Stress Symptoms: Physical Effects of Stress and How to Treat (2022)

Stress can be defined as the feeling of being overwhelmed or unable to cope with mental or emotional pressure. It can have mental and physical consequences (1).

At one point or another, most people deal with feelings of stress. In fact, a study from 2015 found that 59% of adults reported experiencing high levels of perceived stress (2).

Summary

Stress, which is a feeling of being overwhelmed by mental or emotional pressure, is a very common issue.

Decreased energy and insomnia

Prolonged stress can cause chronic fatigue and disruptions in sleep, which may result in decreased energy levels.

For example, a recent study of more than 7,000 working adults found that fatigue was “significantly associated” with work-related stress (3).

Stress may also disrupt sleep and cause insomnia, which can lead to low energy.

A 2018 review published in the Journal of Sleep Research found that “stress-related worry and rumination” can lead to disrupted sleep and eventually the risk of developing insomnia (4).

Another study of 2,316 participants showed that exposure to stress was associated with an increased risk of insomnia (5).

Both of these studies focus in on sleep reactivity, or the extent to which stress affects the ability to fall sleep or remain asleep.

While it’s evident that stress can disrupt sleep, not everyone who experiences stress or who is going through a stressful time will deal with insomnia or sleep disturbances.

Changes in libido

Many people experience changes in their sex drives during stressful periods.

One small study evaluated the stress levels of 30 women and then measured their sexual arousal while watching an erotic film. Those with high levels of chronic stress experienced less sexual arousal compared with those with lower stress levels (6).

A much more recent study published in 2021 on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women’s reproductive health found that 45% of the over 1,000 women surveyed reported a reduced libido due to stress (7).

In addition to stress, there are many other potential causes of changes in libido, including:

  • hormonal changes
  • fatigue
  • psychological issues

Depression

Some studies suggest that chronic stress may be associated with depression and depressive episodes.

(Video) How stress affects your brain - Madhumita Murgia

One study of 816 women with major depression found that the onset of depression was significantly associated with both acute and chronic stress (8).

Another study found that high levels of stress were associated with the onset of major depression in adolescents (9).

In addition, a 2018 review highlighted the connection between depression and the experience of chronic or inescapable stress (10).

Besides stress, some potential contributors to depression include:

  • family history
  • age
  • environmental factors
  • even certain medications and illnesses
Summary

Stress can cause a wide variety of symptoms, including decreased energy, insomnia, libido changes, and depression.

Acne

Some studies have found that higher levels of stress are associated with increased bouts of acne (11).

One reason for this may be because when some people feel stressed out, they tend to touch their faces more often. This can spread bacteria and contribute to the development of acne (12).

Several studies have also confirmed that acne may be associated with higher levels of stress.

One small study measured acne severity in 22 university students before and during an exam. During examination periods in which stress increased, acne became more severe (13).

Another study of 94 teenagers found that higher stress levels were associated with worse acne, particularly in boys (14).

These studies show an association, but they don’t account for other factors that may be involved. Further research is needed to look at the connection between acne and stress.

In addition to stress, other potential causes of acne include:

  • inflammation
  • hormonal shifts
  • bacteria
  • excess oil production
  • clogged pores

Headaches

Many studies have found that stress can contribute to headaches, a condition characterized by pain in the head, face, or neck region.

A 2015 study showed that increased stress intensity was associated with an increase in the number of headache days experienced per month (15).

Another study surveyed 172 military service members at a headache clinic, finding that 67% reported their headaches were triggered by stress, making it the second most common headache trigger (16).

A smaller 2020 study also found that stress can be a driving factor in tension headaches [17].

Other common headache triggers can include lack of sleep, diet, alcohol consumption, hormonal changes, and more.

(Video) Effects and Symptoms of Stress

Chronic pain

Aches and pains are a common complaint that can result from increased levels of stress. Some studies have found that chronic pain may be associated with higher levels of stress as well as increased levels of cortisol, which is the body’s main stress hormone.

For example, one very small study compared people with chronic back pain to a control group. It found that those with chronic pain had higher levels of cortisol (18).

Another study showed that people with chronic pain had higher levels of cortisol in their hair, which the study described as a novel indicator of prolonged stress (19).

Keep in mind that these studies show an association but don’t look at other factors that may be involved.

Besides stress, there are many other factors that can contribute to chronic pain, such as:

  • aging
  • injuries
  • chronic poor posture
  • nerve damage

Frequent sickness

If you feel like you’re constantly battling a case of the sniffles or other sickness, stress may be to blame.

Stress may take a toll on your immune system. Studies show that higher stress levels are associated with increased susceptibility to infection.

In one study, 116 older adults were given the flu vaccine. Those with chronic stress were found to have a weakened immune response to the vaccine, indicating that stress may be associated with decreased immunity (20).

Similarly, one analysis looking at 27 studies showed that stress was linked to increased susceptibility of developing an upper respiratory infection (21).

A chapter in the 2019 book “The Impact of Everyday Stress on the Immune System and Health” stated that psychological stress can affect a range of bodily functions, such as inflammatory responses, wound healing, and the body’s ability to fight off infection and disease (22).

However, stress is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to immune health. A weakened immune system can also be the result of:

  • a low-nutrient diet
  • substance use
  • physical inactivity
  • disorders of the immune system, such as AIDS

Digestive issues

Some studies have found that stress may be associated with digestive issues, like constipation, heartburn, diarrhea, as well as digestive disorders.

For example, an older study from 2010 that focused on 2,699 children found that exposure to stressful events was associated with increased rates of constipation (23).

Stress may especially affect those with digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

In one study, increased symptoms of digestive distress were associated with higher daily stress levels in 181 women with IBS ().

Additionally, one analysis of 18 studies that investigated the role of stress on inflammatory bowel disease noted that 72% of studies found an association between stress and negative clinical and symptom outcomes (25).

A study from 2017 also highlights the direct connection between stress and symptoms of IBS, saying stress plays “a major role” in the manifestation and worsening of digestive symptoms (26).

Keep in mind that many other factors can cause digestive issues, such as diet, bacteria, infections, certain medications, and more.

Appetite changes and weight gain

Changes in appetite are common during times of stress.

When you feel stressed out, you may find yourself with no appetite at all or overeating without noticing.

(Video) 4 Tips to Manage the Physical Symptoms of Stress with Dr. Joti Samra

One small 2006 study of 272 female college students found that 81 percent reported that they experienced changes in appetite when they were stressed out, with 62 percent stating they had an increase in appetite (27).

Changes in appetite may also cause fluctuations in weight during stressful periods. For example, a study involving 1,355 people in the United States found that stress was associated with weight gain in adults already living with extra weight (28).

A third study from 2017 found that individuals with higher cortisol and insulin levels and higher levels of chronic stress were more likely to gain weight in the future (29). However, the study was limited in the scope of research in that participants were predominantly white females.

While these studies show an association between stress and changes in appetite or weight, more studies are needed to understand other possible factors are involved and how stress impacts different people.

Rapid heartbeat

Several studies have shown that high stress levels can cause a fast heartbeat or heart rate. Stressful events or
tasks may also increase heart rate (30).

In a similar study from 2001, exposing 87 students to a stressful task was found to increase heart rate and blood pressure. Interestingly enough, playing relaxing music during the task actually helped prevent these changes (31).

According to the American Heart Association, undergoing a stressful event can cause your body to release adrenaline, which is a hormone that temporarily causes your heart to beat faster and your blood pressure to rise. This is one reason why living with increased stress may create a rapid heartbeat (32).

Sweating

Exposure to stress may also cause excess sweating, research suggests.

One small study looked at 20 people with palmar hyperhidrosis, a condition characterized by excess sweating in the hands. The study assessed their rate of sweating throughout the day using a scale of 0–10.

Stress significantly increased the rate of sweating by two to five points in those with palmar hyperhidrosis, as well as in the control group (33).

Another study found that 40 teenagers exposed to stress experienced high amounts of sweating and odor (34).

A 2013 review on “psychological sweating” notes such sweating occurs in response to stress and anxiety, stating this type of sweat typically appears on the face, palms, soles of the feet, and underarms (35).

Summary

The physical symptoms of chronic stress are varied and vast, and can include acne, headaches, rapid heartbeat, sweating, changes in appetite, digestive issues, chronic pain, and more frequent infections or bouts of sickness.

As nice as it would be to have a single pill that could completely eliminate all stress, because there are so many different factors that cause stress, there is no one-size-fits-all way to treat it.

Talking with your doctor or a therapist is a great first step, as they can help you figure out what exactly is causing your stress and suggest ways to manage and treat it. They can also help you figure out if your symptoms are indeed caused by stress or another preexisting condition.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are a few lifestyle choices that can also help in managing stress. Some of these include (36):

  • taking breaks from the news
  • taking breaks from your devices (computer, phone, TV)
  • getting adequate exercise and sleep
  • taking breaks to allow your body to rest
  • increasing nutrient-rich foods in your diet
  • doing deep breathing exercises
  • meditating
  • avoiding excessive substance use
  • talking with friends, a trusted advisor, or a therapist
  • building community though faith-based organizations or activities you enjoy

If you feel overwhelmed from stress and aren’t sure what to do, or are having feelings of self-harm, it’s important to talk with someone you trust or a therapist.

(Video) How stress affects your body - Sharon Horesh Bergquist

You can also call the national suicide prevention lifeline at 800-273-8255, 24 hours a day.

Help is always available.

Summary

Because stress can be caused by a variety of issues and symptoms can vary from person to person, treating it depends on personal factors.

However, certain lifestyle changes, like exercising, taking breaks from the 24-hour news cycle, and talking with friends or trusted advisors may provide some relief.

Chronic stress can affect your entire body, and if it’s not properly managed, can cause serious issues, such as (37):

  • back pain
  • muscle tension
  • worsening asthma symptoms
  • worsening obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) symptoms
  • increased risk of hypertension, stroke, or heart attack
  • mental health conditions
Summary

Chronic stress can affect your entire body, and if left untreated, may drastically reduce your quality of life through chronic pain, increased risk of certain diseases, and changes in mental health.

Occasional stressful events are a part of everyone’s life.

Working through and processing these events — with a support system, if needed — is key to keeping chronic stress at bay.

Chronic stress can take a toll on your mental and physical wellness, creating a wide range of symptoms such as low energy levels, headaches, changes in mood, and decreased sex drive.

Fortunately, there are many ways to help relieve stress, such as talking with friends or a therapist, exercising, and meditating.

Just one thing

Stress and anxiety often overlap, but anxiety has its own classification and is sometimes treated with medication. Give this article a read if you think you may be dealing with anxiety.

(Video) How Can Stress & Emotions Cause Real Physical Symptoms? - David Clarke, MD

FAQs

What are 10 physical symptoms of stress? ›

Physical signs of stress
  • Diffculty breathing.
  • Panic attacks.
  • Blurred eyesight or sore eyes.
  • Sleep problems.
  • Fatigue.
  • Muscle aches and headaches.
  • Chest pains and high blood pressure.
  • Indigestion or heartburn.

What are the symptoms that are considered a physical effects of stress? ›

Physical symptoms of stress include: Aches and pains. Chest pain or a feeling like your heart is racing. Exhaustion or trouble sleeping.

How can you reduce physical symptoms of stress? ›

To relieve stress, try some deep breathing or relaxation exercises. There are numerous online resources and smartphone apps that can help guide you through relaxation techniques. Physical activity can also help you relieve tension. Try to squeeze in a daily walk or a run.

What are 5 ways that stress can affect your body physically? ›

Stress can play a part in problems such as headaches, high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, skin conditions, asthma, arthritis, depression, and anxiety. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) declared stress a hazard of the workplace.

What is the best medicine for stress? ›

The most common medications to manage symptoms of stress are tranquilizers, beta-blockers, and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), among others. Additional treatments may include acupuncture and herbal remedies.
...
Common types
  • alprazolam (Xanax)
  • clonazepam (Klonopin)
  • lorazepam (Ativan)
  • diazepam (Valium)
30 Aug 2022

How can I relieve stress fast at home? ›

From eating chocolate to meditating, there is a quick stress-relieving tactic for everyone.
  1. Breathe. Slow, deep breaths can help lower blood pressure and heart rate. ...
  2. Listen to Music. ...
  3. Take a Quick Walk. ...
  4. Find the Sun. ...
  5. Give Yourself a Hand Massage. ...
  6. Count Backward. ...
  7. Stretch. ...
  8. Rub Your Feet Over a Golf Ball.

Why is it important to manage stress? ›

It can help your mind and body adapt (resilience). Without it, your body might always be on high alert. Over time, chronic stress can lead to serious health problems. Don't wait until stress damages your health, relationships or quality of life.

How does stress affect your mental health? ›

Stress has a psychological impact that can manifest as irritability or aggression, a feeling of loss of control, insomnia, fatigue or exhaustion, sadness or tears, concentration or memory problems, or more. Continued stress can lead to other problems, such as depression, anxiety or burnout.

How do you treat burnout? ›

Handling job burnout
  1. Evaluate your options. Discuss specific concerns with your supervisor. ...
  2. Seek support. Whether you reach out to co-workers, friends or loved ones, support and collaboration might help you cope. ...
  3. Try a relaxing activity. ...
  4. Get some exercise. ...
  5. Get some sleep. ...
  6. Mindfulness.

What are physical symptoms? ›

body pains including headaches, joint pains. stomach aches, nausea, vomiting. fatigue, dizziness, memory problems. weakness, numbness. trouble breathing, shortness of breath.

What can cause stress? ›

What causes stress?
  • Feel under lots of pressure.
  • Face big changes in your life.
  • Are worried about something.
  • Don't have much or any control over the outcome of a situation.
  • Have responsibilities that you find overwhelming.
  • Don't have enough work, activities or change in your life.
  • Experience discrimination, hate or abuse.

How do doctors treat stress? ›

A doctor may recommend psychological therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). One established aim of CBT is to help people deal with chronic stress. In structured sessions, a therapist works to enable a person to modify their behaviors, thoughts, and feelings concerning stressors.

Can stress Make You Sick? ›

But can you actually get sick from stress? The short answer is yes. Stress sickness can contribute to many health issues, including: Anxiety.

What is stress in human body? ›

Stress is a feeling of emotional or physical tension. It can come from any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or nervous. Stress is your body's reaction to a challenge or demand. In short bursts, stress can be positive, such as when it helps you avoid danger or meet a deadline.

How do you handle stress and pressure? ›

If you regularly make time for fun and relaxation, you'll be in a better place to handle life's stressors.
  1. Set aside leisure time. ...
  2. Do something you enjoy every day. ...
  3. Keep your sense of humor. ...
  4. Take up a relaxation practice. ...
  5. Don't over-commit yourself. ...
  6. Prioritize tasks. ...
  7. Break projects into small steps.

What are the top 5 ways to reduce stress? ›

5 tips to manage stress
  • Use guided meditation. Guided meditation is a great way to distract yourself from the stress of day-to-day life. ...
  • Practice deep breathing. ...
  • Maintain physical exercise and good nutrition. ...
  • Manage social media time. ...
  • Connect with others.
10 Dec 2018

Who is affected by stress? ›

Stress affects all systems of the body including the musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous, and reproductive systems. Our bodies are well equipped to handle stress in small doses, but when that stress becomes long-term or chronic, it can have serious effects on your body.

How does stress affect social behavior? ›

Stress often affects our social lives. When undergoing high-level or persistent stress, individuals frequently retract from social interactions and become irritable and hostile.

What is good stress? ›

Good stress, or eustress, is the type of stress you feel when you're excited. Your pulse quickens and your hormones surge, but there is no threat or fear. You might feel this type of stress when you ride a roller coaster, compete in a game, or go on a first date.

What is a nervous breakdown? ›

The term "nervous breakdown" is sometimes used by people to describe a stressful situation in which they're temporarily unable to function normally in day-to-day life. It's commonly understood to occur when life's demands become physically and emotionally overwhelming.

How is mental exhaustion treated? ›

11 ways to overcome mental exhaustion
  1. Eliminate the stressor.
  2. Work-life balance.
  3. Clear your space.
  4. Schedule (and take) regular breaks.
  5. Get outside.
  6. Do something new.
  7. Reduce screen time.
  8. Find positive ways to distract yourself.
6 Jan 2022

How much stress is too much? ›

Some of the physical signs that your stress levels are too high include: Pain or tension in your head, chest, stomach, or muscles. Your muscles tend to tense up when you're stressed, and over time this can cause headaches, migraines, or musculoskeletal problems.

How common is stress? ›

American Institute of Stress Statistics

About 33 percent of people report feeling extreme stress. 77 percent of people experience stress that affects their physical health. 73 percent of people have stress that impacts their mental health. 48 percent of people have trouble sleeping because of stress.

