How does stress affect the body?

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi
Stress can give us a short-term boost to help us tackle threats, but the long-term effects of stress can harm our physical and mental health. Here are the physical signs of stress to look out for, and advice on how to reduce stress levels

Need to speak to a GP today?

Book appointment

Stress is a natural, essential part of our body’s response system. It stems from an innate survival instinct that we share with many other animals. When we experience something frightening or dangerous, stress is what drives us to react quickly, triggering our ‘fight or flight’ impulse.

But chronic stress is completely different. While short-term stress can help us achieve important goals, long-term stress can actually cause serious health problems. Symptoms of stress include nagging feelings of worry, sleeplessness, anxiety, depression and even physical illness.

‘Long-term stress can cause a multitude of physical symptoms – such as headaches, muscle tension and digestive problems’, says Dr McClymont, Lead GP at Livi. ‘In turn, these symptoms often make us feel anxious, worried, and even more stressed! Recognising signs of stress, and taking action to reduce it, is important for breaking this negative cycle.’

How your body responds to stress

When you’re under stress, your brain releases a ‘stress response’. This sends signals via the pituitary gland to the adrenal glands, to release the hormones cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline.

These hormones raise your blood pressure and give your body a dose of glucose that goes straight to your muscles. The idea is to get you ready and give you a boost of energy to respond to an immediate stressor.

Stress hormones are energising. They give you the motivation and focus to complete difficult tasks, solve problems, and reach your immediate goals. That’s why stress is good for you in small doses.

After the stressful situation has passed, your body can return to a normal, relaxed state. But ongoing, long-term stress – the kind that can’t easily be solved with a short burst of energy and focus – can cause serious physical signs of stress.

Where might I spot the physical signs of stress?

The immune system Stress initially inhibits the immune system – the chemicals our body releases to deal with immediate threat aren’t designed to keep us healthy long-term. People affected by chronic stress can find their immune system affected, making them susceptible to colds, flu and other infections.

The liver Our liver gives us a boost of glucose when we’re stressed, enabling us to physically respond to stressors. Long-term, this constant release increases our risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and can make it hard for us to maintain a healthy weight.

Digestion Our guts are surprisingly sensitive organs, and respond to hormone imbalances, stress, and many physical and mental health conditions with pain, bloating, and sometimes changes in bowel habit.

Nervous system Chronic stress affects dopamine levels, which is one of the reasons long-term stress makes us more vulnerable to mental illness. It can particularly make us seek short-term rewards like sugary, fatty or salty foods, affecting our weight and overall health.

Through weight gain or loss Increased cortisol levels stop our bodies from breaking down fat, so it can make it hard for us to lose weight or keep weight off. It can even influence our shape, with research suggesting it can lead to more abdominal fat. Chronic stress can also make us look for immediate comfort in foods. On the other hand, some people find that they have a decreased appetite when stressed, as adrenaline levels – and sometimes the depression that can go hand-in-hand with chronic stress – affects appetite.

Skin Even our skin responds to stress, with inflammation and worsening of skin conditions like acne, eczema and psoriasis.

Headaches The release of stress hormones can cause changes in the blood vessels around the brain, causing tension headaches and migraines.

Hormonal imbalance Long-term stress can impact hormonal balance and reproductive cycles and - especially for women – can disrupt periods and make us more affected by the mood and emotional changes throughout the cycle. Stress and related conditions can also affect sex drive and even fertility.

Stress and mental health

Chronic stress is incredibly closely linked with our risk of serious mental health conditions, and chronic stress, anxiety, and depression are closely related. Over time, chronic stress can make you more susceptible to mental and emotional illness. Some people find coping strategies that can actually make us more unwell – smoking and drinking alcohol are common ways people try to handle stress.

‘Finding healthy coping strategies for stress isn’t always easy, but it’s really important,’ says Dr McClymont. ‘Exercise, mindfulness and talking therapies are excellent ways of dealing with stress. If you find yourself turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms like alcohol or smoking, then be open about this with a doctor.’

How to reduce stress levels

Some of the stressors in our lives are things that we can take some practical control over – some of them are not. When we can’t take away the thing that’s causing us stress, we need to find ways of responding to that stress without becoming unwell. Some good ways to reduce stress can include:

Sleep well Getting enough sleep and sticking to regular hours can make a huge difference to how well we cope with everyday stress. Remember that stimulants like late-night screen time, alcohol, big meals and nicotine can stop us getting to sleep. Caffeine can still affect us around 6 hours after drinking it, so cut out the coffee early in the afternoon.

Stay in touch Even when you don’t feel like it, trying to maintain your social life is important. It might even help to talk to friends and family about what’s going on in your life, but if you’re not comfortable with that, just socialising with them can help you feel more positive.

Eat well One of the best things we can do for our physical and mental health is to eat a healthy diet. This means lots of fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, and lean proteins.

Meditate Breathing exercises and mindfulness techniques have become popular stress-management strategies over the last few years, and they’re supported by good clinical evidence.

Get outside Even a little bit of time outdoors can energise us, help us maintain a good sleep pattern, and improve our mental and physical health. Exercise is particularly good for stress relief.

Professional help Stress and related conditions are incredibly common, and there’s a lot of experienced professional advice available. Getting support from a GP can be the first step towards reducing stress.

‘Stress and its physical symptoms are a common reason people speak to their GP. If you’re struggling with stress there are options available for support, and it’s always okay to ask for help.’

If you’re concerned about your stress levels and the effect stress is having on your health, book a meeting with a Livi doctor.

Get expert advice and tips

Sign up to get the best of our health content delivered right to your inbox.