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

By BetterHelp Editorial Team|Updated April 6, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Dawn Brown, LPC

We usually think of stress as an emotion. Stress is an emotion, but it’s also a full-body biological response.

While some stress is normal and healthy, feeling extremely high stress for a short period of time or more moderately high stress for long periods of time can impact your physical as well as your mental health.

Here, we’ll look at how stress can impact your physical health, including causing problems with your body weight and blood pressure. We’ll also talk about some things that you can do to reduce stress from a mental perspective and manage stress from a physical standpoint.

What Is Stress?

Stress is something that you feel in your mind. You’ve probably noticed it there when it’s prevented you from enjoying an outing, made you nervous about going to work, or kept you up at night.

Stress is also something that you feel in your body. You may have noticed this if it’s made you hungry, made you restless, or kept you up at night.

These physical and emotional aspects of stress are both parts of the stress response. This is a biological process that happens as your body prepares to engage with potentially harmful external situations.

The stress response evolved in our ancient ancestors to help them fight off or run from dangers.

While your stress might periodically come from physical dangers, like threats to your physical health, this isn’t usually the case for most of us. 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 means two important things. The first is that the stress response doesn’t usually actually help us to solve our problems. The second is that stress was never meant to be something that we felt all the time – although, for many of us, it is.

As we continue to explore what stress does to the body, you’ll gain a greater understanding of why it can be so harmful to us, not only emotionally but also physically.

Stress And The Body

Stress is a biological response to threats, 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 severe toll.

Stress, Breath, and Heart

When you run from or fight off a threat, you use your muscles more. We don’t need to get into the chemistry of how muscles produce energy, but it requires oxygen. As a result, when you feel stressed, your breath rate and heart rate may go up. This is your body attempting to get more oxygen to your muscles.

Your lungs are pretty elastic, and there are no significant studies showing that chronic stress leads to respiratory health problems. However, if you already have a respiratory health problem – like asthma – stress may make it worse.

Your heart, however, is a different story.

When your heart rate goes up, it means that your heart is working harder. Elevated blood pressure is also bad for your heart and blood vessels. As a result, chronic stress can lead to serious cardiovascular problems or exacerbate existing conditions.

Stress And Sleep

The hormone that makes your breath and heart rate increase is called adrenaline. It’s the hormone that makes you feel amped up when you watch a scary film or go on a rollercoaster. If you feel stressed at night, adrenaline can make it hard for you to fall asleep.

When you sleep, your brain stores memories. Your body also repairs itself from normal wear-and-tear. As a result, not getting sleep because of stress can form a vicious cycle: Stress makes it hard to get enough sleep, and not getting enough sleep makes your days more stressful.

Stress And Bodyweight

Stress can also make it difficult for you to maintain healthy body weight. For some people, stress causes weight gain, while for other people, stress causes weight loss. It partially depends on how you manage stress, and it partially depends on your genetics.

All of the physical symptoms of stress that we’ve discussed so far require energy. Pair that with being too busy to think about meals and potential digestive problems that stress can cause, and your body might be burning more energy than you take in through food. That causes your body to burn energy stored in body fat.

On the other hand,, 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. Pair that with weight problems that can come from not getting enough sleep, and you may put on extra weight.

Depending on your current weight, neither of these might sound too bad. However, burning and store too much energy both have downsides.

Fat releases hormones telling your body that it’s satisfied, which can cause this system to short-circuit. That can make it hard for you to lose weight in the future – even if your stress goes away or you find ways to manage it.

Similarly, some fat is good for you. If your body burns too much, it can lead to health problems or even cause your body to start breaking down other materials – like the proteins that make up the muscle.

Bad Habits

Stress can also impact your physical health in another, more secondary way. Many people try to “manage” their stress by using tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs. 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 sleeplessness that prevents you from living a normal life, concerns about your heart or breathing, or unexplained weight loss or weight gain, talk to your primary care provider. Any of these could be stress-related, but they could also be complications caused by other conditions. No matter what the cause is, your doctor will be able to help you get to the bottom of it.

If these problems are related to stress, there are a couple of things that you can do to manage the feeling of stress and its physical symptoms.

Maintain A Healthy Diet

As mentioned above, if you’re not careful chronic stress can lead to unhealthy weight gain or weight loss. Depending on your specific condition, maintaining a healthy diet may or may not be enough to prevent these problems. But it’s definitely a start. It’ll also make you feel better.

No matter how busy you are, make sure that you’re getting three well-balanced meals each day. Don’t drink caffeine after lunch or alcohol after dinner to ensure a good night’s sleep.

Get A Good Night’s Sleep

Tips for getting a good night’s sleep could be its own article. However, there are a couple of quick tips that you can use, in addition to avoiding caffeine and alcohol late in the day.

Try to stick to a schedule. That means getting to bed at roughly the same time every night and waking up at approximately the same time every morning.

Avoid using tech like computers, mobile phones, tablets, and televisions right before bed. The artificial light that they use can trick your brain into keeping you up.

Finally, while working out can be good for stress – which we’ll get to in a moment – don’t do it right before bed. It can release hormones that make it hard to fall asleep.

Work Out

It doesn’t have to mean going to the gym or training for a marathon – just something that gets you moving.

Your body equates to stress and activity, so when you feel stressed, doing something active can actually make you feel better. The body also releases natural feel-good chemicals called endorphins when you exercise. Not to mention exercising can help you keep healthy body weight.

If you already have an exercise plan, stick with it. If you don’t have one but want to start one, talk with your healthcare provider about what’s right for you.

Practice Mindfulness

Practicing mindfulness is a great, free way to manage stress, and it only takes minutes per day. There are websites and apps where you can get more information on how to get started.

Because it’s a popular thing these days, a lot of people think it’s just a trend. However, research has shown that it helps to manage stress – even in people with anxiety.

Talk To Someone

Sharing your feelings with others can help you manage stress. Maintaining close relationships also makes it easier for others to tell when something’s wrong before it becomes a problem.

Family and friends can be a great place to start, but if you think that your stress is because of a mental health condition like anxiety, it may be time to talk to a mental health professional. Most population centers have a number to choose from.

If you don’t have access to a mental health professional because of your location or income or if you feel uncomfortable seeing a mental health professional in your community, consider exploring options for seeing a mental health professional over the internet.

Feel Happy, Stay Healthy

Stress is more than just a feeling. It’s a biochemical response that can impact just about every aspect of your physical health.

So, don’t brush it off – do something about it.

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