What can cause stress at home? ›

Homegrown stress can be traced to numerous sources – a noisy environment, an unhappy spouse, financial worries, or even mundane domestic duties such as doing the laundry or mowing the lawn. Stress is not a subject to be taken lightly.

What happens when you stress too much? ›

Indeed, stress symptoms can affect your body, your thoughts and feelings, and your behavior. Being able to recognize common stress symptoms can help you manage them. Stress that's left unchecked can contribute to many health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

Can stress cause weird symptoms? ›

Stress can cause pain, tightness or soreness in your muscles, as well as spasms of pain. It can lead to flare-ups of symptoms of arthritis, fibromyalgia and other conditions because stress lowers your threshold for pain.

What disease can you get from stress? ›

10 Conditions Linked to Stress
  • Heart disease.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Tension headaches.
  • High blood sugar.
  • Alzheimer's disease.
  • Common cold.
  • Depression.
  • Sleep dysfunction.
4 May 2018

How does stress feel in the head? ›

You may have racing thoughts, worry constantly or go over things in your head. You may notice that you lose your temper more easily, drink more or act unreasonably. You may also experience headaches, muscle tension or pain, or dizziness. Stress causes a surge of hormones in your body.

Why is it important to manage stress? ›

It can help your mind and body adapt (resilience). Without it, your body might always be on high alert. Over time, chronic stress can lead to serious health problems. Don't wait until stress damages your health, relationships or quality of life.

How do you handle stress and pressure? ›

If you regularly make time for fun and relaxation, you'll be in a better place to handle life's stressors.
  1. Set aside leisure time. ...
  2. Do something you enjoy every day. ...
  3. Keep your sense of humor. ...
  4. Take up a relaxation practice. ...
  5. Don't over-commit yourself. ...
  6. Prioritize tasks. ...
  7. Break projects into small steps.

What are the psychological effects of stress? ›

When stress becomes overwhelming and prolonged, the risks for mental health problems and medical problems increase. Long-term stress increases the risk of mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, substance use problems, sleep problems, pain and bodily complaints such as muscle tension.

Where is stress pain located? ›

Stress can cause your muscles to tense up — and over time, that can lead to pain and soreness in virtually any part of the body. The most common stress-related aches and pains are in the neck, back, and shoulders.

Can stress affect your back? ›

Back pain and stress

When you're stressed, your breathing patterns change and cause strain and tension in the mid-back. Your shoulders hunch up and cause pain throughout the upper and middle back. Low-back pain includes the tailbone and lower half of the back muscles. These muscles affect flexibility and posture.

Does stress cause joint pain? ›

Chronic Stress and Long-term Joint Health

Aches and pains are common symptoms of stress, however, ongoing pain or stiffness may be a sign of a more serious problem.

Can stress put you in hospital? ›

Other than physical illnesses, stress can also give rise to psychological illnesses such as anxiety, depression, and panic, which are all valid medical concerns. Especially if the depression, anxiety, or panic attack is accompanied by suicidal thoughts, it is automatically considered as a medical emergency.

What organs are affected by stress? ›

Stress affects all systems of the body including the musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous, and reproductive systems. Our bodies are well equipped to handle stress in small doses, but when that stress becomes long-term or chronic, it can have serious effects on your body.

How long does stress affect the body? ›

Heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure and stroke. Sleep problems. Weight gain. Memory and concentration impairment.

Can I get dizzy from stress? ›

During the stress response, the brain releases hormones that affect the respiratory and cardiovascular systems. These hormones narrow the blood vessels, raise the heart rate, and cause rapid, shallow breathing. These responses can lead to dizziness or lightheadedness.

Videos

1. Terrible Symptoms Of Stress On The Body
(Tech Insider)
2. Physical effects of stress | Processing the Environment | MCAT | Khan Academy
(khanacademymedicine)
3. Beyond Stress and Anxiety: How Stress Affects the Body and What You Can Do to Manage It
(Stanford Health Care)
4. Stress Symptoms: Physical Effects of Stress on the Body
(UTV Ghana Online)
5. Chronic Stress: Symptoms and Cure
(AIA Malaysia)
6. How Job Stress Affects Your Health | WSJ
(Wall Street Journal)

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