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How does stress affect health?

Abstract: What are typical reactions of the body to stress? How does it affect health?

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How does stress affect health?

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Written by: Martin Winkler
First version: 22 Jul 2008.
Latest revision: 29 Aug 2008.

What happens in the body when you are submitted to stress, workload, anger? How does stress affect health?


Stress can be any unspecific demand to adapt to a critical situation within a very short time. This has been described as "fight-or-flight" reaction (Walter Cannon). Our body reacts in a way that has been developed in primeval times, very well suited to run away, react very fast or hunt a wild animal.

These physiological adjustment reactions have been described by the Canadian stress reseacher Selye. Their purpose is to stimulate the bodily functions for a short time (30 minutes) in case of emergency. So the body reacts to any kind of loads, stress or adaptibility requirements in a very similar way:

  • Acceleration of the heart rate, better perfusion
  • Increase of the blood pressure
  • Increase of the ventilation (hyperventilation)
  • Better perfusion of muscles
  • Change of blood-clotting
  • The skin becomes tense
Any body reactions that are not necessary to respond to the immediate danger are decreased:
  • low gastro-intestinal functions
  • lower immune reaction -> higher risk for infections
  • lower sexual functions
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