Severe stress can have a profound physiological effect on the body. While small doses of stress or chronic low levels of stress are fairly normal for most people, extreme stress may create severe symptoms.
Immediate Physical Effects of Stress
The American Institute of Stress describes the physiological effects of stress on the body as it affects multiple systems.
- The nervous system prepares for fight or flight.
- The muscles tense.
- Breathing speeds.
- Heart rate increases.
- Blood vessels dilate.
- Stomach and intestines react.
While chronic stress can cause an array of long-term physical symptoms, severe stress causes symptoms arising from the fight or flight response.
Fight or Flight
When you encounter a stressful situation, your body exhibits the fight or flight response. This response is a physiological reaction to danger, which prepares you to take physical action as a direct response to perceived threat.
Humans most likely developed this response as a way to protect themselves from predators. While predators are seldom an issue of modern life for humans, the response remains. It serves as a protective mechanism that kicks in during stressful events.
During the fight or flight response, several changes take place on a cellular level.
- The stressful event transmits a danger signal to the hypothalamus.
- The hypothalamus then transmits a signal to the pituitary gland.
- The pituitary gland releases chemical messengers to the blood stream while the pituitary gland sends a danger signal to the adrenal glands.
- The adrenal glands release epinephrine (adrenaline).
- The brain also releases norepinephrine.
Once your body releases adrenaline, several responses occur:
- Your body produces cortisol.
- The chemical dilates the bronchioles in your lungs, relaxing them and allowing you to take in more oxygen.
- It stimulates a faster heartbeat.
- Epinephrine contracts muscles just below the surface of the skin, causing raised perspiration and goose bumps.
- Your muscles get temporarily stronger.
Norepinephrine works in concert with other chemicals in the body, triggering various physiological responses including:
- Elevated heart rate
- Triggering release of blood glucose
- Directing blood flow to the skeletal muscles
Severe Stress Symptoms
In cases of acute stress, these rapid changes in body chemistry cause a number of symptoms.
The release of adrenaline during a stressful event may cause multiple symptoms associated with the heart including:
You may also notice changes to your breathing during an extremely stressful event, notes the University of Texas Counciling and Mental Health Center. These changes include:
- Rapid breathing
- Shallower breathing
Increased blood flow and muscle contractions may cause a number of gastrointestinal changes during times of severe stress including:
- Stomach pain
When you are severely stressed, you may notice other changes associated with the chemical changes in your body, as well. These symptoms include:
- Flushing of the skin
- Increase in muscle tension
- Gooseflesh or raised hair on body skin
- Dilated pupils
- Dry mouth
- Heightened sensory activity
Returning to Normal
After the danger has abated, cortisol works to return your body to homeostasis, replenishing the energy your body expended during the fight or flight response. Once cortisol is in the bloodstream, it triggers multiple physiological responses that are important to fight off or run away from a dangerous situation. These responses include:
- Increases blood pressure to help return normal blood volume to the body's systems
- Immune system suppression
- Increased blood sugar
- Freeing of fatty acids to be used for energy
After an extremely stressful event, you may feel shaky, wired, or exhausted.
Acute stress can lead to stress disorders such as an acute stress disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder. If you believe you suffer from a stress disorder related to extreme stress, seek care from a qualified mental health professional.
While it is impossible to control when you experience extremely stressful events, you can learn to effectively manage your stress. With such a powerful connection between physiology and stress, doing so may help improve your health.