young woman with eye grasses biting pencil before a screen because she is stressed

Physical Effects of Stress on the Body Explained

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Stress is a physical reaction to an external cause. Small doses of stress are a normal part of life. A looming deadline or bad traffic causes unavoidable stress.

The body has built-in mechanisms to handle small doses of occasional stress. But when stress becomes a continuous problem, it can take its toll on your body. It can also cause anxiety, which is an internal reaction to stress.

The side effects of stress go deep. Stress affects all systems of the body, from the cardiovascular to the reproductive systems.

Today, we’ll take a closer look at the mental and physical effects of stress. Understanding all its major side effects is the first step to better managing it.

How Does Stress Affect the Body?

Muscles, lungs, heart, blood vessels, brain, endocrine glands, stomach and intestines, and the reproductive system too—stress can affect them all.

Different people may respond differently to stress. For example, some may experience tension in the shoulders and neck from anxiety caused by prolonged stress. Others may have stomach discomfort.

Here are all the major effects of stress on the body.

Muscle Tension

Muscles tense as a natural reaction to stress, preparing the body for action. When muscle tension continues over a longer period, aches, cramps, and other physical symptoms may occur. Stress commonly causes muscle tension in the shoulders, neck, and head.

Headaches and Migraines

Muscle tension in the shoulders and neck caused by stress is linked to headaches and migraines.

man standing by a window taking hand to forehead because she has a headache

Pain in the Lower Back

Another consequence of muscle tension, pain in the lower back is a common effect of stress on people with desk jobs. Stress can also make you pay less attention to your posture when seated, which can worsen back pain.

Rapid Breathing and Shortness of Breath

Stress constricts the trachea, the airway that connects the nose and lungs. As a result, it may lead to temporary breathing difficulties. It can also make breathing problems worse for people who have asthma or other respiratory diseases.

High Blood Pressure

Stress drives up the heart rate and makes heart contractions stronger. Blood vessels also dilate as the heart pumps more blood into the body.

After an acute, short episode of stress, heart rate and blood vessels return to normal. When stress is constant, blood pressure remains high, leading to hypertension.

Hypertension, together with the other effects of stress on the cardiovascular system, may lead to the inflammation of arteries and elevated cholesterol levels. These are known risk factors for heart attack and stroke.

Depression

The endocrine system, which includes the hypothalamus and pituitary gland in the brain, the thyroid in the neck, and the adrenal glands in the kidneys, responds to stress by secreting the hormone cortisol.

Cortisol gives the body a boost of energy by making glucose and fatty acids stored in the liver readily available as fuel. Chronic stress can impair the communication between the endocrine system and the immune system.

One of the consequences of this can be depression. Stress also affects mood through the millions of neurons present in the gut. Stress disrupts communication between neurons in the gut and those in the brain.

Stomach and Bowel Problems

Stress can make you feel stomach pain, cramps, bloating, and nausea. It can also lead to painful spasms in the bowel, constipation, and diarrhea. This occurs as the gastrointestinal system reacts to the prolonged effect of stress. Side effects of stress also include changes in the beneficial bacteria living in the gut.

woman holding hands in front of her stomach having stomach pains

Increased Hunger or Decreased Appetite

In response to stress, you may eat more than normal, or less. You may put on or lose weight. According to several studies, persistent stress is associated with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes and other metabolic diseases. Stress may also increase the risk of obesity.

Misfiring Immune System

A 2018 study suggests that stress may cause autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. Stress also affects the nervous system, causing it to signal the release of adrenaline and other hormones.

These hormones increase heartbeat and respiration rate and glucose levels in the blood and change digestive processes. Over time, the nervous system’s reaction to stress can weaken the body and make it more susceptible to infections and diseases.

Chronic Fatigue

Stress-induced disturbances of the endocrine system are also associated with chronic fatigue. Unlike normal tiredness, this type of fatigue doesn’t go away even if you sleep, rest, and eat well.

Reduced Sex Drive

Through its effects on the endocrine system, stress can reduce libido in both men and women. It also negatively affects sperm production in men and women’s ability to conceive.

Worsened Premenstrual Symptoms

Many women suffer from premenstrual symptoms such as mood swings, irritability, fatigue, and depression. Research suggests that stress can make these symptoms worse.

Anxiety

Anxiety is how your body responds to stress. It comes with its own set of symptoms including worry, unease, loss of sleep, aches and pains, and high blood pressure. With stress and anxiety also comes a higher risk of panic attacks.

Dry Eyes

A 2015 study found that individuals suffering from depression, anxiety, and stress were more likely to experience dry eye disease.

Stress may increase the risk of dry eyes through the far-reaching effects it has on the body. For example, by decreasing the immune system’s ability to fight free radicals arising from cellular processes and environmental factors.

Indirectly, stress can lead to poor sleep, unhealthy eating habits, and other behaviors that can decrease the quality of the tear film that lubricates and protects the surface of the eye.

closeup of woman's tired eyes

Stress and dry eyes can go hand in hand especially if you have to work long hours in front of a computer or another screen. If your eyes feel dry and tired and you have other eye symptoms, you may have dry eyes. Managing the condition effectively can help you better manage stress as well. The first step is getting tested.

Our online dry eye test takes only a few minutes. You can take it right now without any preparation. Take the Dry Eye Test.

Ways to Better Manage Stress

While some amount of stress is often unavoidable, being constantly under stress means you have to manage it. Some of the most effective ways to reduce the effects of stress on your body and prevent anxiety include:

  • Get at least 7-8 hours of sleep every night.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Eat healthy, regular meals.
  • Don’t drink too much caffeine.
  • Write down your experiences, thoughts, and emotions in a journal.
  • Practice mindfulness, deep breathing, and other relaxation exercises.
  • Have a support group of friends and relatives you can talk with.

In the end, even though your body has its own automatic physical responses to stress, remember that your conscious reaction to stress is also important. Help your body cope with stress through healthy lifestyle choices. That way, staying physically and mentally healthy will become easier.

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