Stress can impact your mental health, but it can also affect your physical well-being.
Whether you experience it occasionally or you face it frequently, stress can creep up on us all at some point. While we often think of how stress affects our mental health, the strain it can put on our bodies is just as important to consider.
Stress can affect every area of our body, from our ability to fight off viruses to how we digest food.
Understanding just what stress does to our bodies can help reduce its effects. By taking intentional steps to reduce stress and its symptoms, we can mitigate stress’s strain on our physical health.
It can often feel as if stress affects only your mental health, but it can also have a significant impact on your physical well-being. When stress occurs, your body reacts.
To defend against stress, your body unleashes hormones that speed up your heart rate, tense your muscles, and boost your immune system. Once stress passes, your body resumes its usual state.
With chronic or prolonged stress, though, your body may remain in a state of stress defense, and you may find yourself experiencing symptoms such as:
- headaches or migraines
- muscle pain
Chronic stress can impact your entire body — from the nervous system to the reproductive system. No area is exempt from the effects of stress.
Stress can trigger your body’s fight, flight, or freeze response, which is controlled by your central nervous system (CNS).
When stress is perceived, your brain sends signals throughout your body. You’ll likely experience an uptick in adrenaline and cortisol (also known as stress hormones), as well as an increase in your heart rate. This reaction prepares you to face (or flee) the challenge ahead.
Your CNS will likely go back to business as usual once the stress has passed. In cases of chronic stress, however, your body may remain in a defensive response.
This can contribute to behaviors like turning to drugs or alcohol for support, over or under-eating, or feeling anxious or depressed — which can all, in turn, create additional stress.
The release of stress hormones can put your respiratory and cardiovascular systems into overdrive.
Airways in your lungs will widen to allow more oxygen to flow to your brain, causing your breathing to become quicker. While this is meant to help sharpen your senses and increase alertness, it can also make breathing more difficult — especially for those with conditions such as asthma, emphysema, or chronic bronchitis.
The extra adrenaline released during the stress response also causes an increase in blood flow. Your heart rate and blood pressure rise as your body works to pump blood to your heart, muscles, and other vital organs, preparing them to react.
Experiencing long-term stress puts strain on your heart by forcing it to work harder more often, increasing your risk of developing high blood pressure or experiencing a heart attack or stroke.
There are various ways stress can wreak havoc on your digestive system. For some, stress can cause stomach discomfort, including pain, bloating, or nausea. Others may experience diarrhea, constipation, or even irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Stress can also trigger an increase in glucose levels, which may increase the risks associated with type 2 diabetes.
According to a 2005 review, stress may not affect only existing cases of diabetes, but it may also contribute to its development. Findings have been mixed, though, and more research is needed in this area.
To protect themselves, your muscles tense up when stress occurs but will usually relax once the stress passes. Chronic stress, however, can prolong muscle tension.
This can lead to headaches and migraines, as well as aches and pains in the shoulders, back, and extremities.
Long-term stress can have lasting effects on male and female reproductive systems. Stress can also impact a person’s sex drive. Stress can mentally and physically wear you out, and you may find yourself avoiding sexual activity.
Women may experience changes both before and during their menstrual cycles. Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms may worsen, and periods themselves can become heavier, more painful, or irregular.
Those going through menopause may also notice heightened symptoms when stressed due to increased hormone levels.
Research also shows that stress may also make it difficult to become pregnant or can complicate an existing pregnancy.
In men, chronic stress can cause testosterone levels to drop, impact sperm production, or even lead to issues such as:
- erectile dysfunction
- infections in the prostate or testes
Your immune system is activated by stress, helping you avoid infections and heal faster. But while stress can give your immune system a positive boost in the moment, chronic stress can eventually weaken its effectiveness.
This can make it harder to recover after getting sick or injured. It can also cause you to contract viruses — like a cold or the flu — more easily and leave you more open to other infections or illnesses.
Stress isn’t always avoidable, but it is manageable. There are many ways that you can lessen or even eliminate stress when it creeps up.
- Try to listen to your body. Learning what triggers stress and how your body reacts to it can help you identify ways to combat your specific stress symptoms.
- Consider doing an activity you love. Bingeing your favorite show, writing in your journal, listening to music, or reading a book can soothe stress and make you feel happier and more calm.
- Try to exercise regularly. Exercise increases your endorphin levels, which can elevate your mood and boost energy.
- Consider a relaxing activity. Meditation, mindfulness, muscle relaxation, or other soothing activities can help ease symptoms of stress.
- Engage with others. While asking for help isn’t always easy (especially when we’re feeling stressed), connecting with others for support can help ease stress.
- Speaking with a professional. A healthcare or mental health professional can provide you with resources or suggest treatment for managing your stress.
We often associate stress with how it affects our mental health, but its physical effects are just as important to understand.
Our bodies respond to stress by releasing hormones and triggering reactions that help defend and protect our overall well-being.
This includes elevating your heart rate to pump blood to your vital organs, increasing your breathing to spread energy-giving oxygen throughout your body, and boosting your immune system to prevent any infectious attack.
When stress eases, our bodies relax and resume business as usual. But when we experience chronic or prolonged bouts of stress, our bodies may be prevented from returning to a relaxed state.
This can negatively impact your health, from lowering your immune defenses and raising your blood pressure to causing digestive or reproductive issues.
By taking intentional, actionable steps, you can reduce the impact of stress. Engaging in activities you enjoy, regularly exercising, connecting with loved ones, or seeking the guidance of a healthcare or mental health professional can all help you overcome stress.