By Stephen J. Praetorius.
We all get stressed out at one point or another, especially this time of year. Between the pain of travel and and the stress of shopping for presents, guilt over eating too much and the pressure of your company holiday party—not to mention that whole “what the hell is even going on anymore” political climate we’ve been dealing with, and the awkward Thanksgiving conversations that it’ll almost certainly provoke—it makes sense that a person’s blood pressure might end up spiking in a big way once or twice (or ten times, or twenty) over the next few weeks. Give it time. It’ll pass.
Then again, what if it didn’t? What if, instead of entering January with a clean slate and Zen-like mind, you started off the New Year with a head full of worry and a knot in your gut wound up so tight it felt like you had a grapefruit resting on your diaphragm? Well, that’s what we’re here to discuss because, for a lot of chronically anxious, overworked, and otherwise stressed-the-hell-out folks out there, that’s the reality. And long story short, without figuring out a way to fix that, they’re going to suffer some pretty gnarly consequences, and quick.
You see, besides feeling mentally shitty, a constant state of stress can also do a whole lot of not-great to the body, leaving you looking and feeling like more and more of a hot mess the longer you go without chilling out. But before we get to the what, let’s talk about the how. In that regard, it all comes down to hormones.
There are three major players are at work here: adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. The first two you might know; they’re the hormones that skyrocket when you’re in danger, activating that trusty ol’ fight-or-flight response we all know and love. That last one, cortisol, you might not; it’s part of a class of hormones called glucocorticoids, and it functions at the same time as adrenaline and noradrenaline by telling the body to access more energy and use it more efficiently. It also aids the body in repairing tissue, and cuts off non-vital functions when other more important things need to be done.
Taken together, these three hormones are ideal when you’ve got to haul your ass out of a house on fire, or fight off a bear. The trouble arises when chronic stress leads the body to release these them on the daily, putting you in a variation of a fight-or-flight state on a semi-permanent basis, as nature sure-as-shit never intended. Because that’s when things start getting wonky.
Let’s start from the top, shall we? That is, up in your brain. Over time, increased levels of cortisol can cause major issues with memory, attention span, learning, perception, sleep, the list goes on; essentially all the things you want to be on-point to put your best foot forward every day. Some scientists suspect that it could have to do with how the stress affects the hippocampus, the cranial center that’s been linked to creating long-term memories, among other parts of the brain. Oh, and another fun fact: you can actually feel withdrawal symptoms from stress, essentially meaning that after long periods of stress, you can feel stressed out that you’re not stressed out. Awesome.
Next up, the heart and blood. You know how when you’re feeling really stressed out, it might feel like your heart is pounding harder than ever? Well, that’s because it is. And this increased blood pressure and pulse can cause major damage to the heart and arteries, leading to things like heart disease, hypertension, and even stroke. Aside from that, though, it can also lead to diabetes; that’s because cortisol changes the way the body processes sugar, and, over time, that can lead to problems processing insulin.
On to the gut. Like we mentioned, as part of the fight-or-flight response, cortisol tells the body to stop paying attention to non-vital processes and focus on getting your ass out of trouble. Part of that means shutting down digestion because, well, who’s got time to shit when you’re fearing for your life. Unfortunately, cortisol can do the same thing when you’re chronically anxious, slowing down digestion and increasing your chances of weight gain and obesity.
Aside from those major disruptions, chronic stress has also been known to disrupt collagen production, break down muscles, decrease the effectiveness of the immune system, and cause your hair to grey prematurely, among others.
And if all that hasn’t convinced you to figure out a way to relax—be it through yoga, therapy, long, hot showers, or otherwise—maybe this will: stress will kill your sex drive. Because, you guessed it, sex is non-essential, at least survival-wise, so cortisol will cut off any freaky urge long before you even get a semi.
Talk about adding insult to injury.
This story originally appeared on GQ.com.
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This story originally appeared on GQ.
*More from GQ: