The Health Effects of Stress

By Katharine Paljug  @kpaljug
January 23, 2017

Stress can have a negative impact on both your mental and physical health. Learn more about the health effects of stress and how to reduce stress in your life.

Stress is how your body and brain respond to a demand in your environment. These demands can be mental, emotional, or physical. The National Institute of Mental Health explains that this response developed as an essential survival skill, allowing you to process and react to changes that could be life-threatening.

The positive effects of stress

When your brain responds to a demand, or stress, it releases the hormones cortisol and adrenaline. These cause immediate changes in your body that prepare you to think and react quickly. 

Energy is diverted away from areas like your reproductive system and digestion, which are not immediately necessary. Your pulse speeds up, as does your breathing, allowing your heart to pump more blood and send more oxygen to your muscles and brain. Your muscles can then tense and prepare for action, and your brain is ready to process information at a rapid pace. This allows you to make fast decisions and take immediate physical action.


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The effects of cortisol

This reaction was essential when humans needed to avoid predators, and it can still be life-saving if you are ever faced with a threat such as a natural disaster. However, your body reacts this same way to non-life threatening changes, such as a big meeting at work or a phone call from a difficult relative. 

In small bursts, these increased hormone levels are not problematic. Responding to “good” stress, as one article published in the Annual Review of Medicine reports, can help you grow, adapt, and learn in beneficial ways. Adrenaline helps you perform well in physical situations, such as running a marathon, while cortisol can help you think rapidly under pressure. Good stress can even improve your health. 

However, when you undergo constant or chronic stress, these elevated levels of adrenaline and cortisol are no longer temporary, and the changes they cause become your body’s new normal. This is known as toxic stress, and these effects of stress can cause a variety of health problems. 


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The health effects of stress

Several studies about the effects of stress have found that chronic stress can harm both your physical and mental health. 

Cortisol causes your liver to produce extra glucose, which your body can use for energy. Chronic levels of stress can permanently elevate your blood sugar, which some studies have linked to an increased risk of developing diabetes. Stress can also cause gastrointestinal problems, with multiple studies finding links between stress and conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers, and gastroesophageal reflux. 

In some cases, the health effects of stress can be life-threatening. Studies have shown that the increased heart rate and blood flow associated with high cortisol levels can increase your risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, heart attacks, and other cardiovascular problems. One study estimated that between 20 and 40 percent of sudden cardiac deaths were preceded by acute emotional stress. 

Other researchers have found that stress can weaken your immune system, cause migraines, and contribute to infertility. Some animal studies have even found that chronic stress increases the risk of developing cancer

Your mental health can also suffer as a result of too much stress. Research by the Brain Mind Institute found that chronically high levels of cortisol can cause poor memory and antisocial behavior. Other studies have linked stress with depression and anxiety, while research published in 2009 showed that high levels of childhood stress can lead to poor mental health as an adult. 

How to reduce stress

While some amount of stress is inevitable, and can actually be beneficial, too much stress in your life can have many causes, including family life, marital trouble, work, school, personal finances, traumatic events, physical danger, and your social environment. However, regardless of your source of stress, there are strategies you can use to decrease your levels of cortisol and adrenaline. 

The National Institute of Mental Health recommends relying on the emotional support of friends and family, avoiding alcohol and drugs, and engaging in regular physical activity to lower stress levels. Recent studies have also found that regular meditation can reduce stress and improve both mental and physical health. 

Other health institutions, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, offer resources for dealing with stress caused by traumatic events or work. And if you need help lowering your stress levels and managing your health, be sure to consult your doctor or a mental health professional. 


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April 03, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA