Stress is a normal part of life. But the effects of stress on the body, if traumatic or chronic, can be serious, causing numerous health problems.
Everyone experiences stress from time to time, even children. Not only is it a normal part of life, but stress can be beneficial. It triggers physiological reactions that help us think and act quickly when faced with an immediate task we need to focus on — or when faced with a threatening situation.
Stress can result from an exciting and positive event — like preparing for a wedding or heading out on a dream trip — or a happy, sudden occurrence you didn’t expect, such as winning money or being tapped for a huge promotion.
But sudden stress can also be caused by difficult, unexpected changes, such as being diagnosed with a serious illness, losing a spouse through death or divorce, or being laid off from your job without warning. Stress can also be caused by witnessing or directly experiencing a traumatic event — such as a life-threatening natural disaster, military battle, car accident, or criminal assault.
Usually, stress due to daily stressors (like job or school pressures or responsibilities at home) isn’t recognized as quickly as sudden or traumatic stress. But if stress becomes a frequent or ongoing part of daily life, your mental and physical health can suffer.
It’s important to recognize the effects of stress on the body and work to reduce the stress in your life — because, without effective coping mechanisms, stress can cause symptoms in multiple parts of your body. And, over time, unrelenting stress may even result in serious medical problems.
Understanding the effects of stress on the body
It's totally normal for your body to have physiological reactions to stressors. For example, if you are nervous before a job interview or before giving a speech, you may experience some obvious but usually not overwhelming effects of stress on your body. Your heart beating faster than usual and you may feel “butterflies” in your stomach.
But if you find yourself in a dangerous situation, stress hormones flood your body as you go into survival mode, preparing to fight or flee. Your breathing and pulse rate speed up dramatically as your brain uses more oxygen and muscles tense, ready to act.
If your daily life comes with a chronic level of stress due to your job or family issues, you may not even notice your body’s ongoing stress response — but it can be causing both emotional and physical symptoms.
Bottom line: Despite the fact there are different kinds and levels of stress, all can put mental and physical health at risk, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) — especially if you suffer a serious trauma or if stressors are constant in your life.
If you are unable to recognize and cope with stress adequately, the resulting effects of stress on your body can be suppressed immune, digestive, sleep, and reproductive systems. And when these areas of your body are not working normally, physical and mental symptoms can develop.
Look: Ongoing stress can make you sick
Different people may feel the effects of stress in different ways. For example, some who experience traumatic stress, including the shock of losing a loved one or experiencing or witnessing a violent or frightening event, often experience temporary symptoms of mental illness, but most recover naturally soon afterwards, the NIH points out.
Others may develop short-term or ongoing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with symptoms including nightmares and flashbacks of the stressful event and physiological reactions as if the body is still in “fight or flight” mode — including being easily startled and over-reactive to anything that reminds the person of the trauma.
However, far more people suffer from chronic stress than PTSD, and many don’t recognize their physical symptoms could be the result of ongoing stress.
When the cause of the stress is constant, compared to acute or traumatic stress, your body stays revved up in stress mode to some degree — it doesn’t get a clear signal to return to normal functioning, the NIMH explains.
The result for some people with ongoing stress is digestive symptoms (including nausea, heartburn, or diarrhea); others may have headaches, insomnia, and emotional symptoms such as depression, anger, or irritability. What’s more, living with chronic stress can make you more susceptible to frequent and severe viral infections, such as the flu or common cold.
More common health problems linked to stress
You should never assume new or troublesome symptoms are due to stress. Always get checked out by your doctor. But do consider how stress may be causing or contributing to your symptoms.
The American Psychological Association (APA) notes these common health problems can be triggered or worsened by chronic stress:
Musculoskeletal tension and pain. Millions of people suffer from chronic painful conditions and often, but not always, an accident or injury started the pain. But the effects of stress on the body can also play a role. Muscle tension is a way the body automatically guards against injury and pain when faced with stress, and your muscles to be in chronic state of being guarded, taunt, tense, and even painful if your life is stressful.
Breathing problems. Being under stress makes you breathe harder. If you have asthma or other lung problems, you may experience more difficulty breathing due to ongoing stress.
Heart and blood pressure woes. Chronic stress is accompanied by increased levels of hormones and elevated blood pressure. That can take a serious toll on your cardiovascular system over time, increasing the risk for hypertension, heart attack, or stroke.
Reproduction and sexual problems. The stress hormone cortisol can negatively impact sperm production and cause erectile dysfunction or impotence in men. In women, stress can result in irregular or absent menstrual cycles, worsen premenstrual syndrome symptoms, and make menopause symptoms more severe. Chronic stress can also lower sexual desire.
Type 2 diabetes risk. Blood sugar levels increase substantially after stress triggers the release of the hormones cortisol and epinephrine. This chronic stress-caused high blood sugar can cause type 2 diabetes to develop in people who are susceptible to the disease, the APA notes.
We can’t emphasize this enough: Get help for ongoing stress
The negative effects of stress on the body don’t have to inevitable. First, you must recognize the signs of stress, including difficulty sleeping, volatile moods, and having low energy. Then use these tips to take control and soothe the effects of stress on the body:
- Get moving. Just going for a walk 30 minutes a day can lower stress levels, according the NIMH.
- Eat healthy. Skip fast food and concentrate on eating well-balanced meals.
- Don’t skimp on sleep. Keep your room dark and quiet and stick to a specific bedtime.
- Open up. Talk to friends, family, or your doctor about ongoing stressful problems. Seek counseling with a psychologist or therapy, if needed.
- Don’t try to cope with drugs and alcohol. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns turning to drugs and alcohol won’t relieve stress — instead, you’ll increase the effects of stress on your body.
- Give yourself a break. If news events are increasing your stress level, give yourself permission to stop listening or watching the news for a while.
January 22, 2019
Janet O’Dell, RN