The physical side of stress

The physical side of stress

physical side of stress

We’re often told a number of physical symptoms are caused by stress. But how does this happen? What are our stressed bodies doing to cause these issues, and why?

It’s amazing how much we write off as ‘probably down to stress’. Headache? You’ve been under so much pressure. Nausea? Well, you’ve been going through a lot lately. Struggling to lose weight? Stress is definitely the culprit! And while it very well may be, the question is why, when we’re stressed, do our bodies go about making it worse by adding physical symptoms to the mix?


Stress is a trigger

In times of stress, your sympathetic nervous system prompts your acute stress response, usually referred to as ‘fight or flight’, causing your pupils to dilate, increasing blood flow to your muscles, inducing sweating, and raising your heart rate and arterial blood pressure. You’ll also experience a rush of chemicals and hormones that can affect
your body in a variety of ways:


During times of stress, hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are released. The purpose of this release is to provide a burst of strength and energy, as your body’s focus becomes the optimal functioning of your major muscle groups. Your system essentially re-routes energy from what it perceives to be ‘non-crucial’ functions, one of which is digestion. This slowing of your digestive system can result in a wide range of symptoms, including nausea and a ‘knot in the stomach’ feeling.

Weight gain 

Increased stress levels lead to increased cortisol, the main stress hormone made in your adrenal glands, which stimulates appetite while also signalling your body to retain calories. Cortisol can also result in higher insulin levels and a drop in blood sugar, causing you to crave fatty, sugary foods.

Initially, a rush of cortisol provides greater energy and increases your focus, which is why your system over-produces
it to help you deal with perceived danger – even if that ‘danger’ is actually just road rage or a bad day at work. Over time, your body stops feeling the positive aspects of cortisol and switches to the negative. Sustained high cortisol levels are linked to diabetes, increased belly fat and high blood pressure.


An estimated 80% of adults experience what are usually referred to as tension headaches, which are often brought on by stress. Under stress, the chemical changes in your brain occur quickly – this requires physical activity around
your brain, such as muscle contraction, which can be painful.

Stress can also lead to certain behaviours that induce headaches, such as disrupted sleep, poor eating habits and taking too much medication.

The production of stress hormones increases muscle tension and can make you more sensitive to pain, so you may also find yourself tensing your shoulder, neck and jaw muscles, which can cause a painful feeling of compression in your head.

Heart health 

Stress can trigger fatty fuels that are intended to be used up by your body during ‘fight or flight’. However, most modern stressful situations don’t actually require us to stay and fight or run away, which means the fatty fuels,
accompanied by stress hormones, go unused and can cause damage to the lining of your arteries and prevent
proper healing by thickening the lining. This could contribute to blockages in the arteries and heart disease.


A rush of hormones, like a stress-induced adrenaline surge, also stimulates the release of the waxy, oily substance, sebum. Your body produces sebum to provide moisture to your skin, but an increase can clog your pores and result in acne.

Irregular periods

Stress can suppress the proper functioning of the hypothalamus, an area of the brain near the pituitary gland, which releases hormones. Your thyroid, adrenal glands and ovaries all work together to manage your hormones, and a flood of stress hormones can be very disruptive to normal functioning. Disrupted ovary function can lead to problems with ovulation and producing oestrogen, which can result in irregular or missed periods.

Hair loss 

Adrenaline can be converted into cholesterol, which can, in turn, raise your testosterone levels. Excessive testosterone can have a negative impact on hair growth and cause hair loss, especially in women.

Coping with stress

It’s unlikely that any of us will be able to completely rid ourselves of stress. Modern living has so many stressful elements – just scrolling through the news or getting stuck in peak-time traffic can be enough to pull that stress trigger. But we can work on developing coping mechanisms and identifying areas of our lives where we can reduce stress. If you’re experiencing physical symptoms, it could be more important than ever to address your stress levels before your health is seriously affected.


Identify your stress triggers

Keep a journal to record what is triggering episodes or feelings of stress – perhaps you’re taking on too much at home, not taking enough breaks at work, or you’re feeling overwhelmed by responsibility. Once you’ve identified the major sources of your stress, ask for help – for instance, talk with your partner and kids about sharing the load, or be more mindful of doing the best you can at work while also taking care of yourself.

Talk about it 

Seeking help from a counsellor or life coach could be just what you need to help you put life into perspective and let you focus on self-care, turning stressful pressure into positive motivation.

Let yourself rest 

Stress is often linked to poor sleep, so make an effort to wind down and give yourself time to recharge each night. Try a guided meditation to help you fully relax into a deep, peaceful sleep.

Defend yourself against stress symptoms

Going through long periods of stress can grind you down, but there are some things you can do to fight back and minimise its physical effects:


Eat healthily 

A balanced diet that includes lots of fresh fruit and veggies can help you feel more energetic, positive and protect your immune system. It will also help you sleep better, which reduces stress, and keep your blood sugar stable.
Drinking plenty of water will also help with tension headaches and maintaining healthy, hydrated skin.

Exercise regularly 

Exercise reduces stress and helps build up your resilience against stress-induced symptoms such as fatty build-up in the arteries, and muscle tension. If possible, try getting outside for exercise when you can, as the fresh air and sunshine can reduce stress further.

Drink less alcohol 

A few drinks after a stressful day might seem like a good idea, but alcohol is a depressant and can make stress harder to cope with. It can also add to physical symptoms like nausea and headaches, making you feel even worse.

Don’t overwork yourself 

Try to leave work on time and don’t take on too much responsibility elsewhere that could mentally and physically exhaust you. Do your best, but do it while you’re at your best – make breaks and self-care a priority. Feeling weak
can lead to feeling completely overwhelmed and burnt out by stress, and make you more susceptible to feeling ill.


The advice contained here is strictly for informational Purposes. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, and Treatment. Always consult your GP or a doctor for specific information regarding your health.


About Caitlin Geng

Your Family’s Content Editor, and a real word nerd who loves reading and writing. She was recently married, in 2018, and is a ‘mom’ to two loveable pugs. Caitlin received 3rd place in the ‘Galliova Up and Coming Food/Health Writer of the Year’ category in 2019!


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