Stress cause physical symptoms

Physical Effects of Stress on the Body

In this Article

Stress affects us all. You may notice symptoms of stress when disciplining your kids, during busy times at work, when managing your finances, or when coping with a challenging relationship. Stress is everywhere. And while a little stress is OK -- some stress is actually beneficial -- too much stress can wear you down and make you sick, both mentally and physically.

The first step to controlling stress is to know the symptoms of stress. But recognizing stress symptoms may be harder than you think. Most of us are so used to being stressed, we often don't know we are stressed until we are at the breaking point.

What Is Stress?

Stress is the body's reaction to harmful situations -- whether they’re real or perceived. When you feel threatened, a chemical reaction occurs in your body that allows you to act in a way to prevent injury. This reaction is known as "fight-or-flight” or the stress response. During the stress response, your heart rate increases, breathing quickens, muscles tighten, and blood pressure rises. You’ve gotten ready to act. It is how you protect yourself.

Stress means different things to different people. What causes stress in one person may be of little concern to another. Some people are better able to handle stress than others. And, not all stress is bad. In small doses, stress can help you accomplish tasks and prevent you from getting hurt. For example, stress is what gets you to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting the car in front of you. That's a good thing.

Our bodies are designed to handle small doses of stress. But, we are not equipped to handle long-term, chronic stress without ill consequences.

What Are the Symptoms of Stress?

Stress can affect all parts of your life, including your emotions, behaviors, thinking ability, and physical health. No part of the body is immune. But, because people handle stress differently, symptoms of stress can vary. Symptoms can be vague and may be the same as those caused by medical conditions. So it is important to discuss them with your doctor. You may have any of the following symptoms of stress.

Emotional symptoms of stress include:

  • Becoming easily agitated, frustrated, and moody
  • Feeling overwhelmed, as if you are losing control or need to take control
  • Having a hard time relaxing and quieting your mind
  • Feeling bad about yourself (low self-esteem), and feeling lonely, worthless, and depressed
  • Avoiding others

Physical symptoms of stress include:

  • Low energy
  • Headaches
  • Upset stomach, including diarrhea, constipation, and nausea
  • Aches, pains, and tense muscles
  • Chest pain and rapid heartbeat
  • Insomnia
  • Frequent colds and infections
  • Loss of sexual desire and/or ability
  • Nervousness and shaking, ringing in the ears, and cold or sweaty hands and feet
  • Dry mouth and a hard time swallowing
  • Clenched jaw and grinding teeth

Cognitive symptoms of stress include:

  • Constant worrying
  • Racing thoughts
  • Forgetfulness and disorganization
  • Inability to focus
  • Poor judgment
  • Being pessimistic or seeing only the negative side

Behavioral symptoms of stress include:

  • Changes in appetite -- either not eating or eating too much
  • Procrastinating and avoiding responsibilities
  • More use of alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes
  • Having more nervous behaviors, such as nail biting, fidgeting, and pacing


What Are the Consequences of Long-Term Stress?

A little stress every now and then is not something to be concerned about. But ongoing, chronic stress can cause or worsen many serious health problems, including:

  • Mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and personality disorders
  • Cardiovascular disease, including heart disease, high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, heart attacks, and strokes
  • Obesity and other eating disorders
  • Menstrual problems
  • Sexual dysfunction, such as impotence and premature ejaculation in men and loss of sexual desire in men and women
  • Skin and hair problems, such as acne, psoriasis, and eczema, and permanent hair loss
  • Gastrointestinal problems, such as GERD, gastritis, ulcerative colitis, and irritable colon


Help Is Available for Stress

Stress is a part of life. What matters most is how you handle it. The best thing you can do to prevent stress overload and the health consequences that come with it is to know your stress symptoms.

If you or a loved one is feeling overwhelmed by stress, talk to your doctor. Many symptoms of stress can also be signs of other health problems. Your doctor can evaluate your symptoms and rule out other conditions. If stress is to blame, your doctor can recommend a therapist or counselor to help you better handle your stress.

© 2021 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

Photo Credit: Prostock-Studio / Getty Images


Department of Health and Human Services: "Stress and Your Health."

American Institute of Stress: "Effects of Stress." "Understanding Stress."

Physical Effects of Stress and How to Treat

Stress can be defined as the feeling of being overwhelmed or unable to cope with mental or emotional pressure. It can have mental and physical consequences (1).

At one point or another, most people deal with feelings of stress. In fact, a study from 2015 found that 59% of adults reported experiencing high levels of perceived stress (2).


Stress, which is a feeling of being overwhelmed by mental or emotional pressure, is a very common issue.

