The physical effects of stress. It’s Monday morning. Getting into work was a nightmare. Traffic was abysmal and you were certain you were going to be late. You rush into your cube like a tornado, knocking things over and almost spilling your coffee. You sit down to start your computer. The minutes seem to drag on as you hear the hum of your laptop booting up. You begin to get antsy, and your hypothalamus sends out the order send in the stress hormones. These stress hormones are the same ones that trigger your body’s “fight or flight” response. Your heart races, your breath quickens, and your muscles ready for action. This response was designed to protect your body in an emergency by preparing you to react quickly. 

The Nature of Stress

Stress is everywhere in today’s world. And to be honest, a bit of stress here and it is actually beneficial to your health in immediate, short-term situations. However, too much stress can wear you down and make you sick, both mentally and physically. Chronic stress can cause a variety of symptoms and affect your overall well-being. These symptoms include irritability, anxiety, depression, headaches, and insomnia.

No stress is ever the same. Things that stress you out may not even be a concern to someone else. And some of us are just better equipped to handle some stressors more than others. The first step to controlling stress is to know the symptoms. But recognizing them is actually pretty hard. That’s because most of us are so used to being stressed all the time.  And we often don’t know we are stressed until we are at our breaking point. While, our bodies are designed to handle small doses of stress, handling long-term, chronic stress has some major health consequences.

The Physical Effects of Stress: Nervous and Endocrine Systems 

The central nervous system (CNS) is where all the magic happens. Earlier, we mentioned the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is the control center that gets your stress ball rolling. It is the hypothalamus that alerts your adrenal glands to release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones are actually important though. As they increase your heart rate and send blood to the parts of your body that need it most during an emergency.

When the threat is gone, the hypothalamus is the one who restores the body and allows it to go back to normal. However, if the CNS doesn’t return to normal, or is the stressor reappears, the hormonal responses will continue. And that’s when things go south. Chronic stress is a factor in many stress-induced behaviors. It can explain why a person is over or under eating, resorting to drug/alcohol abuse, or even put themselves through social withdrawal.

Cardiovascular and Respiratory Systems

When stressed, your heart beats much faster than it does when resting. Stress hormones cause blood vessels to constrict. This action sends more oxygen to your muscles – giving you more strength to deal with the said stressor. And while more oxygenated muscles is a good thing, this also raises your blood pressure.  As a result, frequent or chronic stress will make your heart work too hard for too long. And when your blood pressure rises, so do your risks for having a stroke or heart attack.

In regard to the respiratory system, stress makes you breathe faster. Breath quickens to help your body more quickly distribute oxygen-rich blood to the rest of the body. But if you’re someone who suffered from breathing issues, stress can make it seem even harder to breathe.

The Digestive System

We’ve all been hearing about the harms of excess sugar in our diets. But did you know that under stress, your liver produces extra glucose for that “flight or fight” energy response? Those who suffer from chronic stress may not be able to keep up with a constant extra glucose surge. This is why there are a number of those who are chronically stressed developing type 2 diabetes.

An increase in stomach acid can cause heartburn or acid reflux. And while stress doesn’t cause ulcers, it does cause existing ulcers to act up. Lastly, stress affects the way food moves through the body. Chronic stress sufferers may experience diarrhea, constipation, nausea, vomiting, and/or stomachache.

The Muscular System 

Have you ever noticed how clenched your jaw is or how high your shoulders rise when you’re stressed? When we are under constant stress, our body isn’t able to fully relax. Tight muscles can cause a number of unpleasant experiences. This includes headaches, back and shoulder pain, all over body aches, and generalized tightness. Over time, constant body pain can create a dependence on pain medication. It has also caused some people to stop exercising and moving their bodies entirely – exactly the opposite thing the body needs to relax.

The Immune System

Stress continually stimulates the immune system. This is a definite benefit in immediate and crucial situations. This stimulus can help you avoid infections and even heal wounds more efficiently. But in a long haul, stress hormones will weaken the immune system. Those suffering from chronic stress are more susceptible to the flu and common cold. Not to mention, stress increases the time it takes to recover from illness and injury.

The Reproductive System

Stress is completely exhausting. And let’s be honest, when you’re tired and tense, the last thing you want it to get close and personal with someone else.

In males, those suffering from chronic stress can lead to dropping testosterone levels. This drop can interfere with sperm production and cause erectile dysfunction or impotence. Chronic stress may also increase the risk of infection for male reproductive organs like the prostate and testes.

For women, stress often affects the menstrual cycle. Can you relate to pre-stressing out about your cycle, only to find out there was nothing to stress over? Stress can lead to irregular, heavier, and even more painful periods. And chronic stress can magnify the physical symptoms of menopause.

We Would Love to Help Manage Your Stress!

We know you need a toolbox full of skills in order to cope with the challenges life throws at us. At CPA, we will always encourage patients to explore coping mechanisms that work best for them. However, we also know that a number of those skills come from counseling and different methods of therapy. Cristina Panaccione and Associates has two locations in the South Hills and one office in Robinson Township. We are currently accepting a limited number of new patients, so check out our videos to learn more about how we can help teach you the skills to cope with stress!


* This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Please contact a medical professional for advice.

Jennifer Krause – MS, LPC 

Jennifer is a Licensed Professional Counselor who received her Masters of Science Degree from Chatham University. She has over 18 years of counseling experience with a wide range of patients in a variety of treatment settings.  These have included: outpatient community mental health agencies, partial psychiatric hospital settings, both inpatient and outpatient drug and alcohol facilities, correctional settings, and an outpatient intensive treatment foster care program.  Her clinical experience has been broad, treating both adolescents and adults struggling with: addiction, trauma, mood disorders, anger management issues, borderline personality disorder, depression, and anxiety. I also have experience with couples counseling, working with families, and group therapy. She has extensive training in Motivational Interviewing, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and Trauma-Focused CBT.