How stress affects your physical and mental health

If you’re feeling stressed out, you’re not alone.  More than a quarter of all Americans report that on most days, they’re so stressed out they can’t function, according to a 2022 survey by the American Psychological Association.1  

It’s a deeply concerning statistic. “Since the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve found that patients are experiencing levels of stress like almost never before,” says James Jackson, Psy.D, a psychologist and professor of medicine at Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.

Over time, stress can take a toll on your whole body. Here’s a closer look at what stress is, how it impacts your body and mind, and what you can do that may help reduce its effects on your health.

What exactly is stress?

Stress is a state of worry that is caused by a difficult situation, according to the World Health Organization.2 It’s a natural human response that encourages people to address challenges and threats. When it happens occasionally, it’s known as acute stress. When you feel that way all the time, it’s called chronic stress.3

Stress happens when something you experience or observe is more than your mind can handle, explains Bruce Rabin, M.D., Ph.D., a stress management expert and professor emeritus of pathology at the University of Pittsburgh.

“When your mind can’t cope with stress, certain areas of your brain become activated, and the stress hormones in your blood increase,” he says. Two of the main stress hormones are adrenaline and cortisol.3 Both can make you feel agitated.

It’s important to realize that while everyone experiences stress, the way we respond to it can make a big difference in our overall well-being.

What symptoms should I watch for?

There are many symptoms of stress. They can be physical, mental or emotional, notes Dr. Jackson. Some of the most common signs include:4

  • Headaches
  • Tiredness, trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Upset stomach
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Lack of energy or focus

“These symptoms are never good, but they are especially concerning when they become chronic,” says Dr. Jackson.

How is stress diagnosed?

There isn’t a test to diagnose stress, Dr. Jackson explains. But there are questions your doctor can ask you to diagnose mental health conditions that may be worsened by stress, such as anxiety and depression.

There are also tests to identify the presence of stress-related medical conditions such as heart disease.

How does long-term stress impact the body?

Chronic stress can lead to serious health problems, changing the way your body works. Stress hormones can:3

  • Raise blood pressure. “Stress hormones cause blood pressure to increase by making blood vessels smaller so that blood is squeezed into a smaller space,” says Dr. Rabin.
  • Increase the risk of heart disease. When your body is flooded with stress hormones, the blood vessels of the heart can narrow, reducing blood flow to the heart muscle. Blood platelets may also stick together and form vessel-clogging clumps that can lead to a heart attack. 
  • Cause diabetes. Stress hormones increase the risk of blood sugar problems and, by interfering with the ability to think clearly. It can affect decision-making around food choices, explains Dr. Rabin.
  • Weaken your immune system. You may be more likely to catch viral infectious diseases and it may make it harder for wounds to heal.

Does worrying affect my brain too?

It absolutely does. Feeling overwhelmed all the time doesn’t help you think clearly. Here are some brain issues that are related to chronic stress:

  • Depression. Stress hormones change the way your brain cells function in the part of the brain that is associated with depression, explains Dr. Rabin.
  • Cognition. Research shows that people with high levels of stress had a decline in cognitive function. Those are the mental processes involved in perception, learning, memory, reasoning and more.5
  • Pain. "Elevated stress hormones increase your perception of pain. Aches and pains will hurt more,” says Dr. Rabin. “When stress hormones are low, pain hurts less.”

How can I help manage and prevent stress?

Whether you are stressed out often or only occasionally, Dr. Rabin suggests calming yourself with deep breathing to increase the amount of oxygen in your blood. That will lower the concentration of stress hormones. Try not to take more than 3 to 5 deep breaths in a row or it can make you feel dizzy. If you still need to calm down, wait 15 minutes and do it again. 

It also helps to try deep breathing when you’re feeling relaxed and happy. “This will train your mind to associate the technique with feeling good,” says Dr. Rabin. 

Here are some other ways to manage stress2

  • Stick to a routine 
  • Maintain good sleep habits 
  • Stay connected with others 
  • Eat a balanced diet
  • Move your body

“If stress interferes with day-to-day functioning and makes it hard to work, or it’s affecting relationships, reach out to a therapist or counselor,” says Dr. Jackson.

Already a member?

Sign in or register on your plan website to see personalized benefit details and resources to help you manage your plan and health.