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

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated September 29, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Did you know that stress can have a profound physical toll on your body? When we experience prolonged periods of stress, our bodies can respond in ways that may lead to long-term health problems or even serious medical conditions. For instance, stress may contribute to headaches, muscle tension, digestive issues, skin conditions, and a weakened immune system. It can also lead to anxiety, depression, substance misuse, and insomnia. However, managing stress healthily may decrease the risk of these adverse effects. One way to manage stress may be to work with a licensed therapist in person or online.

Do You Feel Stressed Or Anxious?

What Is Stress?

Stress can be defined as our body’s reaction to a perceived threat or challenge. When we experience a stressful situation, our brains typically react by preparing us to fight or flee the threat. The fight-or-flight response is often seen as a primal reaction to perceived danger. The response typically happens almost immediately after the brain detects a threat, usually triggering the release of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which can mobilize the body's resources for action. 

For instance, if you are walking home alone late at night and suddenly hear footsteps behind you, your heart rate may increase, your breath may come short and fast, and your pupils may dilate. These physiological changes can prime you for action so you can react quickly if you need to flee or fight the source of danger.  

The sympathetic nervous system often plays a vital role in preparing the body for action after the brain sends the message to initiate the fight-or-flight response. Once activated, this network of nerve fibers usually triggers a cascade of physical responses, including the following:

  • Rapid heart rate

  • Increased respiration

  • Dilated pupils

  • Decreased digestion and blood flow to the skin

  • Increased blood sugar levels

These responses are generally designed to help us deal with a threat quickly and efficiently. 

Sources Of Stress

Your body can initiate a stress response even when the perceived threat isn’t potentially life-threatening. Stress can be caused by a variety of perceived “threats,” 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. Even if you know that the source of your stress does not put you in immediate danger, the nervous system can still react, and stress symptoms can still occur. 

In the short term, stress can be a positive reaction. It can help us stay alert, focused, and motivated to complete a task or overcome a challenge. However, our body’s stress response isn’t always helpful for coping with non-physical threats like job stress or relationship issues. If stress becomes chronic or prolonged, our body may not be able to turn off its stress response, possibly leading to a state of chronic arousal. The constant release of stress hormones can prevent the body from recovering and restoring itself, potentially leading to negative impacts on our physical and mental health. 

The Physical And Mental Impact Of Stress On Your Body

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

Stress can manifest in various physical symptoms, including those listed below.

  • Headaches and migraines: Stress may cause muscle tension, which can lead to headaches and even migraines. This phenomenon generally occurs because stress exacerbates the pain-sensitive nerves in the brain that can trigger migraines. 

  • 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 affect your digestive system, potentially causing a range of issues, including stomach pains, cramps, diarrhea, and constipation. Stress can also cause gastrointestinal contractions and increase inflammation in the gut.

  • Cardiovascular problems: Chronic stress can increase inflammation and blood pressure, possibly increasing your risk of heart disease.

  • Skin conditions: Stress can aggravate skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, and 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 hormones may suppress immunity, potentially weakening the immune system and making it harder for our bodies to fight infection and disease.

  • Reproductive health effects: Stress can impact both the female and male reproductive systems. High levels of stress can be associated with irregular or absent menstrual cycles, changes in the length of cycles, and more painful menstrual periods. Stress can also lower libido in both women and men, as well as affect sperm production and maturation in the male reproductive system. 


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

  • Anxiety and depression: Stress can cause symptoms 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 contribute to a range of sleep disorders, including insomnia, nightmares, and sleep apnea. 

  • Cognitive decline and memory problems: Stress can impair cognitive function, which may lead to problems with memory, focus, and decision-making. It can also cause difficulties in information processing, potentially resulting in confusion and disorientation.

  • Addiction and substance misuse: Chronic stress can cause people to turn to substance misuse to cope with their stress. Substance use disorder can cause serious health problems, including addiction, liver damage, and overdose.

People with preexisting mental health conditions may notice that their symptoms worsen when they experience stressful life situations.

Strategies For Preventing And Managing Stress

Whether due to work, relationships, or simply trying to keep up with life's demands, stress can be a common challenge in today's fast-paced world. It can be important to recognize when you're feeling stressed and take steps to reduce your stress levels. The following list includes some lifestyle changes and stress-management techniques that may relieve stress.  

  • Aerobic exercise, such as jogging, dancing, swimming, walking, or biking, can be one of the best ways to reduce stress. Exercise that elevates your heart rate usually reduces adrenaline and cortisol levels while releasing endorphins, the brain chemicals that can elevate mood. 

  • A balanced diet can nourish your body and provide the necessary nutrients to manage stress. Try to 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 can also be essential to health and well-being. Our bodies typically use rest to detoxify and heal, so being well-rested can be important for managing stress. 

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

  • Yoga usually combines physical movements with mindfulness meditation. Yoga can be effective in reducing anxiety, stress levels, and depression. 

  • Deep breathing exercises may calm your mind and body by increasing oxygen flow and reducing heart rate and blood pressure.

  • Cultivating a supportive community may be another way to build resilience to stress. Research has shown that social support, such as having positive relationships with friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers, can help an individual cope with stress. 

Getty/Vadym Pastuk
Do You Feel Stressed Or Anxious?

Getting Support For Managing Stress 

If you need support in understanding the roots of chronic stress and how to manage it, talking to a licensed therapist may be beneficial. They can help you identify the sources of your stress and develop strategies to manage it more effectively, such as coping skills and relaxation techniques. A therapist can also be a key accountability partner as you implement new self-care routines to reduce your stress. 

Benefits Of Online Therapy

If your stress is caused by an already full work and life schedule, it can be difficult to find time to travel to an in-person therapy session. Online therapy generally has the benefit of being available from anywhere you have a smart device and stable internet connection, such as your home. If you are ready to seek support for managing chronic stress, an online platform like BetterHelp can usually match you with a certified therapist within 48 hours. 

Effectiveness Of Online Therapy

Many therapists use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to address their clients’ stress levels. In CBT, the therapist normally works with the client to restructure negative thought patterns, challenge unhelpful beliefs, and set achievable goals. Research generally supports Internet-delivered cognitive behavioral therapy (ICBT) as an effective way to reduce chronic stress-related symptoms. One study of adults experiencing chronic stress found that they usually “made large and significant improvements” to their perceived level of stress after three months of ICBT and generally maintained their improvements six months after completing therapy. 


Stress may be a common part of everyday life, but it generally shouldn't be ignored. Chronic stress can have long-term health implications, including an increased risk of heart disease. There may be many strategies to prevent and manage stress, such as aerobic exercise, yoga, and quality sleep. When combined with lifestyle changes and stress-management techniques, online therapy can be a valuable resource for addressing the sources of chronic stress.

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