What are the physical effects of stress?

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated April 11, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

In the human body, stress is a natural response in the body to promote survival and adaptation. Stress begins in the brain and stimulates neurological, hormonal, and physical responses throughout the body. These physical effects can be effective when experiencing acute stress, as they help individuals quickly respond to threats or danger. 

Over time, chronic exposure to stress can cause adverse health consequences to one's psychological, emotional, and physiological systems. To understand stress in more depth, it can be helpful to understand the physical impacts of what occurs in the body and how to ask for help when stress becomes overwhelming or unhealthy.

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Are the physical effects of stress affecting you?

What is stress?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), stress can be defined as any stimulus or change that causes a person to experience physical, psychological, or emotional strain. It is your body's natural reaction to situations that demand your attention or action. While everyone experiences stress, the way you manage stress can impact your mental and physical health. 

The physical response to stress explained

When you experience a stressful situation, the intricate relationship between stress and the brain is activated, causing your brain to respond by releasing the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. The release of these hormones is known as the fight-or-flight response and causes the following to occur:
  • A heart rate increase
  • A rise in blood pressure, sending blood to tissues responsible for self-guarding
  • An increase in your breathing rate, causing an increase in oxygen uptake 
  • Tightened muscles
  • Increased blood sugar levels 
  • A stimulated immune system 
  • A rise in testosterone hormones 

Immediate physical effects work together to prepare a person to appropriately respond to the event, whether they face the challenge, run away, or freeze. 

After this initial and immediate response, the body releases the steroid hormone cortisol from the adrenal cortex to manage the stress response and keep the body on high alert, which can have long-term effects. 

Cortisol is a necessary hormone that mediates several functions in the human body, including the stress response, immune system, and metabolism. This stress response is necessary for survival and promotes adaptation. However, excess hormones secreted during the stress response can cause adverse mental and physical health impacts. 

Long-term effects of stress on the body

The negative effects of stress may not occur when stress is acute, such as a short-term brush with danger or challenge. However, they can happen when your body does not return to homeostasis, its natural, restful state. 

Your stress response may remain alert if a stressor does not disappear or if the stress is severe, such as traumatic stress. When this occurs, the long-term side effects of stress can damage your health, affecting all the systems of the body, including the following.

The respiratory system

While the increased respiratory rate during a natural stress reaction encourages oxygen diffusion throughout the body, prolonged periods of stress-related breathing can increase inflammatory responses and exacerbate asthma. Stressful emotions can cause shortness of breath and hyperventilation, which is not necessarily an immediate health threat unless you have an underlying respiratory condition. 

If you have a chronic respiratory condition like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema, or asthma, these stress responses can lead to a flare-up that may be life-threatening. 

The cardiovascular system

Beyond the elevated blood pressure accompanying stress, the cardiovascular system can be altered when exposed to chronic stress hormones. This elevation includes increased coagulation and dysregulation of cardiac endothelium. Cortisol also increases the inflammatory response, which, in turn, promotes inflammation throughout the arteries. This inflammation can cause an increased risk for atherosclerosis (hardened arteries), cardiovascular disease, and heart attacks. 

The digestive system

The body's response to stress necessitates that other organ systems, like the digestive system, are deactivated or slowed down to allow survival systems, like the circulatory system, priority. This inhibition of the digestive system during stress can slow digestion and lead to gastrointestinal symptoms, especially when a person is under constant or chronic stress. The risk for digestive challenges, like acid reflux, heartburn, and stomach ulcers, increases under chronic stress. 

Other gastrointestinal side effects of long-term stress can include:

  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Stomachache

The muscular system

Stimulating your muscle fibers to tighten is a survival response that provides strength and speed when confronting danger, such as the need to fight or run away quickly. However, if stress does not subside, the body's muscles may remain tense, leading to chronic muscle tension. This constant muscle tension might incite migraines and tension headaches, and other stress-related conditions or symptoms. Musculoskeletal pain may occur in people with chronic stress, often in the shoulders, neck, and back. 

The reproductive system

When a person experiences excessive stress, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is stimulated, which can activate the endocrine stress response. The endocrine system's release of excess cortisol has an inhibitory effect throughout the male reproductive system. For people with this system, it can mean lower testosterone rates, reduced sperm production, and erectile dysfunction. They may also get increased infections of the prostate and testes. For those with a gynecological reproductive system, stress can affect the menstrual cycle, causing heavier, more painful, or irregular periods. If an individual is experiencing menopause, stress can exacerbate the symptoms.

The immune system

The quick stimulation of the immune system during a short period of stress helps your body heal and avoid infections. However, when the stress response is prolonged, it can weaken your immune system. The weakening may be due to excess levels of glucocorticoids, such as cortisol, that manage immune functions and reduce inflammation. To reduce inflammation, these hormones inhibit the immune system, making the body more vulnerable to viral and bacterial infections. You may also take longer to heal after an injury or recover from an illness.

