When emotional turns physical: 11 effects of stress on the body

Stress is usually categorized under mental health, but it can manifest in physical ways as well — and the long-term effects can be serious. From headaches and acne to heart problems and hypertension, here are 11 repercussions stress can have on the body.  

1. Tension headaches

There’s a good chance your headache is due to stress — especially if you’re a woman. Tension headaches are the most common form of headaches, with 30% to 80% of adults occasionally suffering from them, and women are twice as likely to get them. Usually caused by tense muscles in the neck and scalp, tension headaches interrupt your day with mild to moderate pain or pressure around the forehead or back of the head and neck.  

2. Chest pain


We’re willing to bet you’ve experienced this one and didn’t even associate it with stress. (Although chest pain can indicate much more serious conditions, so if you suffer from frequent chest pain, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor.) The link between stress and chest pain has doctors stumped, but research has supported the theory that the two are related.

According to Science Daily, more than 20,000 people went to the hospital in 2006 reporting chest pain that was not caused by heart disease or other conditions. One study found that men are more likely than women to experience it when faced with life or work stress, and women are more likely than men to suffer from it when dealing with anxiety and depression.  

3. Aches & pains


A hectic life or stressful event can take a toll on your muscles, with pain normally manifesting in the neck, shoulders and lower back. Experts aren’t sure why this happens but hypothesize it has something to do with the connection between stress and tense muscles or with brain chemicals. A March 2012 study found that stress is actually associated with the body losing its ability to regulate the inflammatory response, which could be related to stress pains.  

4. Upset stomach, diarrhea, constipation & nausea


Stress and Pepto-Bismol were made for each other. Since your digestive system is highly sensitive and full of nerves, it can have a hard time dealing with your stress. You might experience stomachaches or nausea in rare, extremely high-stress situations like going through a breakup; or the symptoms might be more persistent and caused by small, daily stressors like your condescending boss or making a deadline.

“There is definitely a connection between the brain and the gut,” said Francisco Marrero, a gastroenterologist with the Digestive Disease Institute at the Cleveland Clinic. “The gut is called the little brain — it’s the largest area of nerves outside the brain.”

Irritable bowel syndrome — a condition affecting 20% of U.S. adults that causes cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea and constipation — is highly associated with stress and anxiety. Interestingly, about 60% of people with IBS meet the criteria for one or more psychiatric disorders, mainly generalized anxiety disorder, according to WebMD. Tackling the stress — whether internally or with the help of anti-anxiety medication or antidepressants (if you’re also suffering from an anxiety disorder or depression) — will most likely alleviate IBS symptoms.  

5. Acne and other skin problems


No one knows why it happens, but your theory about breaking out when you’re stressed is probably accurate. Studies have shown that students reported increased acne problems during exam time, and stress has also been linked to otherwise unexplained itchy skin rashes. While your hectic life won’t trigger a new case of acne, it can cause it to flare up if you’re already dealing with the condition.  

6. Trouble sleeping or insomnia


This probably sounds familiar: You’re all cozy in your bed with the lights out waiting for sleep to come, and your brain just won’t shut off. Suddenly all you can think about is that damn project you’ve got going on at work, how you’re going to be able to afford those car repairs and whether or not you watered the plants. You’re not alone. Seventy percent of adults with chronic stress have trouble sleeping.

Most people with stress-related sleep issues deal with them at least once a week, and the majority of them experience it at least several times a week. And it’s a vicious cycle: You’re stressed so you can’t doze off, and then you’re even more stressed the next day because you didn’t get enough sleep.

The good news is that knocking out the stress should fix the sleep problems.

7. Reproductive issues


While sex can be a stress reliever for some, others actually lose interest in it when they’re stressed out. The body deals with stress by producing more of the stress hormone cortisol, and too much cortisol too frequently can have a long-term effect on your body, creating a hormone imbalance and lowering the libido.

It might be difficult for men to “get it up” when they’re stressed — 10% to 20% of erectile dysfunction cases are the result of psychological factors, with stress being the most common.

And women might experience irregular or missed periods when their lives become too chaotic. When stressed, the body releases cortisol and adrenaline, and too much of it can trick the brain into thinking it’s in a fight-or-flight situation, and therefore reproductive functions like periods aren’t necessary. Adrenaline suppresses the reproductive system, and cortisol tells the brain to stop releasing estrogen and progesterone, the two hormones needed to stimulate the menstrual cycle.

Women might also deal with extra discomfort if that time of the month coincides with extreme stress — painful menstrual periods, which affect approximately 50% of women, are twice as common in women who report high levels of stress.

A few studies have even shown a connection between long-term stress and low fertility.  

8. Can’t-stop-getting-sick syndrome


Your immune system takes a hit when you’re excessively stressed, which means it can’t do its job of fighting colds and infections as well. When stressed, your body releases hormones known as catecholamines, which regulate your immune system. Prolonged release of catecholamines can do the opposite and interfere with the immune system’s functioning. Additionally, stress causes the thymus gland to shrink, which isn’t helping matters since the thymus gland is responsible for making those infection-fighting white blood cells.

Therefore, all that worrying can actually increase your likelihood of catching whatever Sneezy sitting next to you on the subway has — and it can mean a longer recovery from it.  

9. Teeth damage & jaw pain


Stress doesn’t always disappear when we sleep, and it can manifest at night in the form of teeth grinding, which can leave you with fractured, loosened or lost teeth if you do it often enough. Chronic grinding can also wear teeth down to stumps, according to WebMD.

And just in case you don’t get tension headaches, jaw-clenching and teeth-grinding can also result in headaches or jaw pain. Between 5% and 12% of people experience facial pain frequently caused by teeth grinding.

“People who are worst affected by grinding are Type A personalities: ambitious people and perfectionists, who usually work in business,” Sharif Khan, a cosmetic and implant dental specialist, told the Guardian.

If grinding is a problem for you — you probably won’t know until a significant other or dentist mentions it — you might need a night guard to protect your teeth.  

10. Heart problems


Here’s that motivation you needed to quit your terrible job: A July 2012 study found that stressful jobs increased the risk of heart attack in women by a shocking 70%. And the heart problems don’t end there. Long-term stress has also been linked to coronary artery disease, heart failure, abnormal heartbeat, blood clots and hardening of the arteries, according to WebMD.  

11. Hypertension

blood pressure monitor

About 1-in-3 U.S. adults suffers from high blood pressure, or hypertension, and stress can play a role in that. When you’re stressed, the body produces hormones that temporarily raise your blood pressure by causing your heart to beat faster and your blood vessels to narrow, according to the Mayo Clinic.

And while there’s no evidence for a cause-and-effect relationship between long-term stress and hypertension, the two are linked. The connection could be the result of stress’s effects on the body or unhealthy behaviors — like overeating, excessive alcohol consumption or lack of sleep — that increase in times of stress.  

Stress-relieving strategies

Yoga Meditation

Need a little more relaxation in your life? Try reducing stress by:

  • Learning to manage your time better — constantly running late or missing deadlines can be stressful;
  • Eat healthily;
  • Laugh more often;
  • Take that work break — your employer gives it to you for a reason;
  • Try Tai Chi;
  • Learn some deep breathing techniques;
  • Exercise — gotta love stress-reducing endorphins;
  • Put an end to late nights and develop a consistent sleep routine; and
  • Socialize — everyone needs a support system.