Physical Effects of Stress on the Body

If you have ever been highly stressed, then you will no doubt be aware of just how much of a toll it can take on you both mentally and physically. Stress is not only very unpleasant in terms of the effect it has on your mood; it is also a serious health concern that can have drastic negative impacts on your wellbeing and which greatly increases your chances of becoming ill.

Here we will look at the physical effects of stress on the body and specifically what changes occur as a result of it.

How Stress Impacts the Body

To understand the physical effects of stress on the body, it is important to understand its role in our evolutionary history. When we were still hunter-gatherers living in the wild, we would often encounter scenarios that posed immediate and serious threats to our lives – whether that was the presence of a predator, an antagonistic competitor or a natural disaster.

In any of these cases, we would then experience a surge of hormones and neurotransmitters in what is known as the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. Specifically, this neurochemical cocktail would include:

  • Dopamine
  • Norepinephrine/Adrenaline
  • Cortisol
  • Anandamide
  • Acetylcholine
  • Glutamate

All of these chemicals then serve the purpose of preparing us for combat/flight/injury via a number of physiological changes that increase our strength, speed and focus.

Sounds great, right? Well it is! In this condition we would stand a vastly improved chance of surviving an attack or outrunning a forest fire.

The only problem is that today, ‘stressors’ don’t tend to include predators and fires. Instead, stressors are chronic situations that tend to linger on our minds for extended periods of time. They are things like angry bosses, financial problems, relationship difficulties and large workloads – things that just don’t go away.

This then means that we end up living with the physical effects of stress for longer durations and thus get ‘worn down’ by them. Stress is a useful survival tool only in the short term.

What Are the Effects of Stress on the Body?

So if you are living with chronic stress, that means that you are living with numerous physiological changes that can potentially do a lot of damage over the long term.

Here are some of the effects of stress:

  • Elevated heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Skin problems caused by hormonal changes
  • Suppression of the immune system and resulting susceptibility to infection
  • Muscle stimulation leading to ‘stiffness’ and soreness
  • Possibly an increased chance of developing diabetes due to elevated blood sugar and insulin
  • Food cravings and fat storage due to increased cortisol
  • Insomnia and poor sleep due to increased mental activity
  • Headaches, possibly caused by tension
  • Impaired memory due to cortisol levels and interference to normal neurotransmission
  • Hair loss
  • Tiredness/exhaustion caused by adrenal fatigue
  • Heartburn and digestion problems owing to blood and resources being directed away from the digestive system
  • Irritable bowel syndrome/irregular bowel movements/stomach ulcers
  • Impaired creativity owing to the role of focus vs lateral thinking
  • Eventual reduction in brain tissue
  • ‘Hypersensitivity’ to pain caused by increased excitability of neurons
  • Loss of sex appeal – studies show that we are less attracted to those with higher levels of stress hormones
  • TMJ or ‘temporomandibular joint disorder’ – grinding of the teeth and resultant jaw pain
  • Increased risk of stroke
  • Accelerated ageing due to the shortening of ‘telomeres’ at the ends of chromosomes

As you can see then, the physical effects of stress on the body in the long term are highly negative and varied and can severely impact on health and quality of life.

While an increased heart rate, sensitivity and muscle tension is just what you need in a crunch – it’s not something that you should carry with you on a regular basis. If you are dealing with chronic stress then, you should make it an absolute priority to address and overcome this as soon as possible.

Keith Hillman

Keith Hillman is a full time writer specializing in psychology as well as the broader health niche. He has a BSc degree in psychology from Surrey University, where he particularly focused on neuroscience and biological psychology. Since then, he has written countless articles on a range of topics within psychology for numerous of magazines and websites. He continues to be an avid reader of the latest studies and books on the subject, as well as self-development literature.