The Physical Effects of Stress on the Body and How to Cope with Stress

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A person sits on a mat meditating to relieve the physical effects of stress on the body.Stress has become a leading national health concern. In the United States, 74% of adults experienced negative impacts of stress within a 30-day period, such as headaches, fatigue, and sleeping disturbances, according to the 2021 edition of the American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America survey. The survey also indicated that 59% of U.S. adults experienced stress-induced behavioral changes within a 30-day period. These changes included avoidance of social situations, neglecting responsibilities, and stress eating.

Left untreated, the side effects associated with chronic stress can become severe, leading to unhealthy coping habits, mental health disorders, or the development of other chronic conditions, such as heart disease or diabetes.

To combat the very real physical effects of stress on the body and the mind, experts recommend several lifestyle changes to reduce the symptoms of chronic stress.

What Is Stress?

The National Institute of Mental Health defines stress as “the physical or mental response to an external cause.” A number of events — positive and negative, real and perceived — can trigger stress.

Changes that trigger stress can be mild, such as riding a rollercoaster, competing for a promotion at work, or watching a scary movie. Major changes can include an unexpected loss, a wedding or divorce, or exposure to physical harm.

The National Institutes of Health indicate three main types of stress, each carrying varying risks to physical or mental health.

  1. Routine stress that comes with the pressures of day-to-day life, such as work and family obligations
  2. Stress brought about by an unexpected change outside of normal routines, such as divorce, financial issues, or a sudden change in employment status
  3. Traumatic stress occurs in conjunction with a life-altering event, such as a natural disaster, terrorist attack, or assault

It is important to recognize the risk factors that can cause negative stressors because, if left unchecked, stress can inflict serious wear and tear on our bodies and minds.

How Does Stress Impact the Body?

Not all stress is bad. In fact, many of the responses to stress, such as quickened heartbeat, increased breath intake, and heightened brain function, are all responses to help a person survive a dangerous situation. Some stressors can even be positive and motivate a person to be successful at work or achieve a hard-to-reach goal.

In some cases, stress can vary by person. For example, someone who thrives in public-speaking situations may experience positive stress prior to getting in front of a crowd. A person who dislikes public speaking, on the other hand, may interpret this type of stress negatively.

The impacts of chronic stress, however, are much more severe, as those sometimes life-saving responses to stressors have an impact on other systems. For example, when faced with periods of chronic stress, the body’s immune system function is lowered, and the digestive, excretory, and reproductive systems no longer function the way they should.

These problems typically subside once our body suspects that the threat has passed, but if the source of stress is constant, several physical and mental health issues can manifest.

Consequences of Stress

The body responds to each of the three types of stress in similar ways, but this response manifests itself in each person differently. Chronic stress can produce physical, mental, and behavioral symptoms.

Common physical symptoms include:

  • Headaches
  • Upset stomach
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle tension
  • Increase in infections or illnesses

Common mental symptoms include:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Disorganized thoughts
  • Anxiety
  • Low self-esteem

Common behavioral symptoms include:

  • Change in appetite
  • Change in sex drive
  • Anger or irritability
  • Difficulty sleeping

Left untreated, chronic stress can also exacerbate the symptoms of other chronic conditions. Physical conditions that chronic stress can affect include:

  • Heart disease
  • Respiratory issues, such as asthma and respiratory infections
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Gastrointestinal disorders
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Obesity
  • Skin irritation
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Weakened immune system

Mental conditions that chronic stress can affect include:

  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Burnout
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Schizophrenia

The consequences of chronic stress can extend to strained relationships, decreased work performance, and other peripheral issues. Stress can generate a vicious cycle. For example, someone chronically stressed as a direct result of a problematic work environment may be particularly at risk for reduced work performance, which can create stress.

How to Cope with Stress

The effects of stress often manifest themselves over a long period of time. Adopting active and practical approaches to manage and cope with stress is an important practice for everyone.

For instance, people can cope with stress by taking proper care of their bodies. This includes being mindful of what they put into their bodies — developing healthy eating and drinking habits and avoiding tobacco use. Proactive care of our bodies also involves scheduling time for routine exercise, plentiful sleep, and practicing breathing exercises or meditation when needed.

Another key tactic to cope with stress is to unplug. For example, engaging in enjoyable activities to help unwind can be a big help. It can even be combined with other stress coping mechanisms, such as going for a bike ride or a hike. It is also important to take breaks from the news, a practice that can include stepping away from social media on occasion.

Additionally, it’s important to reach out to others as a coping strategy. This step can take many forms. It could be as simple as reaching out to a friend. It could also entail reaching out to a counselor, doctor, or member of the clergy. An alternative option would be to seek out a community-based support group, particularly a group that focuses on a specific stressor.

Help Others Make a Positive Change

Stress is a normal part of our day-to-day lives, and a number of situations can trigger responses. Although not all forms of stress are bad, prolonged exposure to stressors can lead to physical and mental health issues and exacerbate chronic conditions.

Fortunately, people can take specific actions to better manage their symptoms. Every person experiences stress to varying degrees. Implementing a self-care routine is important when combating the physical effects of stress. Because these routines can be individualized, it’s important for advanced-practice nurses to be able to assess day-to-day and chronic stressors and help patients deal with them. Their work can help prevent stress from spiraling out of control and causing a long-term negative effect on a person’s life.

Ohio University’s online Master of Science in Nursing program can help you become fully prepared to provide the level of care required to help patients manage stress. Our comprehensive curriculum is designed to help you gain the expertise needed to not only recognize the signs of stress but build stress coping strategies with confidence. Learn how we can help you advance your education and move your career forward.

Recommended Reading

Evidence-Based Nursing: Focus Areas and Tips

Healthy Exercise and Nutrition Guide for Nurses

Signs of Nicotine Addiction: Definition, Statistics, and Resources to Quit


The American Institute of Stress, Workplace Stress

American Psychological Association, “Stress and Decision-Making During the Pandemic”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Coping with Stress

Healthline, “Everything You Need to Know About Stress”

Medical News Today, “What Is Chronic Stress and What Are Its Common Health Impacts?”

National Institute of Mental Health, 5 Things You Should Know About Stress

National Institute of Mental Health, I’m So Stressed Out! Fact Sheet

VeryWell Mind, “What Is Chronic Stress?”