Once you experience what stress can do to your body, managing it no longer seems optional.
Of course, some stress is normal — necessary, even—as it keeps us alert and focused when the stakes are high.
But when its chronic and prolonged, the effects of stress on the body can be significant. Many of them have serious long-term health consequences.
Wondering what can stress do to your body?
Here are just a few examples of how stress affects the body:
1. Weight Gain
When you’re stressed, it can be harder to maintain a healthy weight. Candice Seti, PsyD, CPT, cites cortisol, the stress hormone responsible for our “fight or flight” response, as the culprit.
“The problem with this increase in cortisol is that it often causes an associated increase in appetite,” she says. “When cortisol is released, it stimulates the part of the emotional center of the brain, which causes pleasurable activities, such as eating food, to become even more pleasurable. It is this idea of eating becoming more pleasurable that can make it that much easier to overeat.”
In other words, “stress eating” is a real phenomenon.
2. Poor Sleep
Who hasn’t stared at the ceiling at night, thinking about something stressful? Stress and sleep are definitely connected.
A 2014 systematic review reported that experiencing stress led to less REM sleep, less efficient sleep, and more wake-ups during the night, though they said more research into the impact and causes were necessary.
Research published in 2018 indicates that some people are biologically prone to insomnia, and stress can trigger sleep disturbances.
3. Stiff Muscles
The stiff neck and sore shoulders you feel at the end of a stressful week?
These muscle aches are examples of what stress can do to your body.
When danger is imminent, our muscles tense up as we brace for impact; it’s an important part of the fight or flight response.
But constantly bracing, clenching, and tensing (whether in response to a predator or a looming deadline) can lead to muscle pain, as the muscles do not have the opportunity to fully relax.
4. Immune System
It’s no coincidence that when you’re stressed you tend to catch every cold, bug, and flu that’s circulating.
Research shows that stress can disturb the delicate balance between the central nervous system, the endocrine system, and the immune system.
This effect of stress on the body just adds insult to injury — not only do you have to navigate a stressful situation, but you have to do it with the sniffles.
5. Gastrointestinal Issues
According to the American Psychological Association, the gut and the brain are in constant communication via hundreds of millions of neurons.
This is why you can “feel” excitement, worry, or dread in your stomach.
Stress can not only cause stomach pain and discomfort, but it can also alter the gut’s bacteria, which can impact the brain and influence your mood.
“Experiencing chronic stress is not only harmful physically,” says Amanda Levison, M.S., LMHC, LPC, CCBT.
“It can take its toll mentally and emotionally. It can cause anxiety, sadness, depression, anger, a lack of focus and motivation, and feelings of being overwhelmed.
More serious than just feeling down or worried, these psychological effects of stress on the body can be disruptive to your everyday life and should be addressed by a mental health professional.
Talk to your health-care provider if you feel like stress is interfering with your life.
3 Ways to Manage Stress
Considering what stress can do to your body, it’s worth learning how to best manage it. Seti recommends a three-part strategy.
Exercise (particularly at moderate levels) can offset stress by reducing cortisol levels while boosting levels of feel-good hormones, including endorphins and serotonin.
Plus, physical activity can help distract you from the source of your stress.
If you don’t have time for an official workout, a quick walk around your neighborhood can do the trick.
You might also try 9 Week Control Freak, a workout program from Super Trainer Autumn Calabrese that includes nightly stretches to help optimize recovery and enhance mental well-being.
“Meditation is a wonderful stress management tool as it calms both the body and mind simultaneously,” Seti says.
To help counteract the effects of stress on the body, she recommends starting with a guided meditation program, such as Unstress: 21 Days of Meditation for Relaxation, Calm, and Less Anxiety.
“Getting solid quality sleep can help ensure your body’s resources are replenished to help you fight stress,” Seti says.
She recommends sticking to a consistent sleep schedule and avoiding common sleep disruptors — including caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, and screens — before bedtime.