What stress do to your body

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."

Helpguide.org: "Understanding Stress."

The Effects of Stress on Your Body

You’re sitting in traffic, late for an important meeting, watching the minutes tick away. Your hypothalamus, a tiny control tower in your brain, decides to send out the order: Send in the stress hormones! These stress hormones are the same ones that trigger your body’s “fight or flight” response. Your heart races, your breath quickens, and your muscles ready for action. This response was designed to protect your body in an emergency by preparing you to react quickly. But when the stress response keeps firing, day after day, it could put your health at serious risk.

Stress is a natural physical and mental reaction to life experiences. Everyone expresses stress from time to time. Anything from everyday responsibilities like work and family to serious life events such as a new diagnosis, war, or the death of a loved one can trigger stress. For immediate, short-term situations, stress can be beneficial to your health. It can help you cope with potentially serious situations. Your body responds to stress by releasing hormones that increase your heart and breathing rates and ready your muscles to respond.

Yet if your stress response doesn’t stop firing, and these stress levels stay elevated far longer than is necessary for survival, it can take a toll on your health. Chronic stress can cause a variety of symptoms and affect your overall well-being. Symptoms of chronic stress include:

  • irritability
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • headaches
  • insomnia

Your central nervous system (CNS) is in charge of your “fight or flight” response. In your brain, the hypothalamus gets the ball rolling, telling your adrenal glands to release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones rev up your heartbeat and send blood rushing to the areas that need it most in an emergency, such as your muscles, heart, and other important organs.

When the perceived fear is gone, the hypothalamus should tell all systems to go back to normal. If the CNS fails to return to normal, or if the stressor doesn’t go away, the response will continue.

Chronic stress is also a factor in behaviors such as overeating or not eating enough, alcohol or drug abuse, and social withdrawal.

Stress hormones affect your respiratory and cardiovascular systems. During the stress response, you breathe faster in an effort to quickly distribute oxygen-rich blood to your body. If you already have a breathing problem like asthma or emphysema, stress can make it even harder to breathe.

Under stress, your heart also pumps faster. Stress hormones cause your blood vessels to constrict and divert more oxygen to your muscles so you’ll have more strength to take action. But this also raises your blood pressure.

As a result, frequent or chronic stress will make your heart work too hard for too long. When your blood pressure rises, so do your risks for having a stroke or heart attack.

Under stress, your liver produces extra blood sugar (glucose) to give you a boost of energy. If you’re under chronic stress, your body may not be able to keep up with this extra glucose surge. Chronic stress may increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

The rush of hormones, rapid breathing, and increased heart rate can also upset your digestive system. You’re more likely to have heartburn or acid reflux thanks to an increase in stomach acid. Stress doesn’t cause ulcers (a bacterium called H. pylori often does), but it can increase your risk for them and cause existing ulcers to act up.

Stress can also affect the way food moves through your body, leading to diarrhea or constipation. You might also experience nausea, vomiting, or a stomachache.

Your muscles tense up to protect themselves from injury when you’re stressed. They tend to release again once you relax, but if you’re constantly under stress, your muscles may not get the chance to relax. Tight muscles cause headaches, back and shoulder pain, and body aches. Over time, this can set off an unhealthy cycle as you stop exercising and turn to pain medication for relief.

Stress is exhausting for both the body and mind. It’s not unusual to lose your desire when you’re under constant stress. While short-term stress may cause men to produce more of the male hormone testosterone, this effect doesn’t last.

If stress continues for a long time, a man’s testosterone levels can begin to drop. This can interfere with sperm production and cause erectile dysfunction or impotence. Chronic stress may also increase risk of infection for male reproductive organs like the prostate and testes.

For women, stress can affect the menstrual cycle. It can lead to irregular, heavier, or more painful periods. Chronic stress can also magnify the physical symptoms of menopause.

What are the causes of inhibited sexual desire? »

Stress stimulates the immune system, which can be a plus for immediate situations. This stimulation can help you avoid infections and heal wounds. But over time, stress hormones will weaken your immune system and reduce your body’s response to foreign invaders. People under chronic stress are more susceptible to viral illnesses like the flu and the common cold, as well as other infections. Stress can also increase the time it takes you to recover from an illness or injury.

Keep reading: Learn tips on managing your stress »

How stress works and why it makes us stronger. 5 anti-stress rules

Stress is the body's reaction to any impact on it. We experience stress all the time, so the only thing we can do is try to make stress useful for us and those around us.

Stress gives you strength to deal with difficulties

It is not uncommon in the news to see reports of the incredible strength that a person gains in stressful situations, for example, the story of two teenage girls from Lebanon, Oregon, who managed to lift a ton and a half tractor, under which their father was blocked. “I don’t know how I was able to lift it, it was very heavy,” one of the girls told reporters. “But we just took it and raised it.” When something very important is at stake, the body uses all the energy resources to do what is needed. nine0003

The energy that stress gives you not only helps the body, but also stimulates the brain. Unnecessary thoughts are turned off, less important tasks temporarily lose their relevance. Attention is concentrated, you absorb and process more information.