Decreased energy and insomnia

Prolonged stress can cause chronic fatigue and disruptions in sleep, which may result in decreased energy levels.

For example, a recent study of more than 7,000 working adults found that fatigue was “significantly associated” with work-related stress (3).

Stress may also disrupt sleep and cause insomnia, which can lead to low energy.

A 2018 review published in the Journal of Sleep Research found that “stress-related worry and rumination” can lead to disrupted sleep and eventually the risk of developing insomnia (4).

Another study of 2,316 participants showed that exposure to stress was associated with an increased risk of insomnia (5).

Both of these studies focus in on sleep reactivity, or the extent to which stress affects the ability to fall sleep or remain asleep.

While it’s evident that stress can disrupt sleep, not everyone who experiences stress or who is going through a stressful time will deal with insomnia or sleep disturbances.

Changes in libido

Many people experience changes in their sex drives during stressful periods.

One small study evaluated the stress levels of 30 women and then measured their sexual arousal while watching an erotic film. Those with high levels of chronic stress experienced less sexual arousal compared with those with lower stress levels (6).

A much more recent study published in 2021 on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women’s reproductive health found that 45% of the over 1,000 women surveyed reported a reduced libido due to stress (7).

In addition to stress, there are many other potential causes of changes in libido, including:

  • hormonal changes
  • fatigue
  • psychological issues


Some studies suggest that chronic stress may be associated with depression and depressive episodes.

One study of 816 women with major depression found that the onset of depression was significantly associated with both acute and chronic stress (8).

Another study found that high levels of stress were associated with the onset of major depression in adolescents (9).

In addition, a 2018 review highlighted the connection between depression and the experience of chronic or inescapable stress (10).

Besides stress, some potential contributors to depression include:

  • family history
  • age
  • environmental factors
  • even certain medications and illnesses

Stress can cause a wide variety of symptoms, including decreased energy, insomnia, libido changes, and depression.


Some studies have found that higher levels of stress are associated with increased bouts of acne (11).

One reason for this may be because when some people feel stressed out, they tend to touch their faces more often. This can spread bacteria and contribute to the development of acne (12).

Several studies have also confirmed that acne may be associated with higher levels of stress.

One small study measured acne severity in 22 university students before and during an exam. During examination periods in which stress increased, acne became more severe (13).

Another study of 94 teenagers found that higher stress levels were associated with worse acne, particularly in boys (14).

These studies show an association, but they don’t account for other factors that may be involved. Further research is needed to look at the connection between acne and stress.

In addition to stress, other potential causes of acne include:

  • inflammation
  • hormonal shifts
  • bacteria
  • excess oil production
  • clogged pores


Many studies have found that stress can contribute to headaches, a condition characterized by pain in the head, face, or neck region.

A 2015 study showed that increased stress intensity was associated with an increase in the number of headache days experienced per month (15).

Another study surveyed 172 military service members at a headache clinic, finding that 67% reported their headaches were triggered by stress, making it the second most common headache trigger (16).

A smaller 2020 study also found that stress can be a driving factor in tension headaches [17].

Other common headache triggers can include lack of sleep, diet, alcohol consumption, hormonal changes, and more.

Chronic pain

Aches and pains are a common complaint that can result from increased levels of stress. Some studies have found that chronic pain may be associated with higher levels of stress as well as increased levels of cortisol, which is the body’s main stress hormone.

For example, one very small study compared people with chronic back pain to a control group. It found that those with chronic pain had higher levels of cortisol (18).

Another study showed that people with chronic pain had higher levels of cortisol in their hair, which the study described as a novel indicator of prolonged stress (19).

Keep in mind that these studies show an association but don’t look at other factors that may be involved.

Besides stress, there are many other factors that can contribute to chronic pain, such as:

  • aging
  • injuries
  • chronic poor posture
  • nerve damage

Frequent sickness

If you feel like you’re constantly battling a case of the sniffles or other sickness, stress may be to blame.

Stress may take a toll on your immune system. Studies show that higher stress levels are associated with increased susceptibility to infection.

In one study, 116 older adults were given the flu vaccine. Those with chronic stress were found to have a weakened immune response to the vaccine, indicating that stress may be associated with decreased immunity (20).

Similarly, one analysis looking at 27 studies showed that stress was linked to increased susceptibility of developing an upper respiratory infection (21).

A chapter in the 2019 book “The Impact of Everyday Stress on the Immune System and Health” stated that psychological stress can affect a range of bodily functions, such as inflammatory responses, wound healing, and the body’s ability to fight off infection and disease (22).

