The Effects of Stress on the Body, From Your Brain to Your Stomach

Luckily, there's a lot you can do to reduce stress and its impact on your life. 


Stress happens when you're introduced to a challenge or demand in life, resulting in physical or emotional tension.

It's a feeling that has evolved over millennia to protect you from danger. Also known as the flight-or-fight response, it gets the body ready for action. If you're in danger, the brain sends triggers—both chemical and along the nerves—to the adrenals, which are glands that sit on top of each kidney like a hat perched on a head. The adrenals then churn out hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, which can increase:

  • Blood pressure
  • Heart rate
  • Breathing
  • Blood sugar
  • Alertness
  • Muscle tension
  • Sweating

This is dandy if you need to outrun a hungry lion, less so if the perceived threat is a looming layoff.

Even though it happens to everyone, stress can still be harmful to health if it occurs over a long period. Here are the ways stress can affect your health—and what you can do about it.

Increased Appetite

If you experience stress that only lasts for a short time, your appetite may be low. But when you are stressed for a long time, your body produces cortisol, a hormone that increases your appetite and leads you to consume foods high in sugar and fat.

Eating foods that are high in sugar and saturated fat can lead to weight gain. "You can clearly correlate stress to weight gain," said Philip Hagen, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic.

The key is to know your triggers and be ready when stress is likely to hit. That means stocking up on well-balanced snacks high in protein and healthy fats. Try not to have snacks high in saturated fat and sugar on hand. Additionally, exercise can help to control stress and improve your overall health.

Heart Problems

"Sometimes stress can cause inflammation, hypertension, or other vascular conditions," Irene Katzan, MD, a neurologist at the Cleveland Clinic, said. This can lead to stroke or heart attack, Dr. Katzan said.

The exact relationship between stress and heart problems is still unclear, but evidence is mounting that there is one.

For instance, many people are stressed because of work—10% to 40% of people who are employed experience work-related stress (33% of those people experience severe chronic stress). Research found that people who experience stress from work are more likely to develop cardiovascular disease.

One study found that people with a high-stress job have a 22% higher risk of stroke than those with low-stress jobs. High-stress jobs are defined in this study as jobs that are psychologically demanding (in terms of mental load, coordination burdens, and time pressure). Additionally, people experience stress when they have less control over their jobs and how hard they are expected to work.

Certain behaviors and factors can lead to an increased risk for heart disease and stroke. Stress can lead a person to engage in these behaviors which include:

  • Smoking
  • Overeating
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Unhealthy diet
  • Not taking medications as prescribed

Chronic stress can have a negative impact on mental health and high blood pressure, both of which are factors that can lead to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.

To avoid heart problems related to stress, you can try a heart-healthy lifestyle that can include:

  • Eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and low-fat dairy products; and less salt, saturated fat, and added sugar
  • Getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every week
  • Quit smoking, if you're a smoker
  • Substitute water for sugary drinks

Try to reduce stress in your life by identifying sources of stress and working on solutions to manage them, whether that means taking time off work when needed or spending more time with your family or friends. You can also practice mindfulness and meditation.


Stress can cause hyperarousal, a biological state in which people don't feel sleepy. And insomnia—a sleep disorder in which a person has persistent problems falling and staying asleep—is commonly derived from stress.

While major stressful events can cause insomnia that passes once the stress is over, long-term exposure to chronic stress can disrupt sleep and contribute to sleep disorders. Here are some tips:

Focus on healthy sleep and sleep hygiene (making your surroundings conducive to a good night's rest). You can do this by:

  • Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day
  • Avoiding caffeine (especially later in the day)
  • Avoiding alcoholic drinks, large meals, and beverages before bed
  • Keeping the temperature in your bedroom cool
  • Getting rid of distractions (noises, bright lights, or TV)

You can also try yoga or another stress-busting activity during the day or cognitive-behavioral therapy to relieve any anxiety along with your insomnia and stress.


Stress can leave you with a tension headache or migraine, either during the stress or in the "let-down" period afterward.

Tension headaches are the most common type of headache. They typically feel like a "band is squeezing the head" and occur in the head, scalp, or neck area. Because stress also makes your muscles tense, it can make an already bad headache even worse.

While you can treat the headache with medication, you can also find ways to treat the stress causing it. This may include headache-proofing your home or modifying your diet and lifestyle. You can also use relaxation or stress-management training that may include:

  • Massage
  • Biofeedback
  • Cognitive behavioral feedback
  • Acupuncture
  • Ice or hot packs

Issues with Memory and Learning

The link between memory and stress is still not totally clear, but researchers believe stress can have an impact on learning and memory, specifically in a classroom setting.

Research suggests stressful events are very common in an educational setting (for both students and teachers) due to exams, evaluations, and deadlines. Stress in relation to education does affect learning and memory. However, research is conflicting on whether this is a positive or negative impact. Some studies have found that stress enhanced memory, while others found that it repaired memory.

