Stay up to date
Keep up to date with our latest news and analysis by subscribing to our regular newsletter
April 12 2023
We all know stress is bad for our mental health–but when short-term stress becomes chronic, it can also cause real physical harm.
Everyday stressors like missing the bus, forgetting a deadline, or giving an important presentation have a predictable effect on our bodies: our hearts beat faster, our muscles tense, and we start breathing faster, taking in more oxygen. We’re primed for fight or flight. When the stressor goes away, our bodies return to their normal state.
When it’s “one thing after another”, and the body has no time to recover in between these bouts, stress becomes chronic. Financial trouble, family conflicts, and problems at work can all be chronic stressors. The body can’t get out of fight-or-flight mode and is constantly flooded with the stress hormone cortisol, which causes inflammation.
This is when physical health starts to suffer. Even when stress isn’t the root cause of a health condition, it can create a vicious cycle by worsening the symptoms, which in turn worsens stress.
10 areas where stress can hurt you
Stress causes your muscles to tense up, which can lead to pain, tightness, or spasms. It also lowers your pain threshold, so if you have a condition like arthritis or fibromyalgia, symptoms can flare up when you’re stressed.
As well as causing a racing heart and shortness of breath, the stress hormone cortisol can actually worsen heart and lung conditions like heart disease, cardiac arrhythmias, stroke, high blood pressure and asthma. If you have chest pain or tightness or heart palpitations, see your doctor urgently to make sure it’s nothing serious.
As well as worsening skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis or rosacea, stress can genuinely make you break out in hives or lose your hair. It can also cause itchiness and excessive sweating.
Stress can cause stomach pain, diarrhoea, constipation, gas, and even vomiting, as well as playing a role in chronic conditions like acid reflux (GERD) and irritable bowel syndrome. It can also affect your appetite, leading to overeating, undereating, or unhealthy diets.
The “tension triangle” includes your head, shoulders, and jaw. Stress may give you tension headaches, tightness in your jaw and neck, or spasms and knots in your neck and shoulders.
Stress weakens your immune system, which not only makes you more vulnerable to whatever bugs are going around, but can also worsen autoimmune conditions like lupus and IBS. Healthy eating and exercise will help to boost your immune system.
Your period may be late or skip a month altogether when you’re stressed–potentially leading to a vicious cycle (as it were), with worries about why it’s late sending your stress levels higher. Repeatedly missing periods because of stress can eventually lead to hormonal imbalances and secondary amenorrhoea.
Sleep is another area where stress can cause a vicious cycle as you worry about why you keep staying awake worrying. Over time, it can even cause sleep disorders such as insomnia.
The stress hormone cortisol slows down your metabolism, increases your appetite, and causes insulin resistance–all of which are designed to help your body store fat to cope with tough times.
Stress can lead to mental illnesses like depression and anxiety, as well as making existing mental health symptoms worse.
When to seek help
How stressed is stressed enough to see a doctor? If you’re noticing changes to your appetite or sleep patterns, or struggling to get to work, your stress could be out of control. Remember seeking help isn’t a sign of weakness.