If nothing directly threatens your life, the body and brain switch to another state - the reaction of striving for the goal. It gives you access to mental and physical resources, which in turn provide increased confidence, concentration and performance. nine0003

Stress helps you communicate and stimulates social connections

Your stress response does more than just provide you with energy. In many situations, it also forces you to connect with other people. This side of stress is predominantly controlled by the hormone oxytocin. This harmon creates and strengthens social attachments, enhances empathy and intuition. Oxytocin is also a courage hormone. It suppresses the fear response in the brain, makes us courageous.

Stress makes us better without additional investment in personal growth and socialization training. nine0003

Oxytocin has another amazing quality: it has a beneficial effect on the cardiovascular system. The heart has special receptors for oxytocin, which promotes the regeneration of heart muscle cells after microtrauma. If your stress response involves the release of oxytocin, stress literally strengthens your heart. It turns out that the stress response is our innate stability mechanism that makes us care for others, but it also strengthens our heart. nine0003

Stress helps you learn and grow

The last stage of any stress response is recovery, bringing your body and mind back to a state of calm. Recovery from stress does not happen instantly - it is a process that takes time. In the first few hours after a strong stress reaction, the brain rewires itself, remembering and assimilating the experience. If everything ended well, you replay what happened in your head, remembering everything you did and what it led to. If the result was not very successful, you try to understand what happened, imagine what would have happened if you had acted differently, and mentally construct a positive outcome. nine0003

During the recovery process, a person often experiences strong emotions. He's still bubbling with energy, and he's too excited to calm down right away. Thus, the emotions that accompany the recovery process from stress help you learn and find meaning in what is happening.

Stress leaves an imprint in your mind, thanks to which you will know how to behave next time. Psychologists in such cases say that a person is vaccinated with stress. This is a kind of "vaccination" for the brain. nine0003

If you recognize that stress gives you the positive experience you need, you will be more comfortable with each new challenge. Research shows that perceiving a stressful situation as an opportunity to hone one's skills, improve one's knowledge, or become stronger elicits a goal-seeking response. And this, in turn, increases the chances that the experience gained will bring significant benefits to the person in the future.

In conclusion, 5 simple anti-stress rules during a pandemic:

  1. We create a good mood, learn to think positively in any circumstances.
  2. Sufficient sleep - at least 7-9 hours a day, go to bed before midnight for good melatonin production (sleep hormone also has immunomodulating activity).
  3. We include physical activity in the daily routine.
  4. Practicing meditation. It is especially useful in stressful situations.

Learning to exist in conditions of uncertainty. We do not predict far ahead, we accept the circumstances as they are, we rejoice at any positive in life. nine0003

Be healthy and happy!

Psychiatrist-narcologist M. I. Haidel

What happens to your body when you are stressed? - HEALTH - Blog and news

Did you accidentally delete an important file on your computer or miss the deadline for work? What is happening to your body at this moment? Your hypothalamus, like your brain's little control room, starts releasing stress hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine. It is they who provoke the response of the very reaction of the body, which in psychology is called "fight or run away." nine0003

The "fight or flight" response to stress is your body's way of protecting itself. When your body is stressed, your heart rate and breathing speed up, your senses become sharper, and your muscles tense up. Muscle tension is almost a reflex reaction of the body to protect against injury and pain. These physical changes increase your strength and stamina, speed up your reaction time, help you focus better and stay energized and alert; preparing you, thereby to fight or flee from danger. In emergency situations, stress can save your life by giving you extra strength to protect yourself. nine0003

Impact of stress

Stress is a natural phenomenon in our lives. You can experience stress every day: while driving in traffic jams, falling behind the planned work schedule, managing large and important projects. But if your stress response fails to solve the problem, and your stress level remains higher than what is needed for the natural physiological function of survival, stress is no longer beneficial and begins to seriously damage your health, mood, productivity, personal relationships and, in in general, the quality of your life. nine0003

Your body is only designed to cope with stress in its small and rare manifestations. However, in today's demanding world, we are increasingly stressed. And this process becomes dangerous, because it transforms into a chronic one, which disrupts the work of almost all systems of our body. This suppresses our immune system, which means more frequent colds and infections. Stress can disrupt the digestive and reproductive systems, increase the risk of diabetes, myocardial infarction and stroke, and speed up the aging process. Stress can even affect the electrical activity of the brain, making you more vulnerable to depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems. In addition, both overexertion and migraine headaches are associated with chronic muscle tension in the shoulders, neck, and head. Sleep problems can also occur when you are under stress. nine0003

If you can't avoid stress, how can you manage it?

It is impossible to completely get rid of stress. However, you can learn how to manage it to lead a more productive, healthier, and happier life. The goal of stress management is to identify your stressors that cause the most problems or require the most energy from you. This allows you to overcome the negative effects of stress, which are caused by them.

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