Feeling Happy And Staying Healthy: What Stress Does To The Body

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated May 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Many people tend to think of stress as an emotion. While stress can be an emotion, it can also be a full-body biological response. Some stress may be normal, but feeling moderately high stress for long periods of time can be damaging to your physical and mental health. 

Below, we’ll look at how stress can negatively affect your physical health, including the typical problems it can cause. We’ll also discuss some strategies you can use to reduce stress and mitigate its physical and mental impacts.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Does your body have an overactive stress response?

What is stress?

Stress is something you may feel in both your mind and your body. You’ve probably noticed it when it has prevented you from enjoying an outing, made you nervous about going to work, or kept you up at night. You may have also recognized it when it has made you hungry, restless, or kept you up at night. These physical and emotional aspects can be components of the body’s stress response. This is a biological process that happens as your body prepares to engage with potentially harmful external situations.

The stress response is believed to have evolved in our ancient ancestors to help them fight off or run from dangers. While stress might periodically come from physical dangers, such as threats to your physical health, this response can be brought on by other stimuli as well. As our minds and bodies try to help us manage our day-to-day lives, they’re likely to enact the stress response in situations that aren’t actually physically dangerous.

This may have two important implications. The first is that the stress response often may not help us solve our problems. The second is that stress was likely never meant to be something that we felt all the time. However, for many of us, it can be something that we feel regularly. This can have deleterious effects not only on our emotions but also on our bodies. 

Stress and the body

Stress is a biological response to a threat. Researchers believe that it was supposed to be something that affected our bodies intermittently for short periods of time. When we feel stress for long periods of time, it can take a toll on our health.

Stress, breath, and heart

When you run from or fight off a threat, you tend to use your muscles more. The muscles require oxygen to produce energy. As a result, when you feel stressed, your breathing rate and heart rate may go up. This is likely your body attempting to get more oxygen to your muscles. Chronic stress doesn’t necessarily have to lead to respiratory health problems, but if you already have a respiratory health problem like asthma, stress may make it worse.

However, according to the American Heart Association, chronic stress can negatively affect your heart in several ways. When your heart rate goes up, it means that your heart is working harder. Elevated blood pressure can be harmful to your heart and blood vessels. As a result, chronic stress can lead to serious cardiovascular problems or exacerbate existing conditions.

Stress and sleep

Getty/Vadym Pastuk

According to the Endocrine Society, the hormone that makes your breath and heart rates increase is called adrenaline. This is also the hormone that makes you feel on edge up when you watch a scary movie or go on a rollercoaster. If you feel stressed at night, adrenaline can make it difficult for you to fall asleep. When you sleep, your brain stores memories, and your body repairs itself from normal wear and tear. As a result, stress-related insomnia can form a vicious cycle; that is, stress can make it hard to get enough sleep, and not getting enough sleep can make your days more stressful.

Stress and bodyweight

Stress can also make it difficult for you to maintain a healthy body weight. For some people, stress causes weight gain, but for other people stress causes weight loss. The effect may partially depend on how you manage stress as well as your genetics.

All of the physical symptoms of stress that we’ve discussed so far require energy. This factor, combined with being too busy to think about meals and the potential digestive problems that stress can cause, may lead your body to burn more energy than you take in through food. This can cause your body to burn energy stored in body fat.

Alternatively, when your body kicks into panic mode, it can try to store energy as fat for use later—even if you’re getting plenty in your diet. Further, your body might be telling you that you need energy-rich foods full of fats and sugars. Combine that with weight problems that can come from not getting enough sleep, and you may put on extra weight.

Unhealthy habits

Stress can also affect your physical health in another, more secondary way. While these may seem to provide temporary relief, they can also be habit-forming and dangerous to your health.

What to do?

Any time that you have stress-related insomnia, concerns about your heart or breathing, or unexplained weight change, it may help to talk to a doctor. Any of these could be stress-related, but they could also be complications caused by other health conditions—whether physical or mental. No matter what the cause is, a doctor may be able to identify it and devise an effective treatment plan tailored to your needs. If your symptoms are related to stress, there are several steps you can take to try to manage it and its accompanying physical symptoms. The following are just a few:

Get a good night’s sleep

To improve your sleep, it may help to avoid or limit your intake of caffeine and alcohol, especially late in the day. Also, it may be helpful to try to stick to a schedule. That means going to bed at roughly the same time every night and waking up at approximately the same time every morning. 

Research shows that it also may help to avoid using technology like computers, mobile phones, tablets, and TV right before bed. According to Harvard Medical School, the blue light that they emit can trick your brain into keeping you awake. 

Finally, while working out can reduce stress, doing it right before bed can release hormones that may make it difficult to fall asleep.

Work out

Working out doesn’t have to mean going to the gym or training for a marathon; it can be enough to do something that gets you moving. When you feel stressed, doing something active may reduce your stress levels. The body also releases natural feel-good chemicals called  when you exercise, which may help to boost your mood. Finally, exercising may also help you maintain a healthy body weight. 

If you don’t have an exercise plan but want to start one, it may be helpful to speak with a healthcare provider about what routine could be right for you.

Getty/Xavier Lorenzo
Does your body have an overactive stress response?

Practice mindfulness

Practicing mindfulness can be a powerful, free way to manage stress, and it may only take several minutes out of your day. Research has shown that  and relieve anxiety and depression. There are several websites and apps where you can find more information on how to get started with a basic mindfulness practice.

Talk to someone

Talking about your feelings with others, such as friends or family, may also help you manage your stress. Maintaining close relationships may also make it easier for others to tell when something is wrong before it becomes a more serious concern. 

Stress can be more than just a feeling. It can be biochemical response that can impact many aspects of your physical health. Seeking help when you’re having trouble coping alone may make a significant difference on your physical and mental health.

Talking to a counselor about stress

If you think that your stress is a result of a mental health condition like anxiety or PTSD, it may be useful to speak with a mental health professional. However, if you have a stressful schedule that makes it difficult to see a therapist in person, you may benefit from online therapy. 

BetterHelp is an online therapy platform that allows you to meet with your therapist from home or anywhere you have an internet connection. In addition to online sessions via audio or video chat, you can contact your therapist at any time via in-app messaging, and they’ll respond as soon as they can. This may prove to be especially helpful if you experience stress in between sessions, as you can write down your symptoms in the moment instead of waiting to discuss them until your next session.

The efficacy of online counseling

Online therapeutic interventions have been shown to be helpful for stress-related concerns. One study assessed the efficacy of a web- and mobile-based intervention for workers experiencing elevated levels of stress. Researchers found that this treatment was a viable alternative to in-person interventions, as it successfully reduced stress among employees in the long term.

Takeaway

Unmanaged stress can make it challenging to feel and stay healthy. You may experience a variety of mental and physical effects that can cause difficulty with completing your daily responsibilities and functioning as usual. Stress management can play a vital role in maintaining your overall well-being, and there are a number of evidence-based techniques you can try. 

Also, you may benefit from speaking with an online therapist who can equip you with tools for coping in times of stress and help you establish habits that promote a healthier mindset. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with an online therapist who has experience helping people manage stress more effectively. Take the first step toward stress relief and reach out to BetterHelp today.

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