How stress can impact your physical wellbeing
Reviewed by our clinical team
We’ve all experienced stress, and we all know the effect it can have on our mental health. When we’re dealing with issues at work or at home, it’s normal to be irritable, to have trouble concentrating, and to feel overwhelmed and worried all the time.
In addition to the mental symptoms, however, stress can also have a very physical impact on the body – read on to find out why, and to learn how you can manage your symptoms.
What are the physical symptoms of stress?
The physical symptoms of stress are quite wide-ranging, and can affect almost every part of your body. You might experience:
- Blurred eyesight or sore eyes
- Shallow breathing
- Poor sleep and tiredness
- Teeth grinding
- Muscle tension
- Indigestion and heartburn
- Constipation and diarrhoea
- Chest pains
- Rapid heartbeat
- Sexual problems e.g. loss of sex drive
Why does stress cause physical symptoms?
When you’re in a stressful situation that causes you to feel threatened or anxious in some way, your body releases certain hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. These 'stress' hormones can be helpful as they make you more alert and increase your heart rate, sending blood around the body faster.
After the threatening situation has passed, the body releases more hormones to relax the muscles – sometimes this can have the effect of making you feel shaky.
There’s no harm in experiencing this from time to time – it’s just your body’s natural response to a scary situation. The problem arises when you’re in 'threatening' situations so often that your body is constantly releasing stress hormones.
High levels of these hormones cause the unpleasant physical symptoms listed above and – in the long term – can affect your health.
Can stress make you ill?
There are a number of physical health issues that can be worsened or triggered by stress, including:
- High blood pressure
- Migraine - find out more about stress and migraines here
- Irritable bowel syndrome - find about more about stress and your digestive health here
- Skin conditions like acne and eczema - find out more about skin conditions and stress here
Indirectly, stress can lead to certain unhealthy habits that might worsen your health, including:
- Overeating or undereating
- Smoking more
- Drinking too much alcohol
- Not getting enough sleep
You might also gain or lose weight when you're stressed, due to a change to your eating habits and exercise routine.
How to manage the physical symptoms of stress
The best way to avoid the physical symptoms of stress is to avoid stress – but this is easier said than done!
A good place to start is to identify the things you find most stressful, and see if there are any ways you can address those pressure points. For instance, if there’s a particular task at work that you find challenging, you could ask your line manager to give you some additional training or support.
Another helpful step can be to get better with time management, as this is often the root cause of stress. If you can, make lists and set manageable targets, ensuring that you set aside enough time for important tasks and don’t attempt to get too much done all in one go.
Beyond that, you’ll want to make sure that you’re coping with stress in healthy ways. At stressful times it’s easy to lean on unhealthy coping mechanisms, so try to do the following:
- Exercise regularly and eat a healthy diet
- Avoid smoking and drinking too much
- Take time for yourself
- Get proper sleep
- Practise relaxation techniques
If you have specific stress-induced symptoms like IBS or migraine, make sure that you’re stocked up on any medication to get you through a flare-up of symptoms.
Lastly, if you have chronic stress that’s disrupting your daily life and making you feel physically unwell, it’s definitely worth speaking to your GP. You can’t be diagnosed with stress as a medical condition, but your GP will be able to advise you on what to do, and refer you for counselling if they think that will help.
For more guidance about managing your stress, take a look at the Mind website.