How Does Stress Affect The Body: Symptoms And Solutions

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox
Updated February 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Do you feel exhausted all the time? Do you have a lot of muscle tension and pain? Is your head or stomach constantly bothering you? Those signs could indicate that you are going through significant and constant stress. There is a long list of physical and emotional symptoms that can be caused by the effects of stress. Learning how to identify stress symptoms can help you find the right plan of treatment for you.

The impact of chronic stress

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Stress levels have been on the rise in Americans over recent years, impacting people of all ages. Everyday stress can have a negative impact on multiple areas of your life. However, when the stressful situation passes, you may find that things return to normal even if you didn’t do anything to address your stress. This isn’t the healthiest way to get through stress, but it happens this way for some people.

However, if you’re experiencing chronic or long term stress, it’s not going to just go away. It may not be tied to a specific situation in your life. Instead, it might be the result of poor habits or not knowing how to cope with past trauma. It will not just go away if left untreated.

How stress affects the body

In many cases, acute stress adversely affects vital body systems, including the central nervous system and immune system, if left unchecked. Not only does occasional stress show up in your body, but chronic stress can also have long-term negative consequences on cardiovascular health and cognitive function.

When you are feeling stressed, you may experience:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Rising blood pressure
  • Muscle tension
  • Headaches
  • Upset stomach
  • Lack of sexual desire
  • Change in appetite
  • Insomnia

If you live with chronic stress, the symptoms above can start to turn into more serious health consequences.

Chronic stress can lead to health problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure, gastrointestinal problems such as irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease, heart attack, and strokes, among others. These are clear indicators that allowing chronic stress to continue in your life can be detrimental to your physical health and well-being.

How stress affects mental health

Intense stress also impacts your mental health and wellness. It can lead to you experiencing many different negative and difficult emotions such as sadness, anger, frustration, and fear.

Some of the mental health symptoms that you may notice in your life from stress include:

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  • Restlessness

  • Lack of motivation

  • Irritability and anger

  • Sadness

  • Lack of concentration and focus

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

These are serious symptoms that should not be taken lightly. If you experience chronic stress, you may begin to think that these symptoms are just a normal part of life, but they are not. All these symptoms can grow into more serious problems if you do not address them.

How stress affects behavior

Stress can also impact your behavior. If you look at the symptoms listed above under physical and mental health, it can be easier to understand how stress changes your behavior. If you’re living under constant overwhelm and anxiety and experiencing things like frequent headaches or stomach aches, it can be easy to lose your temper with your loved ones, for example. Here are some of the other behavioral symptoms that you may experience in your life as a result of stress:

  • Angry outbursts

  • Eating too much or not enough

  • Substance use

  • Social withdrawal

These behaviors can have a negative spiral effect on your life. There are certain underlying causes of family stress that provoke the mood. For example, as you withdraw from friends and family because of stress, you may find that you have even more difficulty coping with stress in your life. This can lead to additional problems which keep you away from a social activity even more. This is why it’s important to learn to recognize and healthily address your stress.

Stress management tips to overcome chronic stress

There are many things that you can do to address your chronic stress and learn to overcome it. This does not mean that you will never experience stress again. Instead, it means that when you do go through stressful situations, you’ll have tips and strategies that you can use to relieve stress and handle it healthily. Let’s explore some of these potentially helpful strategies.

Learn to identify your stress triggers

When you start to feel stressed, it can be helpful to take time identify from where the stressors are stemming; this allows you to begin investigating what you can do to make to address it.

While there will be some things causing you stress that you might not be able to eliminate or get rid of in the moment, there will be some things that you can mitigate the stressful effects. For example, if a certain family behavior is causing you to feel stressed, you probably aren’t going to be able to control how they are behaving, but, you may be able to establish boundaries in your life that stop the other person’s behavior from having as powerful of a negative impact on you.

