Our bodies use stress to protect against outside threats, but the reaction is responsible for or exacerbates many issues. During the stress response, a flood of hormones triggers changes in body functions. These changes are usually beneficial in the short term but become problematic if stress levels remain too high for too long.
Researchers are aware of clear links between chronic stress and conditions like anxiety and depression, though they do not understand the mechanisms. One leading theory is that stress influences the regulation of inflammatory processes that contribute to depression.
Many experts also believe that stress triggers feelings of anxiety and depression, which then directly impact biological processes and behaviors that increase the risk of other diseases.
During the stress response, the rush of hormones and higher heart rate can impact the digestive system. This may manifest as general issues, such as stomachaches, constipation, and acid reflux. While stress itself does not cause ulcers, it can increase a person’s risk for developing them.
Bleeding such as melena or fecal occult bleeding may also occur. Long-term stress contributes to conditions like irritable bowel syndrome.
To protect the body from potential injury, the muscles tense up during the stress response. Under typical circumstances, they will relax as stress levels lower. However, if a person experiences chronic stress or a prolonged period of stress, their muscles may never release.
This can cause body aches, as well as back, neck, and jaw pain. Over time, it may contribute to a lack of exercise or increase the risk of a significant injury.
Around one-third of adults periodically experience tension headaches, which feel like a tightness in the temple or the back of the neck. They are usually not debilitating and rarely cause nausea or vomiting, but they can be painful. Many experts believe that muscle tension from stress is the primary cause of tension headaches.
Stress hormones make the heart pump faster while also diverting oxygen to the muscles, which increases blood pressure. If stress does not abate, high blood pressure can directly result in major cardiac issues, like strokes and heart attacks. Single moments of extreme stress may even trigger heart attacks.
Chronic stress can affect a person’s behavior in ways that contribute to heart disease, such as making them more likely to smoke or eat unhealthy foods.
Stress can have a notable effect on sleep patterns and quality. Because the stress response prepares the body to defend itself, it can hinder our brain's willingness to lie down and sleep. Additionally, stress can increase feelings of anxiety, which also impacts sleep.
A lack of sleep may increase stress levels, creating a loop that prevents a person from sleeping for a significant period.
Chronic stress often affects behavior and can cause a person to eat more and exercise less. It may do this indirectly, through muscle aches or feelings of depression. Experts believe that stress is also capable of reinforcing the association of food as a reward, as well as promoting fat storage. These changes may lead to weight gain and obesity.
In turn, weight gain may increase stress levels and contribute to eating disorders like binge eating, bulimia, and anorexia nervosa.
Researchers believe that when a portion of the brain is in use, the other parts are less able to perform their tasks. In response to stress, the part of the brain that governs survival instincts, the amygdala, may use more energy and leave less for the other parts of the brain. This can lead to a loss of ability to store memories and overall drops in cognitive performance.
Prolonged stress may even permanently “rewire” the brain, causing the primitive sections associated with survival to stay more active than those that govern higher-order tasks.
In the short term, stress stimulates the immune system and allows the body to avoid infections and heal injuries. However, long-term stress will start to weaken the immune system, limiting the body’s ability to fight invading pathogens.
People who experience chronic stress are not only more susceptible to viral conditions like the flu or common cold, but are also at a greater risk of serious issues like cancer.
Typically, women who experience high levels of stress have more severe premenstrual symptoms, like cramping and pain. Stress can also lead to irregular periods. One study found that people with high stress levels are four times more likely to miss a period and two times more likely to have pain during their menstrual cycles. Like with other stress-related issues, the symptoms may lead to more stress, which then worsens the symptoms.
This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.