The Physical Toll Of Stress: What Happens To Your Body When You're Stressed

Updated April 29, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Did you know that stress can have a profound physical toll on your body? In fact, it's estimated that over 90% of all doctor visits are due to stress-related concerns. When we experience prolonged periods of stress, our bodies respond in ways that can lead to long-term health problems or even serious medical conditions.

So what exactly happens when we're stressed out? Let's take a closer look at the physical effects of chronic stress and how they manifest in our bodies. Plus, we'll review some strategies for reducing stress and safeguarding your physical health.

Do You Feel Stressed Or Anxious?

What Is Stress?

Stress is something that many of us experience from time to time, but what exactly is it, and why does it affect us the way that it does?

Stress is the reaction to a perceived threat or challenge. It's our body's way of preparing us to fight or flee the threat. When we experience stress, our brains trigger the release of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which help to mobilize the body's resources for action.

Stress can be caused by a variety of things, including work-related issues, financial worries, relationship problems, and health concerns. In short, anything that we perceive as a threat or challenge can trigger the stress response.

In the short term, stress can actually be a good thing. It can help us stay alert, focused, and motivated to complete a task or overcome a challenge. But if stress becomes chronic or prolonged, it can negatively affect our physical and mental health.

When we experience a stressful situation, our bodies react in myriad ways. From increased heart rate to heightened alertness, these physical responses are part of our innate stress response.

The fight-or-flight response is a primal reaction to perceived danger. The response happens almost immediately after a threat is detected because of the hard-wired circuitry that exists between our brains and our physiology.

For instance, if you are walking home alone late at night and suddenly hear footsteps behind you, your heart rate can increase, and you may begin to breathe faster. These changes help to prime you for action and can help you quickly react if you need to flee or fight.

The sympathetic nervous system plays a vital role in triggering the fight-or-flight response. This network of nerve fibers prepares the body for action when the brain perceives a threat. Once activated, the sympathetic nervous system triggers a cascade of physical responses, including:

  • Rapid heart rate
  • Increased respiration
  • Dilated pupils
  • Decreased digestion and blood flow to the skin
  • Increased blood sugar levels

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These responses are designed to help us deal with a threat efficiently and quickly. However, they're not always helpful for non-physical threats like job stress or relationship issues. In fact, they can be detrimental to our health if left unchecked.

In addition to the physical responses triggered by the fight-or-flight response, the brain releases stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. When these hormones are released, they help to mobilize the body's resources for action. For example, if you are in a car accident, adrenaline and cortisol can help you react quickly and escape danger. But if we experience repeated or chronic stress, the constant release of stress hormones can harm our health.

Research indicates long-term exposure to stress hormones can increase the risk of heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. In addition, chronic stress can also worsen existing conditions like asthma or depression. Long-term stress can also weaken your immune system, making you more susceptible to colds and infections.

When we experience chronic stress, our bodies can't turn off the stress response. This response can lead to a state of chronic arousal, which prevents the body from recovering and restoring itself. To prevent this from happening, it's important to recognize when you're feeling stressed and take steps to reduce stress levels.

The Physical And Mental Impact Of Stress On Your Body

Stress is a common problem that many people face in today's fast-paced world. Whether it's due to work, relationships, or simply trying to keep up with life's demands, stress can seriously impact our physical and mental health.

Stress can manifest in various physical symptoms, including:

  • Headaches and migraines: Stress may cause muscle tension, which can lead to headaches and even migraines. This phenomenon occurs because stress exacerbates the pain-sensitive nerves in the brain that can trigger these painful headaches.
  • Muscle tension and pain: Stress can cause you to hold your muscles in a tense position for prolonged periods, which can lead to pain in your back, neck, and shoulders.
  • Digestive issues: Stress can also affect your digestive system, causing a range of issues, including stomach pains, cramps, diarrhea, and constipation. Stress can cause gastrointestinal contractions and increase inflammation in the gut.
  • Cardiovascular problems: Chronic stress can increase inflammation in the body, leading to the buildup of plaques in the arteries and increasing your risk of heart disease.
  • Skin conditions: Stress can aggravate skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, or acne because it can cause inflammation in the skin and trigger the release of hormones that can make the skin more sensitive.
  • Weakened immune system: Stress can weaken the immune system, making it harder for our bodies to fight infection and disease. Stress hormones suppress immunity, leaving us more vulnerable to sickness.

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Do You Feel Stressed Or Anxious?

In addition to its physical symptoms, stress can also have a serious impact on our mental health. Stress can manifest in many mental health issues, including:

  • Anxiety and depression: Stress can cause feelings of anxiety and depression, which can have a lasting effect on your mood, behavior, and outlook on life.
  • Insomnia and sleep disorders: Stress can disrupt your sleep and cause a range of sleep disorders, including insomnia, nightmares, and sleep apnea.
  • Cognitive decline and memory problems: Stress can impair cognitive function, which leads to problems with memory, focus, and decision-making. It can also cause difficulties in information processing, resulting in confusion and disorientation.
  • Addiction and substance abuse: Chronic stress can cause people to turn to substance abuse to cope with their stress. Substance abuse can cause serious health problems, including addiction, liver damage, and overdose.

Strategies For Preventing And Managing Stress

Stress is often a normal part of life. Fortunately, there are many strategies to help prevent and manage stress. Lifestyle changes and stress-management techniques can help reduce stress levels and make living with stress easier.

Exercise is one of the best ways to reduce stress. Not only does it burn off unnecessary energy and release endorphins, but research has also shown that common physical activity can help control hormones and increase resilience to stress.

A healthy, balanced diet can help nourish your body and provide the necessary nutrients to manage stress. You can choose foods high in complex carbohydrates and fiber, such as whole grains, vegetables, and fruits, as well as foods rich in protein, such as lean meats, fish, and legumes.

Sleep is also essential to our health and well-being. Our bodies use rest to detoxify and heal, so being well-rested is important for managing stress. Unfortunately, research indicates that approximately 30% of adults aren't getting enough sleep. Therefore, it is recommended that adults get at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep every night for optimal health and well-being.

Stress-management techniques can help you relax and reduce stress levels. While the efficacy of these techniques varies by individual, some studies have found that mindfulness meditation can reduce stress and improve anxiety. This technique involves sitting quietly and focusing on the present moment without judgment.

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Yoga combines physical movements with mindfulness meditation, helping you to connect your mind and body. Yoga has been found to be effective in reducing anxiety, stress levels, and depression. Deep breathing exercises help calm your mind and body by increasing oxygen flow and reducing heart rate and blood pressure.

If lifestyle changes and stress-management techniques are not working, online therapy or counseling may be beneficial. A mental health professional can help you identify the sources of stress and develop strategies to manage it more effectively. You can take advantage of the therapeutic benefits through a convenient and quiet online platform without physically visiting a therapist. The increased accessibility can make therapy a less intimidating and more comfortable process.

Recent evidence supports Internet-delivered cognitive behavioral therapy (ICBT) as an effective way to reduce stress-related symptoms. It involves a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy techniques, such as restructuring negative thought patterns, challenging unhelpful beliefs, and setting achievable goals. Studies have found that it can help reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. It can also provide self-care strategies to help individuals manage stressful situations in a healthier way.


Stress may be a common part of everyday life, but it shouldn't be ignored. The long-term implications of stress can be significant, so taking proactive steps before your physical and mental health are at risk is critical.

Fortunately, there are many strategies to prevent and manage stress that can help reduce its effects. When combined with lifestyle changes and stress-management techniques, online therapy can be a valuable tool in decreasing stress levels. When you address the sources of stress and develop strategies to manage it, you're taking the first step towards feeling better.

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