8 Ways Stress Affects Your Body

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Written By Hedy Marks MPH on September 1, 2020
  • African American mother with head in hands looking stressed with daughter in background
    Stress Is Your "Fight or Flight" Response
    Stress affects your whole body. Your breathing and heart rate quicken, your blood pressure rises, and other body systems kick into high gear. This is your body’s natural reaction to danger—the “fight or flight” response. A little stress every now and then is not cause for concern, but chronic stress is linked to a number of health problems.
  • Business patient
    1. Stress Affects Mental Health
    Anxiety is the main byproduct of stress and, not surprisingly, anxiety is the most common mood disorder. Although genetics and your life experiences play a role in your mental health, chronic stress can also increase your risk of developing a mental health problem. One theory suggests the hormones released during stress disrupt serotonin levels, a brain chemical that affects mood. Over time, a change in serotonin levels may lead to anxiety or depression, among other mental disorders.
  • portrait of senior African American male sleeping in bed on side
    2. Stress Affects Sleep
    When you’re stressed, it can be difficult to quiet your mind and fall or stay asleep. Periodic insomnia is not unusual. However, chronic insomnia—occurring at least three nights a week and lasting more than a month—can make you feel tired, irritable and more stressed. Left untreated, insomnia may lead to other health problems, including depression, anxiety, and heart failure.
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    3. Stress Affects the Heart
    Chronic stress can contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease, and abnormal heartbeats. If you are already dealing with these health concerns added stress can make them worse. Stress also causes certain blood cells to become stickier, increasing the risk of blood clots and stroke. In addition to the body’s biological response to stress, behaviors associated with stress—unhealthy eating, smoking and drinking, and not exercising—may be to blame.
  • Close-up of a woman suffering from a headache
    4. Stress Causes Headaches
    Hormones released during stress can trigger changes in the blood vessels throughout your body. These changes can cause tension headaches and migraines. Stress may also affect how you handle headache pain. Being agitated may lower your pain-tolerance threshold.
  • woman pointing at skin rash on back
    5. Stress Causes Skin Problems
    The appearance of your skin is a good indicator of your overall well-being. Stress causes a chemical reaction in your body that makes skin more sensitive and reactive. Stress hormones can affect your skin by aggravating existing skin problems, such as psoriasis, eczema, and acne, and causing new ones, like hives and rashes. You can help prevent some of these problems by keeping your skin clean and free of harsh cleansers. Use hypoallergenic products, which are less likely to cause a reaction.
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    6. Stress Affects the Metabolic System and Weight Control
    Studies have found a link between the stress hormone cortisol and sugar and fat cravings. In addition, cortisol may cause the body to hold on to fat, especially belly fat, making losing weight even more difficult. Many people eat when they’re having a rough time. When you’re stressed, stay ahead of those cravings by always having healthy snacks at hand.
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    7. Stress Affects the Digestive System
    Nearly everyone feels sick to their stomach at one time or another when facing a stressful situation. But chronic stress can wreak havoc on the digestive system. It’s known to cause heartburn, diarrhea, constipation, cramping and bloating. Irritable bowel syndrome, a condition in which the large intestine is irritated, is strongly related to stress.
  • Girl sneezing into her arm
    8. Stress Weakens the Immune System
    Your immune system is a collection of cells that protect the body against harmful bacteria, viruses and cancer. Research shows that people who are under chronic stress have fewer white blood cells—the infection-fighting cells—and are more vulnerable to colds and other illnesses. Once you are sick, stress can make your symptoms worse.
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    Take Control over Stress
    In small doses, stress is good because it motivates you to get things done or flee a dangerous situation. But ongoing stress can wear you down and make you sick. One of the most effective things you can do is exercise because it helps your body deal with stress. This doesn’t have to be a major overhaul of your life. Take a short, brisk walk first thing in the morning or some other time of day. Always have healthy snacks on hand, including your car. If you are having trouble managing your stress, talk to your doctor or someone else you can trust.
8 Ways Stress Affects Your Body

About The Author

  1. Stress and Your Health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. http://www.womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/fact-sheet/stress-your-health.html. Accessed October 30, 2013.
  2. Stress and skin. American Academy of Dermatology. http://www.aad.org/media-resources/stats-and-facts/prevention-and-care/stress-and-skin. Accessed October 30, 2013.
  3. FAQs About Stress. American Heart Association. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/StressManagement/HowDoesStressAffectYou/FAQs-About-Stress_UCM_307982_Article.jsp. Accessed October 31, 2013.
  4. Stress. University of Maryland Medical Center. http://umm.edu/health/medical/reports/articles/stress. Accessed October 31, 2013.
  5. Laugsand LE, et al. Insomnia and the risk of incident heart failure: a population study. Eur Heart J. 2013. March 5 (Epub ahead of print). http://eurheartj.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2013/02/28/eurheartj.eht019.abstract.
  6. Roth T. Insomnia: Definition, Prevalence, Etiology, and Consequences. J Clin Sleep Med. 2007 August 15; 3(5 Suppl):S7–S10.
  7. Exercise fuels the brain’s stress buffers. American Psychological Association. http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/exercise-stress.aspx. Accessed November 4, 2013.
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Sep 1
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.