Your Body on Stress: 5 Physical Side Effects of Chronic Stress

Your Body on Stress: 5 Physical Side Effects of Chronic Stress


14 June 2019


In today’s world, stress is essentially unavoidable. (BTW, if you are one of those magical unicorns that never gets stressed, GET IN TOUCH - we want your secrets!) Most all of us experience stress at one point or another for various reasons such as a looming work deadline, a big exam at school, finances, relationships - the list goes on. And while it’s easier said than done, controlling and minimising stress is extremely important, not only for your mental health but for your physical health, too.

Have you ever noticed strange happenings within your body during particularly hectic times? A headache that just won’t quit, blemishes that never seem to go away or a nagging pain in your neck? That is stress literally trying to take you down! While many people think stress is a mental state, stress can actually physically manifest within your body - and it takes a pretty hefty toll on your overall health.

5 Physical Side Effects of Stress

Prolonged periods of stress can activate a chain reaction of physical side effects that shouldn’t be ignored. Yes, the human body is biologically equipped to handle small, common bouts of stress, however, studies have shown that chronic stress not only contributes to some wacky physical side effects, it also contributes to major chronic illnesses like heart disease and even some autoimmune diseases. Hard pass. Read on to learn more about five of the common ways stress can physically affect your body.

Chronic Pain

Do you notice more frequent migraines, tension headaches and back pain when you’re stressed? Research has shown that high stress is commonly associated with more headaches per month and it’s linked to chronic back pain and muscle tension, specifically around the neck and shoulders. Why? According to the American Psychological Association (APA), one way the body handles stress is by tensing up the muscles. When stress levels spike, your body goes into reactionary mode to protect itself from potential bodily harm or injury, hence the reflex of tensing the muscles.

The APA breaks it down like this, “With sudden onset stress, the muscles tense up all at once and then release their tension when the stress passes. Chronic stress causes the muscles in the body to be in a more or less constant state of guardedness. When muscles are taut and tense for long periods of time, this may trigger other reactions of the body and even promote stress-related disorders. For example, both tension-type headache and migraine headache are associated with chronic muscle tension in the area of the shoulders, neck and head.”

Skin Troubles

Skin troubles. Ugh. Unfortunately, skin woes like acne, eczema and psoriasis are only exacerbated by stress and increased cortisol levels (cortisol is your body’s main stress hormone). In fact, studies have shown a high correlation between stress levels and severe acne. Research has even shown that chronically elevated stress levels may also contribute to thinning hair and hair loss. Even more of a reason to get that stress in check!

Weakened Immune System

It’s been proven that stress weakens the immune system. And it seems that chronic stress plays an even bigger role in decreased immunity than a stressful week alone. (Remember, our bodies are made to handle short bouts of stress, not prolonged periods.) One scientific analysis found that those exposed to high-stress levels were 70% more likely to develop an upper respitory infection than those exposed to no or low-stress situations.

Additionally, a 33-year study examining more than 100,000 individuals diagnosed with stress disorders found that 36% of those suffering from chronic stress had a higher chance of developing one or more autoimmune diseases in their lifetime.

Insomnia & Disordered Sleeping

A restless night here or there isn’t uncommon, especially after a particularly stressful day. It can be difficult to turn off your mind or stop worrying about all the things you need to get done tomorrow. But extended periods of stress can greatly impact your sleep cycle, and even begin a pattern of disordered sleeping and insomnia. When you’re stressed out, your cortisol spikes, putting you on-edge and making it hard for your body to relax and enter REM sleep (the kind of sleep that helps you rest and repair), leaving you feeling sleep-deprived and fatigued the next day.

Digestive Issues

The brain-gut connection is acutely and negatively affected by stress. Perceived stress in the body can disrupt the communication between the brain and the gut, disturbing the balance of microorganisms in the gut and throwing off the whole digestive system! Chronic stress may trigger gut discomfort like gas, bloating, indigestion, heartburn and acid reflux, nausea, vomiting, and increase or decrease of appetite. Stress may also further aggravate bowel disorders like Inflammatory Bowel Disease and Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

Chronic stress has also been linked to sugar cravings and poor food choices and increased belly fat over time.

Keeping Your Stress Levels in Check

Whew! That’s a lot to take in. But we’ve got good news: managing your stress isn’t rocket science, it just takes a little commitment. Here are some of our favourite articles to help you keep your stress in check: