Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Under Pressure: What happens to a body that feels strain, anxiety?

Illustration by Stephen Haas

“I’m so stressed out,” is a common theme today.

Ask why and most people will point to another tragedy in the headlines, a work deadline, financial concerns or ongoing family obligations. Life and its daily grind, as well as catastrophic events, leave us emotionally and physically drained.

Stress affects everyone at some point. But the kind of stress and the duration can have a significant impact on your overall health. So, how does stress affect your body?

Stress in general triggers a number of bodily responses. These can have a direct and indirect impact on your overall health and also your cardiovascular health.

Acute stress is the kind that happens suddenly and all at once. A job loss, death in the family or personal Illness can wreak havoc on your emotional and physical wellbeing. The physical effects include changes in sleep patterns, upset stomach, headaches and muscle tension, as well as anxiety and depression, depending on the person. Research has linked depression and heart disease, and each can lead to the other.

Chronic stress occurs over a longer period of time. It negatively affects your cardiovascular system by increasing your heart rate and constricting blood flow. Anyone who has experienced pressure at work, coupled with the demands of carpooling the kids or caring for ailing parents, knows all about chronic stress. Often, we feel these situations are out of our control. Therefore, we endure them, thinking there is no solution.

If this goes on too long, it could lead to hypertension, commonly called high blood pressure. This can have a profound effect on all of your body, especially your cardiovascular system. Also, elevated levels of the stress hormones catecholamines can damage the heart. They increase the oxygen demand on the body and lead to electrical instability in the heart’s conduction system.

This most often happens in an acute stress setting. A reaction that threatens the patient’s heart health can lead to a heart attack, abnormal heart rhythms and even stroke.

There is a condition called Takotsubo cardiomyopathy. It is more commonly referred to as “broken-heart syndrome” or stress-induced cardiomyopathy. It is the result of a rush of stress hormones causing the heart to become dilated and leads to reduced heart function. This often occurs after a traumatic event, such as the loss of a loved one. This could be a life-threatening event. Initially, it can feel and look very similar to a heart attack.


The heart isn’t the only thing to suffer under acute or chronic stress. Our waistline also can take a toll. Some people may eat or drink to deal with emotions and find solace in their favorite treats. Increased cortisol levels from stress can cause your blood sugar to drop and lead you to crave sugary foods and overeat. And let’s face it, when we’re angry or sad, healthy food choices are often not the first thing that crosses our mind. Usually, in times of despair, foods high in sugar, fat and sodium appeal to the senses. Unfortunately, this can lead to obesity, which also contributes to other diseases, placing further strain on the body.

If you carry extra weight around the abdomen, you’re increasing the fat around your organs. This can lead to heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other illnesses. This toxic fat is a gel-like substance located deep in the belly. Storing this kind can be dangerous for the liver, kidneys, pancreas and heart because it causes inflammation and interferes with the body’s normal functions.

Moderation is key. Allowing yourself “forbidden” treats once in a while or after a bad day is acceptable. However, weeks of reaching for the chips, ice cream, alcohol or fried foods can lead to weight gain. That can increase your chance of developing diabetes or other obesity-related health concerns. And this will only add to your stress levels.

A sugar-filled binge not only causes your blood sugar to drop, immediately changing your energy levels and mood. But when you are under stress, the digestive system also is impacted, leading to constipation, heartburn, acid reflux, nausea and sometimes diarrhea.

Gas, bloating, stomach pain and weight gain are common for people experiencing ongoing worry. Stomach ulcers are not believed to be a consequence of acute or chronic stress. However, stress can exacerbate the situation and trigger a disease already existing in a patient like inflammatory bowel, celiac or ulcerative colitis.

Dr. Jason Stuck is a cardiologist at UPMC Pinnacle. For more information on wellness issues, visit


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