Physical complaints due to long-term stress

Eight out of ten people have physical complaints such as back pain, headache, fatigue, chest pain or abdominal pain one or more times a week. In the vast majority of cases, these complaints are ‘harmless’ and disappear on their own after a short time. One of the main causes of these types of harmless complaints is stress. Stress is a form of tension that arises in our body as a result of an external stimulus. Long-term stress can negatively affect health. Stress is basically a reaction of the body to any stimulus that causes tension. We don’t just react with stress to real dangers, like a car coming straight at us. Even when we expect (or fear) that a certain situation may be dangerous or threatening, our body can show a stress response. For example, when you are about to be late or have to take an exam. Positive situations can also cause stress, such as the preparations for a wedding or competition (‘competition tension’). However, this type of stress is generally only short-lived. After a moment, the body releases the tension and returns to its normal, relaxed state.
Most people experience moments of stress almost every day. Even if it is caused by a negative stimulus, such as the fear of punishment, a short-term moment of stress cannot do any harm . For some people, this type of stress even has a positive effect. It enables them to deliver better performance, for example, this regularly happens when an employee is close to a deadline.

The body’s response to stress

Stress is associated with increased physiological activity. It is an emergency response of the body to a threatening situation. The body prepares itself, as it were, to ‘fight or flee’. The situation is initially evaluated in our brains. If the situation is assessed as ‘threatening’, the nervous system orders, among other things, to produce adrenaline. In addition, the brain stimulates the body to produce corticosteroids, including the stress hormone cortisol. If this stress hormone enters the blood, it leads to an increase in blood sugar levels and a faster metabolism. The adrenaline causes your blood pressure to rise, your heart rate and breathing to increase, and your palms to sweat. All muscles in your body tense. Our brain comes into a heightened state of readiness, allowing us to respond faster to events, improving our memory and sharpening our senses. The body is prepared to withstand the threat.

Physical complaints as a result of long-term stress

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Stress in itself is a positive phenomenon; it allows us to resist threats that come our way. Once the danger has passed, the bodily functions return to their normal levels and the body can recover. However, if the stress lasts too long or if the situations that cause tension come together too quickly, our body has insufficient time to recover and becomes exhausted. Long-term stress is therefore unhealthy. Our muscles, especially those of the head, neck and back, are constantly under tension. They do not get the chance to recover and sour. They feel painful and stiff, especially when you get up in the morning.
The tired muscles cannot provide enough stability to the joints. Over time, joint pain occurs. The constant muscle tension also often leads to chronic headaches. The continuous production of adrenaline and cortisol exhausts the body and lowers resistance, causing a higher susceptibility to infections and diseases. The high blood pressure and rapid heart rate and breathing can cause dizziness, blurred or double vision, cold hands and feet, insomnia and hyperventilation. But memory problems, heart complaints, intestinal complaints and eczema can also arise from long-term stress. Ultimately, long-term stress can lead to severe nervousness or anxiety disorders and depression.

Everyone reacts differently to a ‘stress situation’

Stress is provoked by a so-called ‘stressor’. This could be anything, such as a major emotional event, minor irritations (traffic jam, clothes lying around), worrying about the future, concerns about your health or workload. However, a certain stressor or situation does not lead to the same amount of stress for everyone. This depends, among other things, on your internal experience; your personal feelings about the situation and the possibilities you see to change the situation. For example, are you someone who sees unknown situations as a challenge or are you more inclined to see them as a problem or danger? Previous experiences with similar situations also partly determine the amount of stress you experience at a given time. Research shows that factors such as noise, lack of sleep, drug or alcohol use and a high ambient temperature can influence your body’s stress response to a certain situation.

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Prolonged mental effort and work pressure eventually lead to unhealthy stress for many people. Situations that threaten our basic needs such as safety, health and love often result in long-term stress. Examples of this are losing a loved one, serious illness and impending dismissal.
Your body can also show a stress response (long) after the stressor has occurred. A well-known example of this is a tension headache that mainly occurs during weekends or holidays. A more extreme example of this is post-traumatic stress disorder, which is the result of a traumatic event (for example war, a violent robbery or rape). This disorder can sometimes only occur months later and last for a long time.

Physical complaints due to stress are not simply psychological

The complaints caused by long-term stress are not caused by a physical abnormality. However, this does not mean that the complaints are not real or purely psychological. There is indeed a physical reaction that leads to various complaints. Many people feel misunderstood when their GP sends them home with the message that there is nothing physically wrong and that stress is the culprit. Especially when the person in question does not feel any stress or tension. However, physical reactions to stress can occur without you (consciously) experiencing stress.
Stress can lead to a vicious circle. A stressor , for example threatened dismissal, leads to long-term stress. Long-term stress leads to various physical complaints. This will make you seriously concerned about your health. These worries can be a new stressor and therefore in turn lead to (long-term) stress. It is therefore always important to find out whether stress may be a cause of your physical complaints. Various stress questionnaires are available for this purpose. The occurrence of a number of physical complaints at the same time (continuous back pain, frequent headaches, stiffness when getting up and fatigue) can also be an important indication.
Always go to the doctor if you have persistent physical complaints. Even if you suspect that stress is the cause. Your GP can help you reduce the symptoms. A psychologist can also teach you how to deal with your stress complaints or sensitivity to stress, for example by teaching you how to set boundaries, how to exercise control over certain situations or how to say ‘no’ more often when you are called upon. .

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