There will be some things that you find are short-term stressors. But there also might be habits that you identify that are causing you unnecessary stress. When you learn where the stress is coming from, you can start to take your first steps to address or remove it.

Practice deep breathing

When you’re starting to feel the stress and tension build up within your body, deep breathing can help to break up some of the physical symptoms that you’re experiencing. For example, you may notice that you start to breathe faster as your frustration grows. This can cause your heart to race, as well. And, as your heart beats faster, your blood pressure rises. These physical symptoms can continue to build and even lead to things like full-blown panic attacks.

Deep breathing can help to stop your physical symptoms from progressing. As you start taking slow, deep breaths in and out, you may notice that it feels like your blood pressure is lowering, and your heart rate is returning to normal.

You may also find that deep breathing can help you to slow your thoughts. Your mind will be forced to temporarily shift from your stress and worry to the breathing technique that you’re using. This can help you to regain mental clarity and look for solutions to the stressful situation or problem that you’re facing.

There are multiple types of breathing techniques that you can use, so practice a few of them to find what works best for you. It can also help to practice them when you’re not under stress, so when you find your stress starting to build, you will know how to put the breathing exercise to use without too much thought.

Tackle insomnia

Not getting enough sleep can make it even harder to cope with stress. You may find that you struggle to be patient with others, and you cannot think clearly to look for solutions. If you’re having problems falling asleep or staying asleep due to stress, it’s an important symptom to address. Many different things may help improve sleep troubles. A few that you could try include:

  • Keeping a strict sleep schedule

  • Cutting out caffeine

  • Refraining from exercising too close to bedtime

  • Sleeping in a dark, cool room

  • Using white noise

However, if you’re continuing to struggle, don’t be afraid to talk with your doctor to explore additional options.

Be physically active

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Physical activity and exercise can help you release tension that has built up from chronic stress. It also releases chemicals in your brain that work to boost your mood. These chemicals also act as natural pain killers, which can help reduce some of the physical symptoms you’re experiencing.

There are other ways that physical activity and exercise can help with stress. You may find that you sleep better when you exercise; and, you may experience a boost in your self-esteem.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America states that you may start to experience these positive mental boosts after just five minutes of physical activity. So, if you’re feeling stressed, you don’t need to feel like you have to get in a full workout. Simply getting moving for a few minutes can start to help.

Talk to someone

Having a trusted person to turn to for support can help when you’re going through stressful situations or experiencing chronic stress. This could be a friend or family. It could also be a support group. For example, if you are under stress as a result of losing a loved one, you may benefit from connecting in a group for others experiencing grief from losing someone.

If you don’t have anyone to turn to or could use additional support in handling your stress, a licensed therapist is an effective option to consider. Not only can they listen as you talk through the stress in your life, but they also have education on how to help you overcome it. 

A therapist, like those at BetterHelp, can assist you in finding stress-relieving strategies that work for your specific situation. One of the benefits of using BetterHelp entails being able to schedule appointments at convenient times, meaning you are less likely to feel compelled to sacrifice time away from other important commitments, like your family or job. All you need to meet virtually with your therapist is an internet connection – gone are the days of commuting in stressful traffic to sit in a therapist’s lobby.

Studies have shown that online cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective method for treating chronic stress. A recent trial aimed to evaluate the efficacy of online CBT in the cases of 196 people experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Results showed that, after a year, the internet-based CBT intervention was effective in reducing symptoms of PTSD and was as effective as in-person CBT.

Takeaway

For many people, building a consistent exercise routine and support network will be enough to mitigate the troubling aspects of stress. Others, however, may benefit tremendously from the active listening and professional support of a licensed therapist. BetterHelp counselors are trained in methodologies like CBT and will work with you at your own pace to help you reframe negative thoughts and behavioral patterns or make necessary adjustments to ease your stress. Take the first step in removing the weight from your shoulders by reaching out to BetterHelp today.

Ease stress and mental exhaustion

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