Reviewed by Mary Lucas, MSCIS, MPhil, RN
Written by Our Editorial Team
The anxiety, the clenched jaw, the white knuckles… Chances are, you’ve seen a sign of stress in yourself or someone at some point in your life.
Stress can do a lot of impactful things to the human body. It can hone our senses, as well as make us prepared for tests, presentations, sports matches and a variety of other challenges that come our way.
While there are good things that stress brings to the table, there are also some negative impacts that it can have on you in the short and long term, especially if you’re dealing with frequent, constant or recurring stress.
We’re talking a wide range of long-term harmful effects here, from weight gain to heart disease.
Whether it’s the constant demands at home or in the office, a stressful event or another source of stress entirely, there are plenty of valid reasons to be stressed, but not addressing stress can have major consequences for your health down the line.
Understanding what stressful events can do to your body is important, and to do that, we first have to understand stress itself.
Experiencing stress is normal, at least according to the American Psychological Association. They define stress as a reaction to the everyday life pressures we all experience.
Stress is familiar and common in this form: it’s keeping up with calendars and responsibilities, finances and deadlines. And in the right circumstances, “good” stress releases hormones that can help you perform at your highest level.
But there are negative sides of stress and, left unmanaged, they can rear their heads just as prominently.
When left unmanaged, the effects of stress can be bad because they can increase anxiety and cause long-term anxious responses.
Over time, these elevated cortisol levels can cause serious and chronic damage.
Left untreated and unaddressed, any of these symptoms can become more serious, and result in more systemic change to your body.
But how do times of stress affect your body aside from sleep loss? There are several ways.
Physical symptoms of stress can include:
Stress can lead to muscle aches and pains from strain and clenching throughout your day. From tension headaches to back strain, many common complaints can be linked to stress.
Those false heart attack symptoms, heart palpitations and increases in heart rate that people sometimes report are caused as part of the stress response (and it can cause real heart problems, too).
Increased blood pressure isn’t just a symptom of bad health or anxiety — stress can have the same effect. Stress can also increase your blood sugar and, over time, it can contribute to more rapid aging.
Insomnia is a common complaint from the chronically stressed. People who fail to get enough sleep can compound their problems, increasing cortisol levels from a lack of sleep.
Intimacy can be one of those stressful situations, but have you ever been too stressed, distracted or anxious to perform in bed? Yeah. Stress can cause or worsen these problems, too.
Work-related stress and other sources of intense stress can actually cause you to rack up some of those sick days you’ve been saving up.
Chronic stress can make it easy for your body to become susceptible to other hazards — if you’re constantly stressed, your immune system may let in more colds, viruses, bacteria, etc.
Ever been so stressed out that you have a stomach ache? It’s a symptom.
While your fear about a test may have given you a tummy ache enough to stay home from school, the reality is that a day in bed watching daytime TV won’t cure stress as an adult.
Finding your jaw clenched in times of acute stress is common and, over time, can lead to issues with jaw function. For example, temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ).
Stress headaches are definitely real, and they can come when your stress reaches intense levels.
Reducing stress is possible, and it’s something that you can do on your own, in theory.
Taking better care of your needs — your diet, your sleep, your exercise, your happiness — is a great way to make an individual impact on your stress levels.
But there’s a bigger question of how much you can do on your own. And that may not be an easy one to answer alone.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by stress, it may be time to talk to someone about it — this can be a friend, family member or trusted loved one, but it can also be a healthcare professional.
Genetics may play a part in how we cope with and recover from stress, but just because you’re born with it doesn’t mean you have to suffer through it alone.
You can also get better sleep, take care of your mental health with meditation and find inner peace.
But you can also manage stress with therapeutic practices like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is a system designed to help you become more aware of your thoughts and thought patterns, with the goal being to eventually learn how to control them.
With the help of a mental health professional, this may be one of the most effective ways to combat stress in the moment, and take back the time, energy, and physical health it could be taking from you.
Stress may be something that you can manage, monitor and mediate on your own, but if you’ve experienced multiple physical or emotional symptoms from the list we shared, it may be time to get some support.
Therapy and other options for managing stress with professional help are a great place to start, and the best way to find the right options for you is to talk to a healthcare professional.
We’ve covered various elements of how therapy for treating anxiety and other mood disorders works in our blog, and there are plenty of things you can learn about stress and anxiety management through our list of mental health resources.
But the right thing to do if you’re seeing damage to your mind, body, happiness and energy is to talk to a professional and get help now.
Stress may never go away. It’s a natural part of the human experience. But too much of it isn’t something you should have to live with, and you certainly shouldn’t have to do so alone.
Get the help you deserve today to moderate your stress levels and get back to the things you love. Treatment is easy and accessible — and nothing to stress about.
Mary is an accomplished emergency and trauma RN with more than 10 years of healthcare experience.
As a data scientist with a Masters degree in Health Informatics and Data Analytics from Boston University, Mary uses healthcare data to inform individual and public health efforts.