Updated on 3/24/21
As humans, stress is one of our most common shared experiences. Stress is a physical and emotional tension that arises from any situation that causes worry, frustration, doubt, or nervousness. In short bursts, stress can be productive (good stress is called eustress) — it’s what can propel us to meet deadlines or stay away from a dangerous situation. However, in the long run, stress can wreak havoc on our mental health as well as our bodies.
5 Physical Effects of Stress on the Body
Stress releases hormones which cause our muscles to tense and our heart rate to increase. Over time, this tension leads to some very real physical consequences. You may think of stress as being primarily in our heads, but the ways in which it’s in our bodies too may surprise you.
1. Musculoskeletal tension
Muscle tension is a reflexive reaction to stress. It’s the body’s natural defense mechanism against danger. You’ve likely heard of our body’s “fight or flight” instinct. There are theories that humans evolved this response in order to be able to run away from threats like wild animals or other predators. However, though the stresses common in modern life are very different (more of the sitting in front of a computer, fuming over a colleague’s incompetence variety than the running from a wild dog variety), our bodies are still primed to tense up at any sign of stress.
With chronic stress, our muscles are always on high alert — that is, holding tension. People commonly experience lower back and shoulder pain as a result of work stress — turns out all that time hunched over a computer isn’t great for our bodies. Sometimes an injury can result in chronic pain. The way an individual deals with the pain from the outset — that is, confronting what’s causing the pain or just looking for physical relief — can determine whether the pain becomes a chronic condition.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, one way to remedy tension caused by stress is to try relaxing. Talkspace therapist Bisma Anwar says, “When you start to feel that your stress is causing you to experience physical symptoms you should try to use healthy coping skills to manage them. You can do meditation, deep breathing, go for a walk, or start writing a journal.” Other effective relaxation techniques include tai chi, yoga, and deep breathing.
2. Stress and tension headaches
Stress headaches are a type of musculoskeletal pain, resulting from tension held in the neck, shoulders, and head. The most common kind of headache, it causes a dull pain behind the eyes, or in the head or neck. They are twice more common in women.
There are many treatments available for tension headaches, such as over the counter medications like ibuprofen, muscle relaxants, and antidepressants. It’s also important to get enough sleep and drink plenty of water. Another good idea is giving your eyes frequent breaks if you spend a lot of time in front of a computer screen.
3. Panic attacks
If you’ve ever had a panic attack, you know the physical symptoms are serious. Panic attacks often come out of nowhere and can feel similar to what you may think a heart attack feels like: a racing heart, difficulty breathing, unstoppable shaking, chills and/or sweating, and stomach distress.
Because the onset of panic attacks is sudden, it can be difficult to trace them back to a concrete reason. However, it’s often our body’s response to a buildup of stress.
Most people may have one or two panic attacks in response to extreme stress. However, if you’ve had recurring panic attacks, you may suffer from panic disorder, which is treatable with therapy and anti-anxiety medications.
4. Gastrointestinal issues
This one is a real head scratcher. Why would stress in our heads cause distress in our guts? Actually, our guts have a plethora of neurons that are in constant contact with the brain. There’s also millions of bacteria in our guts that affect our brains as well. Stress can also affect the digestion process.
Stress can cause bloating, loss or increase of appetite, diarrhea, nausea, and other kinds of gastrointestinal discomfort. Vomiting can also occur with severe stress.
5. Stress hives
Another common symptom of stress is hives, itchy welts that form on the surface of the skin. Some can be quite painful. Breakouts can come and go in waves, lasting anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Though they’re not a serious health issue, hives can be disruptive and unpleasant.
Where do they come from? They can be caused by allergic reactions and are the immune system’s response to a threat. However, it’s not just allergens that are considered threats — stress is a threat, too. This is because the body releases different chemicals when stressed. People with pre-existing skin conditions are more likely to develop stress hives when they’re experiencing stress.
How to Mitigate the Harmful Effects of Stress
It’s difficult to avoid stress in daily life, but there are ways to mitigate the harmful effects. Talkspace certified therapist Cynthia Catchings stresses the importance of recognizing your stress triggers so that you can focus on treatment. For example, if money causes you stress, and you have an appointment with an accountant to do your taxes, it may be helpful to do some meditation or breathing exercises prior to the appointment.
Catchings also recommends the following preventative steps to take care of your daily needs:
- Take short breaks throughout the day
- Drink plenty of water
- Eat healthy, nourishing foods
- Sleep well
- Stay connected with your support system
In the long run, Catchings says it’s key to “maintain a preventative instead of a reactive mindset. Life, work, and relationships can be stressful, but you are in control, and by taking care of yourself, you can make a difference.”
If you’re experiencing stress, Catchings suggests the following tips for taking care of yourself:
- Look for an in-person or online therapist
- Practice reframing
- Talk to someone you trust
- Find a hobby
- Practice a sport
- Learn a new language
- Stay active and distracted, but also take some time to rest and quiet your mind
In order to differentiate between physical symptoms caused by stress and those caused by illness, Catchings recommends performing a body scan daily to assess whether you feel tension or pain, and where. It’s critical to know your body and its triggers in order to be able to heal it. It’s also important to talk to a licensed therapist or other medical professional about your symptoms, as they can help you distinguish between stress and illness.