How Does Stress Affect the Body?

“Worry and stress affects the circulation, the heart, the glands, the whole nervous system, and profoundly affects heart action.” – Charles W. Mayo, M.D.

Stress can be an incredibly powerful motivating force, sometimes pushing us to overcome things we couldn’t imagine. However, it can also become damaging and unhelpful when it becomes chronic and affects day-to-day functions. This blog post focuses on the various ways in which chronic stress can affect our mental, emotional, and physical health. 

What Is Stress?

We have all experienced stress in one way or another because it is a natural reaction to scary or overwhelming situations. From having “butterflies” before a date to experiencing a pounding heart while speaking in front of a crowd, the effects of stress are present in most people’s lives. However, we don’t all experience stress in the same way. Some people experience particular sensations – such as sweating palms – while stress may manifest differently in others. Major, acute stress, whether caused by a fight with your spouse or an event like an earthquake or terrorist attack, tends to have an even larger impact on people.

The Stress Response 

The stress response is the body’s natural reaction to danger, an attack, or another stressor that is frightening or overwhelming, such as an assault, car collision, or burglary. You might have heard it referred to as the fight-or-flight response. In highly stressful situations such as these, our bodies make an unconscious decision to react in a certain way to the stress. This is an essential survival mechanism that human beings, along with most other animals, developed hundreds of thousands of years ago. 

When the stress response is triggered, chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol flood through the system, readying the body for action. Flight is the reaction to escape by running away from danger. The fight response readies the body for staying to defend oneself through confrontation. Both of these responses cause immediate hormonal and physiological changes. The body’s pain perception decreases, hearing gets sharper, blood is sent to the largest muscle groups, eyes often dilate, and heart rate increases, in addition to a range of other physical changes.

One of the most significant changes in bodily functioning happens in the brain. The upper levels of the brain that are involved in emotional processing, memory, problem-solving, and other more complex actions effectively “shut off.” This allows more blood and oxygen to be sent to the muscles and also allows the brain stem – often called the reptilian brain – to respond to stimuli much faster. This survival mechanism has kept humans alive when they come up against major threats. However, it can cause negative psychological consequences, as it means that memories of a traumatic event are stored in the brainstem as opposed to in the cortex so that these memories of the experience remain unprocessed and disconnected from time or place. This is thought to be the cause of flashbacks and other maladaptive, unpleasant responses to triggers.

There is also a third response – freeze –which triggers other physiological reactions, such as decreased heart rate, slowed breathing, and coldness in the limbs. The body’s response is to remain very still to conserve energy. It is thought that if the stress appears too much to deal with, then the freeze response is triggered. In some cases, this can cause an inability to speak and even create the feeling of paralysis. Freeze differs from fight and flight because it is driven by the parasympathetic as opposed to the sympathetic nervous system. In fight and flight, the sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for action by releasing the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, to increase strength and speed. 

The freeze response occurs when the parasympathetic and sympathetic branches of our autonomic nervous system are simultaneously activated. If the brain decides that fight or flight is not an option for aiding survival, the parasympathetic branch takes control. The parasympathetic system counteracts the physiological effects of the stress hormones flooding our body and releases hormones that numb pain, such as oxytocin.

Chronic Stress

Throughout history, the stress response has kept humans alive and helped us flee from wild animals and fend-off rival tribes. However, when the stress response is continually triggered without the ability to be processed, it can cause adverse effects on our health. 

If the hormones that need to be released when the stress response is triggered are inhibited – especially over a long period of time – they can build up in the body. This increases the risk of heart disease, hypertension, digestive issues, and stroke. An extensive study analyzing the effect of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) on health found that those who experienced stress during childhood are more likely to develop ischemic heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, skeletal fractures, and liver disease. Although stress is known to impair the immune system and cause blood vessel damage and plaque buildup in the arteries, these health issues are not solely a result of increased and persistently high levels of stress hormones in the body. Chronic stress can also cause impaired communication between the immune system and the HPA axis, which has been linked to the development of various physical and mental health conditions, including chronic fatigue, and metabolic disorders such as obesity, diabetes, and depression.

Dealing With Stress 

Stress can affect your health in both the short and long term, so finding coping mechanisms to identify and manage your stress levels could make an immediate difference in your well-being and protect your health in the long term. 

There is not one set way of managing stress, however, as we all experience it slightly differently. Trying a range of techniques and finding the right one might take a little time but would make a profound difference in an individual’s life. 

Some stress management strategies include:

Identifying the Sources of Stress in Your Life

The first step in stress management will usually be to identify the sources of stress in your life. This might sound more straightforward than it is. Significant stresses, such as a breakup or house move, might be obvious. However, the causes of chronic stress can be more difficult to identify. One way of doing this is to start a stress journal, where you make a note of each time you feel stressed and reflect on the potential causes, think about what happened in the leadup to the onset of stress, and then look for patterns from journal entries. Another option is to speak with a counselor or therapist, who can help you identify the causes of stress and offer a range of strategies for dealing with it.


Low-intensity exercise like walking, swimming, or yoga can be great for relieving stress, providing a sense of escapism, providing enjoyment, and releasing endorphins. High-intensity exercise may work for some people, but because it can also trigger the release of adrenaline and mimic the effects of stress, it might not work for those who experience somatic symptoms of stress.

Connect With Others 

Stress can sometimes make it feel as though you have no time to socialize or that you are so exhausted that spending time with people seems impossible. Setting aside time and energy for weekly or monthly events to spend with people you care about can make this feel more manageable.

Deep Breathing 

Practicing breathing techniques and beginning to notice and control your breathing can be incredibly useful for dealing with stress. Taking big, deep, slow breaths sends more oxygen to the brain and relaxes the nervous system, which helps you to stay calm and in control.

Whatever strategies you find to help you deal with stress, integrate them into your routine so that they become normal daily parts of your life that keep you healthy and calm.


[1]  Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., Koss, M. P., & Marks, J. S. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. American journal of preventive medicine, 14(4), 245–258.

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