However, stress is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to immune health. A weakened immune system can also be the result of:

  • a low-nutrient diet
  • substance use
  • physical inactivity
  • disorders of the immune system, such as AIDS

Digestive issues

Some studies have found that stress may be associated with digestive issues, like constipation, heartburn, diarrhea, as well as digestive disorders.

For example, an older study from 2010 that focused on 2,699 children found that exposure to stressful events was associated with increased rates of constipation (23).

Stress may especially affect those with digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

In one study, increased symptoms of digestive distress were associated with higher daily stress levels in 181 women with IBS ().

Additionally, one analysis of 18 studies that investigated the role of stress on inflammatory bowel disease noted that 72% of studies found an association between stress and negative clinical and symptom outcomes (25).

A study from 2017 also highlights the direct connection between stress and symptoms of IBS, saying stress plays “a major role” in the manifestation and worsening of digestive symptoms (26).

Keep in mind that many other factors can cause digestive issues, such as diet, bacteria, infections, certain medications, and more.

Appetite changes and weight gain

Changes in appetite are common during times of stress.

When you feel stressed out, you may find yourself with no appetite at all or overeating without noticing.

One small 2006 study of 272 female college students found that 81 percent reported that they experienced changes in appetite when they were stressed out, with 62 percent stating they had an increase in appetite (27).

Changes in appetite may also cause fluctuations in weight during stressful periods. For example, a study involving 1,355 people in the United States found that stress was associated with weight gain in adults already living with extra weight (28).

A third study from 2017 found that individuals with higher cortisol and insulin levels and higher levels of chronic stress were more likely to gain weight in the future (29). However, the study was limited in the scope of research in that participants were predominantly white females.

While these studies show an association between stress and changes in appetite or weight, more studies are needed to understand other possible factors are involved and how stress impacts different people.

Rapid heartbeat

Several studies have shown that high stress levels can cause a fast heartbeat or heart rate. Stressful events or
tasks may also increase heart rate (30).

In a similar study from 2001, exposing 87 students to a stressful task was found to increase heart rate and blood pressure. Interestingly enough, playing relaxing music during the task actually helped prevent these changes (31).

According to the American Heart Association, undergoing a stressful event can cause your body to release adrenaline, which is a hormone that temporarily causes your heart to beat faster and your blood pressure to rise. This is one reason why living with increased stress may create a rapid heartbeat (32).


Exposure to stress may also cause excess sweating, research suggests.

One small study looked at 20 people with palmar hyperhidrosis, a condition characterized by excess sweating in the hands. The study assessed their rate of sweating throughout the day using a scale of 0–10.

Stress significantly increased the rate of sweating by two to five points in those with palmar hyperhidrosis, as well as in the control group (33).

Another study found that 40 teenagers exposed to stress experienced high amounts of sweating and odor (34).

A 2013 review on “psychological sweating” notes such sweating occurs in response to stress and anxiety, stating this type of sweat typically appears on the face, palms, soles of the feet, and underarms (35).


The physical symptoms of chronic stress are varied and vast, and can include acne, headaches, rapid heartbeat, sweating, changes in appetite, digestive issues, chronic pain, and more frequent infections or bouts of sickness.

As nice as it would be to have a single pill that could completely eliminate all stress, because there are so many different factors that cause stress, there is no one-size-fits-all way to treat it.

Talking with your doctor or a therapist is a great first step, as they can help you figure out what exactly is causing your stress and suggest ways to manage and treat it. They can also help you figure out if your symptoms are indeed caused by stress or another preexisting condition.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are a few lifestyle choices that can also help in managing stress. Some of these include (36):

  • taking breaks from the news
  • taking breaks from your devices (computer, phone, TV)
  • getting adequate exercise and sleep
  • taking breaks to allow your body to rest
  • increasing nutrient-rich foods in your diet
  • doing deep breathing exercises
  • meditating
  • avoiding excessive substance use
  • talking with friends, a trusted advisor, or a therapist
  • building community though faith-based organizations or activities you enjoy

If you feel overwhelmed from stress and aren’t sure what to do, or are having feelings of self-harm, it’s important to talk with someone you trust or a therapist.

You can also call the national suicide prevention lifeline at 800-273-8255, 24 hours a day.

Help is always available.


Because stress can be caused by a variety of issues and symptoms can vary from person to person, treating it depends on personal factors.

However, certain lifestyle changes, like exercising, taking breaks from the 24-hour news cycle, and talking with friends or trusted advisors may provide some relief.

Chronic stress can affect your entire body, and if it’s not properly managed, can cause serious issues, such as (37):

  • back pain
  • muscle tension
  • worsening asthma symptoms
  • worsening obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) symptoms
  • increased risk of hypertension, stroke, or heart attack
  • mental health conditions

Chronic stress can affect your entire body, and if left untreated, may drastically reduce your quality of life through chronic pain, increased risk of certain diseases, and changes in mental health.

