A little stress can be a good thing. Sometimes in life, we need that extra jolt, that little kick in the seat to hit a deadline, nail a presentation, or otherwise rise to the occasion. The problem comes when we give ourselves a jolt we don’t need—sitting in a traffic jam, for instance—and turn that jolt into a sustained current of fight-or-flight. That’s when stress hurts. High blood pressure, shortness of breath, insomnia, depression, and anxiety are all familiar calling cards of high stress. But being on high alert all the time takes its toll on the body in other ways. Here are a few of the more unusual ways stress affects your body and what you can do to keep those stress levels down.
Weakened Immune System
When you’re under a lot of stress, your body goes to work trying to mitigate it. In response, the body releases cortisol, an anti-inflammatory hormone. Long-term elevated cortisol builds resistance in the body to its properties, meaning that it cannot decrease inflammation when necessary. Additionally, stress reduces the production of lymphocytes, the white blood cells that form the rank and file of your immune system. With fewer lymphocytes ready to fight, you’re at a higher risk for infection. To keep cortisol down and lymphocytes up, make time in your day for moderate cardiovascular exercise, and set a few minutes aside for basic mindfulness.
High Intraocular Pressure
Your eyes are a part of the body that can ill afford to be under pressure. Elevated stress levels raise the pressure level of intraocular fluid, the fluid within the eyes. Sustained high pressure damages the optic nerve, the nerve that sends signals from the eyes to the brain. If going to the eye doctor makes you nervous, even the extra tension you feel could manifest itself in the measurements your ophthalmologist takes, yielding a pressure reading that isn’t indicative of your normal levels. If visits make you nervous, take deep breaths and remind yourself that you should have nothing to worry about. Just don’t close your eyes during the exam.
One of the more unusual ways stress affects your body is by compromising digestion. When the body is in fight-or-flight mode, it’s trying to get its priorities straight in an emergency. For most humans, navigating a crisis is not concurrent with sitting down to enjoy a meal. Though we’ve become more sedentary, we haven’t lost our old instincts, and the body’s hardwired response to put digestion on the backburner remains in place, leading to stomach pain, nausea, and other problems. Not only will exercise and mindfulness lower your stress levels, but relaxation techniques can help you not to sweat the small stuff, which means your body will have an easier time digesting food.