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Long-term effects of stress on the brain

The brain is the control center of the body. It is the first to react to any stress stimulus because it is responsible for determining potential threats while controlling behavioral and physiological responses. The brain is also the receptacle of the stress response and is not immune to the effects. The following are some ways chronic stress can keep your brain from functioning properly. This dysfunction may lead to physical changes that inhibit cognitive function and increase the risk of developing mental health conditions.

Disruption of synapse control

The brain's synapses are minor gaps where nerve cells can send messages to each other through neurotransmitters. During long-term periods of stress, cortisol changes the intensity of these message transmissions. However, the brain can adapt and restructure itself for many people. Neuroplasticity can occur if the person takes actions to reduce stress levels, such as exercising.

Neurodegeneration of brain cells and the prefrontal cortex

The increased release of cortisol can have a devastating effect on brain cells if prolonged. Research has shown that chronic stress inhibits neurogenesis or the birth of new nerve cells. Further, elevated levels of glucocorticoids, including cortisol, can lead to neurodegeneration of brain cells and potential cell death.  

As brain cells die, the prefrontal cortex – the brain area responsible for learning and memory – can reduce in size. This reduction may affect a person's thoughts, emotions, and behaviors and can decrease working memory abilities.

A freeze in fight-or-flight mode

At the same time as your prefrontal cortex is diminishing, your amygdala may be enlarging. The amygdala is central in controlling emotional responses, especially to fear and perceived threats. High cortisol levels strengthen pathways between the hippocampus and the amygdala, which tells the brain to remain in a constant fight-or-flight state. This state creates a situation in which you are more sensitive and responsive to the slightest hint of stress, perpetuating the cycle. 

Is stress the same for everyone?

Stress is specific and unique for each person. Everyone can experience different physical effects of long-term stress. Causes of stress can also vary, including but not limited to the following: 

  • The death of a loved one
  • Financial insecurity 
  • Job loss 
  • Taking a test
  • Moving to a new home
  • Injury or illness
  • Mental health challenges 
  • Work pressure
  • Giving a speech or presentation 
  • Meeting new people
  • Driving in heavy traffic
  • Parental responsibilities
  • Traumatic events

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

You might notice that some causes of stress apply to you while others may not seem challenging. However, different situations cause stress for different people. In addition, people may have unique coping mechanisms for managing stress, which can improve or decrease one's chances of stress reduction. 

How to manage excessive stress

Stress is natural, and, in moderation, it may not be unhealthy. However, pay attention to your symptoms and how long they last. If your stress is intense, prolonged, or untreated for a significant amount of time, you might be living with chronic stress. If you have realized that stress is challenging, consider the following ways of approaching your symptoms.  

Speak with your healthcare provider

You might first choose to confirm that the symptoms of stress you are feeling are not due to an underlying medical condition. Some of the symptoms of stress can be confused with serious medical conditions that could require treatment. List the symptoms you notice and take the list with you when you visit your physician.

Look for practical solutions

There may sometimes be practical solutions to stress. You may be able to avoid certain stressful situations if they are not part of your daily routine. However, be careful of avoiding certain stressful experiences if you know they are required for your mental health. For example, staying away from people because you find socializing uncomfortable can lead to increased risks of anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions. 

Other practical solutions could include reducing the effects of the necessary stress you must deal with every day or on special occasions. Physical activity, healthy eating, getting the right amount of sleep, and avoiding substances may all be effective methods. 

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources.

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Are the physical effects of stress affecting you?

Talk to a licensed counselor

Ignoring stress may cause it to worsen. If you are feeling the physical effects of stress, a mental health provider can help you discover strategies to manage them. If your stress is getting in the way of making an appointment because of the anxiety of traveling and unfamiliar places, you can also try online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp

Studies have found that internet-based therapy can be beneficial in treating people with various mental health conditions, including stress or anxiety. For example, in a review published in the Cureus Journal of Medical Science, researchers evaluated the efficacy of online cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) when managing the symptoms of varied psychiatric disorders, including stress-related. The study revealed that online therapy is a cost-effective and beneficial mode of therapy for those managing anxiety and stress. 

With an online therapy platform, you can connect with a therapist from home and reduce potential stressors like social interaction, commuting, and trying to find parking. You can also choose a session time that fits your schedule, sometimes outside of standard business hours. 

Takeaway

Stress can have various physical symptoms, including but not limited to chest palpitations, shortness of breath, and migraines. If you're experiencing these symptoms or want to learn more about managing stress, consider contacting a licensed therapist to get started.
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