Occasional stressful events are a part of everyone’s life.

Working through and processing these events — with a support system, if needed — is key to keeping chronic stress at bay.

Chronic stress can take a toll on your mental and physical wellness, creating a wide range of symptoms such as low energy levels, headaches, changes in mood, and decreased sex drive.

Fortunately, there are many ways to help relieve stress, such as talking with friends or a therapist, exercising, and meditating.

Just one thing

Stress and anxiety often overlap, but anxiety has its own classification and is sometimes treated with medication. Give this article a read if you think you may be dealing with anxiety.

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Stress is a state of psychological and physical tension in response to external influences. It can be caused by difficult situations, monotonous activities and emotional factors. Stress helps you adapt to a changing environment, but can have negative health consequences. nine0005

Is stress good or not?

Short-term one-time stress has a positive effect. In response to a stimulus, the body produces three hormones: cortisone, adrenaline, noradrenaline and activates the cells of the immune system.

Thanks to this, a person for a short time period:

  • memory improves;

  • nine0004 increases the level of immunity;

  • the rate of tissue regeneration increases;

  • intellectual abilities are activated;

  • increases the endurance of the nervous system;

  • the functioning of the sense organs improves.

If a person is systematically exposed to a stress factor, all his organs and systems work hard. As a result, the body intensively wastes energy, passing through the three stages of the process.

The first stage takes effect at the moment of exposure to the stress factor, and lasts a few minutes. It is followed by a second one lasting from several hours to several days, during which a person is looking for a solution to the problem or a safe way out of the situation. nine0005

If the action of the factor continues, the body depletes the adaptive capacity and ceases to minimize the harmful effects of the stressor. It is at the stage of distress that a person experiences overload, psychological disorders, signs of somatic diseases.

Causes of stress

Allocate systemic and mental type of impact of a stress factor. The systemic type is the body's response to an infectious disease, inflammation, injury, light, high or low temperature. Mental type - manifests itself on the emotional and mental sphere, followed by the biological level. nine0005

Mental causes of stress include:

  • professional activities associated with increased responsibility;

  • complex relationships in the family;

  • conflicts, phobias, problems in communication, threats of a different nature, intractable problems, dysfunctional social relations in the team; nine0005

  • unfulfilled needs, low self-esteem, perfectionism;

  • change of place of residence or work, monotonous activity, divorce, death of a loved one;

  • information overload;

  • lack of rest sufficient to restore the psyche; nine0005

  • psycho-emotional tension caused by risk, time pressure, increased workload, novelty of the situation or its uncertainty.

The consequences of prolonged stress in men and women are the same - depression and somatic diseases. Therefore, it is important to timely note the signs of psychophysical stress, identify its causes and eliminate it.

Signs of stress

Prolonged exposure to a stress factor causes serious stress throughout the body, significantly worsening the general mood and well-being of a person.

Common symptoms of developing stress:

  • Muscle tension in the head, neck, shoulders, back.

  • Increased anxiety.

  • nine0003

    Irritability at the slightest provocation.

  • Reduced performance.

  • Depression, apathy.

  • Sleep disorders.

  • Absent-mindedness, deterioration of memory and ability to concentrate, slowing down the pace of thought processes. nine0005

  • Chronic fatigue, pessimism, desire to distance themselves from society.

  • Headache, unexplained chest pain.

  • Disorder of appetite, violation of the digestive function.

Often a person acquires an obsessive habit, for example, biting his lips, turning his neck, straightening his hair. He begins to be disturbed by pain in the abdomen, palpitations, itching, or other negative manifestations. nine0005

Therapy for stress

The belief that stress does not require treatment is a dangerous delusion. A chronic state of tension can lead to depression, post-traumatic syndrome, neurosis, neurodermatitis, peptic ulcers of the gastrointestinal tract, and bronchial asthma.

If you are worried about emotional discomfort, the severity of symptoms increases, moreover, there are somatic reactions, make an appointment with a psychotherapist. The doctor will determine the stage of stress, help to find unconscious stress factors, select a method of successful treatment that will protect against serious complications. nine0005

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5 physical symptoms of stress you shouldn't ignore


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The thoughts in the head are disturbing, anxiety has increased, the mood is depressed, there is no strength - this is how we feel when we are stressed. But it's good when difficulties and problems are quickly resolved and everything returns to normal.

