How stress affects the body will differ from person to person. Some people may experience only psychological effects from feeling stressed, while others may also experience physical symptoms, such as headaches and heartburn.
Some individuals may also be more sensitive to the effects of stress on the body and be more susceptible to complications. Learning to recognize symptoms and exploring stress reduction strategies can help a person manage stress and reduce its effects on the body.
Keep reading to learn more about how chronic stress can affect the body.
Stress can affect the major systems in the body. Below, we look at its effects on different systems and the identifiable symptoms that it can produce:
Central nervous system
The central nervous system comprises the brain and spinal cord. Stress effects on the central nervous system may include:
Many experts suggest that stress may cause depression. Some researchers have proposed the term stress-induced depression to refer to depression that occurs when people have a history of stress before their diagnosis. Continual work-related stress can contribute to depression.
The hypothalamus is one of the key structures involved in the sleep-wake cycle. During stressful experiences, the body activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the sympathetic nervous system. These systems release hormones that stimulate attention and arousal, causing issues with sleep.
People experiencing stress may develop insomnia or have worsening sleep issues.
Stress may cause decreased immune function, but researchers are unclear on the exact mechanism responsible. In moments of acute stress, the body prepares for the possibility of injury or infection by activating the immune system, which protects it from outside dangers.
If stress becomes persistent, the long-term release of immune factors, such as proinflammatory cytokines, can cause chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation is a risk factor for diseases such as atherosclerosis.
Stress affects the interactions between the brain and the gut. Some of the changes may affect:
- smooth muscle movements
- deep gut sensations
- stomach acid secretion
- permeability (potentially leading to leaky gut syndrome, a proposed gastrointestinal condition)
- cell reproduction and blood flow in the gut
- the intestinal microbiome
These changes lead to or exacerbate several digestive problems, including irritable bowel syndrome, heartburn, ulcers, and inflammatory bowel disease.
People can also experience changes in appetite when they feel stressed.
Stress can affect both the male and female reproductive systems, potentially leading to issues with the libido, orgasms, and sustaining an erection.
Stress may also affect sperm production and the maturation of sperm. In women, stress during pregnancy or the postpartum period can have a significant impact on health. People trying to conceive may have difficulty if one or both partners are experiencing a stressful life event.
Researchers have identified a link between work-related stress and the development of chronic pain. Monotonous work and lack of social support are possible risk factors for musculoskeletal issues, such as lower back pain.
Ongoing studies are investigating the possibility of a link between non-work-related stress and musculoskeletal pain.
During acute stress, the cardiovascular system prepares the body for the fight or flight response. These preparations involve an increase in the following:
- heart rate
- contraction strength of the heart
- release of epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol
- blood flow to the major muscle groups
Before reaching menopause, people have lower cardiovascular risks because estrogen helps with stress management. After menopause, when estrogen levels drop, the cardiovascular risks relating to stress rise.
Some researchers have suggested that stress can reduce insulin sensitivity. An increase in the hormones epinephrine and cortisol during stress affects the body’s response to insulin. Cortisol can also lead to increased fat accumulation in the abdomen.
They also noted that the effects of stress might differ between people in good health and those with insulin resistance or obesity. People living with obesity may be more sensitive to the effects of stress on metabolism.
Some people may experience breathing difficulties during a stressful response. Breathing difficulties, such as shortness of breath and rapid breathing, can occur with stress and strong emotions.
Researchers suggest that during stressful responses, the airways between the lungs and nose may contract and affect breathing.
Stress does not directly cause asthma attacks, though. Experts suggest that stress increases the frequency, duration, and severity of symptoms by increasing the extent of the body’s inflammatory response to irritants, allergens, and pathogens.
Chronic, or long-term, stress can cause decreased brain mass and weight. These structural changes in the brain can lead to memory, cognitive, and learning difficulties.
Changes in the structure of the hippocampus of the brain can occur from chronic stress. These changes, together with increased levels of cortisol, can affect how neurons communicate with each other.
Many strategies exist to help people manage stress. These strategies may include behaviors that improve physical health, such as exercise and proper nutrition. Some techniques focus on behaviors that are beneficial for emotional functioning.
Recently, mindfulness practices, which have roots in Buddhism, have become very popular. Mindfulness requires a person to focus their attention on the present moment, be aware of their passing thoughts and maintain a nonjudgmental stance.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction programs involve:
- breathing meditation
- body scanning techniques
- gentle, yoga-inspired physical exercises
Researchers have studied mindfulness practices extensively and shown that they may be effective in improving stress management.
Some people will require treatment for some of the physical and emotional complications of stress, such as depression, insomnia, and heartburn.
When stress leads to disease, people must also manage their stress to prevent their health issues from worsening or returning in the future.
People should see a doctor when they notice complications of stress, such as heartburn, digestive problems, and menstrual irregularities. Although some people may notice physical effects of stress, others may develop emotional or psychological effects, including depression and insomnia.
Psychological effects may require medication or psychotherapy. Doctors can offer advice on counseling and coping mechanisms.
In some situations, people may require treatment for the physical effects of stress, such as chronic headaches and digestive issues.
During acute stress, the body responds to protect itself from hazards such as injury and infection. When stressors become excessive or chronic, the body’s response may lead to negative effects and diseases. Stress can affect several bodily systems.
A range of remedies, including mindfulness practice, exercise, and proper nutrition, can help people cope with stress. Some individuals may require medical treatments to manage physical or psychological symptoms and diseases resulting from stress.