It is still unclear how long the effects of stress on memory last and when the memory becomes impaired. And it's unknown whether these impairments depend on the types and intensities of the stressors.

Since the research is so limited, there isn't enough information to provide recommendations to students and teachers on limiting stress in their lives. However, anyone who experiences stress can benefit from regular exercise, getting enough sleep, meditation, and avoiding caffeine.

Hair Loss

Hair loss can occur after a stressful time in your life. Whether it's a divorce or the death of a loved one, your hair may be falling out due to stress. When the stress has subsided, your hair will stop shedding. It may take anywhere from six to nine months for your hair to regrow back to its normal volume.

Stress and anxiety can also contribute to a disorder called trichotillomania, in which people pull their hair out repeatedly. People who have this condition often report that they experience stress before pulling out their hair. Treatment for trichotillomania may include medication, cognitive behavioral therapy, and habit reversal training (identifying habits and working to change them through awareness and social support).

Pregnancy Complications

During pregnancy, and even before conceiving, the stress and anxiety that a pregnant person experiences can impact the pregnancy. If the stress goes unmanaged, it may lead to an increased chance of:

  • Premature labor
  • Low birth weight
  • Postpartum depression

So it is important to reduce the stress levels that the parent-to-be experiences, which can benefit the health of both the parent and the child. You can do this with:

You can always talk to a healthcare provider if you're severely stressed and pregnant.

High Blood Sugar

Stress is known to raise blood sugar, and if you already have type 2 diabetes, you may find that your blood sugar is higher when you are under stress.

Stress and anxiety go hand-in-hand, and anxiety can result in elevated cortisol and glucose levels as well as increased insulin resistance.

In one study, subjects who experienced high stress levels were less likely to stick to the lifestyle modifications, such as exercise and dietary changes, for diabetes treatment.

Gastrointestinal Troubles

When you are stressed or anxious, the hormones that are released can interfere with digestion which can cause a number of gastrointestinal (GI) issues like:

  • Indigestion
  • Stomach cramping
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Peptic ulcers

In particular, irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, which is characterized by pain and bouts of constipation and diarrhea is thought to be fueled in part by stress.

Skin Problems

Stress can worsen problems or disorders of the skin. Specifically, stress has an impact on acne. Stress itself cannot cause acne, but it can make acne symptoms worse. When your stress intensifies, the severity of the acne increases.

Stress can also worsen psoriasis. Many healthcare providers are starting to incorporate stress-management techniques such as biofeedback and meditation into their treatment programs for psoriasis.

Premature Aging

Traumatic events and chronic stress can both contribute to premature aging. This is because stress shortens the telomeres in the cells. Telomeres are the protective caps on the ends of cell chromosomes. When the telomeres are shortened, this causes your cells to age faster.

Asthma Flare-ups

Stress and strong emotions are known to be asthma triggers. If you have asthma, it is possible that these emotions and stress will worsen your symptoms. This is because stress affects your breathing—even if you don't have asthma. Your muscles may tighten up, and your breathing rate can increase.

Mindful breathing can help to reduce stress. If you want to try mindful breathing, here are the steps:

  1. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth slowly
  2. Inhale for seven seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds, then breathe out for seven seconds
  3. Focus on your breathing and let go of other thoughts
  4. Repeat this three times

Job Performance Issues

Research shows that employees can experience reduced productivity as a result of stress, as well as less satisfaction at work.

"Stress clearly has an effect on productivity, and the costs of that for employers can be very high," Dr. Hagen pointed out. One solution is to ask your employer to offer stress-management training, which can address company-wide stressors like weak communication channels as well as focusing on stress busters for individuals.

Reduced Sex Drive

Your state of mind affects your sexual desire—that means stress, among other things, can actually reduce your sex drive. In one study, high stress levels were related to lower levels of sexual arousal. This was attributed to both psychological and hormonal factors seen in people who experience chronic stress.

Sexual dysfunction can have other causes like type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure so it's important to talk to a healthcare provider, but reducing and managing stress can often turn things around.

How To Manage Your Stress

While there are many different ways that stress can impact your mind and your body, there are ways to reduce and manage your stress. You just have to figure out what is right for you. Here are a few tips for managing your stress in the long term:

  • Get regular exercise. Most adults should aim to get 150 minutes of physical activity every week.
  • Try a relaxing activity like meditation, yoga, or muscle relaxation exercises.
  • Make sure you are getting enough sleep every night. Most adults need at least seven hours of sleep every night.
  • Avoid consuming drinks and food with caffeine.
  • Work on your time management skills. Decide what tasks need to be done and which tasks can wait.
  • Reach out to your friends and family for support.

A Quick Review

Life can be stressful. Most people experience periods of stress throughout their lives. But if you experience chronic stress, your body and overall well-being may show symptoms. Luckily, there are many ways to manage stress.

Try to understand your triggers and find ways to cut out or reduce those triggers. If you find it difficult to manage your stress on your own, reach out to a healthcare provider for support.

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