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A lady sitting in her kicthen with both hands on her head and her eyes closed. She appears to be worried or stressed.

Common effects of stress on the body

It will come as no surprise to read that stress is one of the major complaints of modern life.

When we say that we feel stressed, we usually mean that we feel pressurised, overloaded or that we have got more on our plates than we can handle.

But did you know that stress is a natural and normal physiological response, that was developed in our ancestors as a way to escape predators?1

The so-called “fight-or-flight” response gets adrenaline pumping through our bodies and triggers a lot of physiological processes.

However, today many people find that their stress response is triggered by any number of non-life-threatening problems, from family issues to traffic jams.

And the negative effects of this regular stress, especially if it becomes chronic and left unmanaged, can be detrimental to both our physical and emotional health.

What are the causes of stress?

According to the NHS, some of the major causes of stress in modern life include:

  • Work pressures
  • Family problems
  • Money issues
  • Heath, illness and bereavement issues
Other major life events, from getting married or divorced, buying or selling a house, or having a child could contribute to a person’s stress levels2 . Poor sleep3 can also contribute to you feeling more stressed than you need, as can your diet4 . But stress can actually cause or contribute to poor sleep and poor diet, too, so it really can be a vicious circle. Similarly, anxiety, a feeling of worry or unease, can both cause a stress response in your body, or you can develop anxiety as a result of long-term stress5 .

Post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD

Another form of stress is post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

This is when someone experiences stress due to a traumatic event in their past.

While many of the symptoms may be the same as other types of stress, people experiencing PTSD may need psychological therapy and/or medication to help them overcome severe symptoms and learn ways to cope with the trauma6 .

Stress at work

Work related stress is something most people can relate to. From finding and starting a new job to losing a job, unemployment, retiring, or difficulties with colleagues, the workplace can be an absolute minefield.

But work related stress is very well known and understood these days. So much so that you could well be entitled to access employee assistance programmes, workplace therapists, workplace exercise schemes or “mental health days”.

The important thing is that you notice the signs and symptoms of stress as early as possible, so you can make changes or get help.

As well as the advice below, our Health Hub article, Could you be stressed without realising? might help you pinpoint your feelings.

Stress symptoms

The symptoms of stress, or effects of stress on the body, are well documented, but they can be broadly grouped into two categories: physical and emotional.

Emotional signs of stress

While the physical symptoms of stress can be more dramatic, some of the emotional symptoms of stress can be extremely challenging for both you and the people in your life.

According to the mental health charity Mind, stress can make people feel:

  • irritable, aggressive, impatient or wound up
  • unable to take pleasure from life and/or depressed
  • a sense of dread, worry or anxiety
  • neglected or lonely
Stress can even affect how you might behave: you might find decision-making more difficult; you might avoid certain situations; you might find yourself snapping at people, biting your nails, or picking at your skin; you might find it hard to concentrate; you might start eating a lot more or a lot less; you might start using alcohol or drugs, or use them more than normal7 .

With all this to cope with (along with the physical symptoms of stress below), it is not surprising that stress can affect romantic relationships.

For more on this, take a look at How stress can affect your love life on the Health Hub.

Physical symptoms of stress

When we get stressed, the body is essentially put on high alert and becomes tense in case it needs to run or fight.

And all the energy is diverted from the body’s normal functions to focus on just the organs that will help overcome the threat.

This means that the muscles, eyes, heart and lungs are flooded with adrenaline and other hormones, while nonessential organs like the gut, bowel and penis are de-prioritised8 .

Normally, when the acute threat passes, the body puts the breaks on the stress response and everything goes back to normal.

However, if your stress becomes chronic, the body can find it hard switching off the fight or flight response, leading to symptoms like9 :
    • shallow breathing
    • panic attacks
  • tense muscles, including jaw clenching or teeth grinding
  • blurry or sore eyes
  • sleep issues
  • sexual problems
  • fatigue
  • grinding your teeth or clenching your jaw
  • Headaches or feeling dizzy
  • chest pains and high blood pressure
  • gut problems, including nausea, indigestion, constipation or diarrhoea

For more on some of these problems, check out our Health Hub, which has a wealth of information:

Does stress cause bad sleep? Why stress can equal cold sores Is there a hidden link between stress and allergies? How stress affects the immune system Is stress stopping your digestion?

Last Updated: 30th October 2020

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