But what happens to the body if the stressful situation does not end for a long time? Then stress can manifest itself in the form of physical symptoms. And this can exacerbate anxiety and lead to even more stress and even depression. Therefore, it is extremely important to break this "vicious circle" - to recognize the signs of stress in time and do everything possible to cope with it. nine0005

Five physical symptoms of stress

1. Pimples and eczema

The hormone cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands when stressed so that the body can cope with it. If this hormone is produced for a long time, then inflammation may appear on the skin, skin diseases will worsen - acne, eczema and psoriasis.

That's why you should not forget about everyday skin care routines, which often fade into the background during times of stress. Experts recommend following a daily skin care regimen, avoiding excess makeup, and eating a healthy diet of fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and proteins like fish to control blood sugar levels and improve skin health. nine0005

2. Chronic pain and tension headache

If stress has attacked you seriously, it can reach a state where everything and constantly hurts - so that you don’t even have the strength to get up. The pain is often similar to arthritis (but according to the analyzes everything will be normal), “drilling” the forehead - as with a migraine, it can “press” the back of the head, temples - as with a tension headache.

To cope with stress and prevent it from getting out of control, it is necessary to get enough sleep, stick to the work schedule, and not overload yourself with unnecessary things. nine0005

Be aware that stimulants like watching TV at night, alcohol, heavy meals and nicotine can interfere with sleep. Caffeine does “work” even 6 hours after drinking it, so it’s better to give up afternoon coffee.


- Pills, physiotherapy, self-massages, rugs with needles, collars, gymnastics, exercises are suitable to remove tension headaches, but one universal magic pill simply does not exist, says neurologist Valery Chernenko. nine0005

And only a doctor can suggest a suitable treatment.

3. Problems with the stomach and intestines

There is a term "bear disease". It often overtakes those who are under stress - when, against the background of strong emotional excitement, a person experiences an irresistible desire to empty the intestines.

Our gut is a sensitive organ that reacts to hormonal imbalances, stress, and many physical and mental conditions, causing pain, bloating, and sometimes more severe discomfort. nine0005

Clinical Laboratory Physician

- One study shows that stress affects the composition of the gut microbiome to the same extent as, for example, a diet high in fatty foods, which is not very good for health and intestinal bacteria in particular , - explained Olga Malinovskaya, diagnostician, head of the medical department of the federal network of medical laboratories KDL.

Another common problem that can be exacerbated by prolonged stress is acid reflux (GERD). This is a condition in which acid normally found in the stomach backs up into the esophagus. There are heartburn, pain in the sternum, sour belching, nausea, discomfort after eating. nine0005

Other signs of long-term stress can be gum disease and mouth ulcers.

4. Weight change

Elevated levels of cortisol prevent our body from breaking down fat. Because of this, extra pounds go away with difficulty and it becomes more difficult to maintain weight, and often it even begins to grow.

The fact is that chronic stress can make us eat more - seek solace in delicious food. On the other hand, it also happens that some people find that their appetite decreases when stressed. This may be due to an increased level of adrenaline or, as an option, developed depression. nine0005

5. Decreased immunity

People suffering from chronic stress may experience damage to their immune system. One after another, infectious diseases can “fall in” - colds, SARS, flu, and even covid.

general practitioner, gastroenterologist

- Against the backdrop of difficulties at work, the presence of prolonged and severe stress or a negative emotional situation in the family, it is quite easy to get sick, - said the general practitioner, gastroenterologist Alexei Tsys. “According to scientists, prolonged stress weakens the response of the immune system. Stress reduces the number of white blood cells in the body that help fight infection. The lower their level, the higher the risk of infection with viruses. nine0005

If you feel that your symptoms are not improving with lifestyle changes, consult with your physician to better understand what is causing your stress and how you can manage it.

How to cope with stress

In fact, stress is the body's universal reaction to any change, internal or external. In small doses, it is even useful - it creates energy so that we can easily achieve our goals, or resist threats: fight, change reality, adapt or run away from danger. This mechanism has evolved over thousands of years, helping our species survive in complex, changing conditions. nine0005

But when stress has lingered, become unwell and interferes with your daily activities, it must be dealt with.

1. Be active

Although exercise cannot completely relieve or prevent stress, it can help reduce emotional stress. A simple walk, bike ride, or swimming can boost serotonin levels, elevate your mood, clear your mind, and allow you to focus on the things that matter most in life.

2. Use breathing techniques

Sometimes, in a difficult situation, our breathing can change and become faster. Therefore, it is extremely important to maintain control over it. This will help restore peace of mind.

Simple technique - inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth, continuously counting from 1 to 5 as you inhale and exhale. Repeat for 3-5 minutes.

3. Avoid bad habits

Do not rely on caffeine, alcohol or smoking to manage stress.

Learn more