological responses do not return to normal baseline levels fairly rapidly. Here are some of the effects of a long-term elevated stress response:
- Repeatedly encountering terrifying or life-threatening events can sensitize your amygdala. This means that it can take less and less to activate the amygdala and send you into high-alert. This can cause the feeling of being chronically alert and jumpy after exposure to trauma.
- Recurrently high levels of glucocorticoids can cause cells in the hippocampus to shrink. This can compromise the brain’s ability to lay down and consolidate new memories. The good news is that both amygdala sensitization and hippocampus damage are potentially reversible. Cell regeneration can occur in the hippocampus and some other areas of the brain.
- Continued adrenaline presence in the bloodstream increases cholesterol production, decreases the rate at which cholesterol is removed from the bloodstream, and increases the deposition of plaque on the arterial walls. All of these conditions are associated with an increased risk of experiencing stroke and heart disease.
- More platelets in the blood promote clotting. This is very useful if you are physically injured, as it helps slow blood loss. However, over time, this can also increase your risk of experiencing a heart attack or a stroke.
- Stress-related changes in circulation may contribute to high blood pressure and migraine headaches.
- Cortisol impairs the effectiveness of some types of white blood cells that play a key role in your immune system. A weakened immune system makes the body more vulnerable to infection, colds, flu, and even certain types of cancer.
- An increased level of acid production in the stomach increases the risk of experiencing chronic stomach and digestive upsets.
- Chronically depleted endorphin levels can lead to less effective natural pain relief and a lowering of the sense of well-being that is typically produced by the presence of endorphins. This can lead to increased arthritis pain and severe headaches. Low endorphin levels may also contribute to the temptation to take drugs (e.g., caffeine and other substances) that increase or mimic the effects of endorphins.