Physical Effects of Stress

We Can Identify the Problem Timely

A number of physical effects of stress can help us to identify and timely address the problem. Making a correct diagnosis is key to overcome stress.

Watch out for the symptoms of stress – once you have identified how your body physically reacts to stress you can put in action a strategy of how to deal with stress

Physical Effects of Stress Summary

Hot and cold waves
Bad mood
Inability to focus
Low self esteem
Sense of vomiting
Speeded heartbeat
Being worried
Body Aches

Natural Physical Response to Stress

When you are threatened — a car is about to hit you or a large dog barks at you — your hypothalamus which is a small region at the base of your brain triggers an unconscious physical reaction of your body.

Your brain literally makes your adrenal glands, located atop of the kidneys, to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline makes your heart beat faster, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies to the muscles. Cortisol, also called the primary stress hormone, increases sugars in the bloodstream, enhances your brain's use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues.

Unfortunately cortisol also suppresses some of the vital body functions which are not so much needed while trying to find a way out of the threatening situation. For instance you do not need too much of a digesting effort while a dog barks at you. You better have your muscles ready to run fast or climb on a tree.

This suppression of vital processes, although necessary to avoid the threatening situation, may be serious threat itself, if maintained in the long run, causing numerous health problems. For instance if the body is constantly under stress and the stress hormone levels constantly deter normal brain functions impacting hunger, fear or mood, eventually the result may be serious health conditions such as depression, anxiety, extreme weight loss or gain or sleeping problems.

Physical Effects of Stress on the Internal Organs


Heart disease is a leading killer world-wide. Although a direct link between stress and heart disease has not been proven, stress causes a number of physical reactions directly related to the heart. Namely, speeded up heart rate and increased blood pressure. High blood pressure can damage blood vessels and negatively affect the heart in the long run.

It is estimated that in a stressful situation the human blood flow increases by 300 to 400 percent.

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We discussed already that when under stress the human body produces cortisol. The increased cortisol and epinephrine levels make the liver produce more glucose which is a blood sugar that would give you the necessary energy to deal with an emergency. For most healthy people the released extra energy can be quickly reabsorbed by the body if not used, however, for some who are predisposed to type 2 diabetes the chronic stress can unlock it.


One of the most impacted internal organs when under constant stress are the kidneys. Firstly the adrenal glands are atop of the kidneys and their functions are very closely connected. In stressful situations the adrenal glands hormones are at a high demand.

For most people stress causes fear and the organs associated with fear are kidneys. They must absorb the shocks of the surrounding environment and provide the necessary energies to find out solutions. Constant stress exhausts the kidney energy quite fast resulting in impaired kidney functions and emotional instability. Physical conditions such as chronic low back pain, panic attacks and diabetes are associated with weak kidneys.

Increased blood pressure and high blood sugar levels can put strain on the kidney functions. As we said in the heart and liver sections some of the direct effects of stress are increased blood pressure and high blood sugar levels. People with high blood pressure are more prone to diabetes.


Proper lungs functioning in a stressful situation ensures the necessary oxygen is available to the body. When under stress more oxygen is delivered to the cells through an increased heart rate and blood flow.


The role of spleen in managing stress is very often underestimated. This is primarily due to the research and studies of Western medicine where the role of spleen is limited to red blood cells filtering. It is even believed that since people can exist without a spleen then it is not even required but an optional organ. Clinical studies linking the role of spleen in dealing with stress and stress impacts on this organ do not exist.

However, per traditional Chinese medicine concepts the spleen has a very important role in processing the food and converting it into blood and energy. In addition it has a central role to play in dealing with worries. It is easier now to see that since stress is very much associated with worries and constant worries often result in anxiety, spleen has a central role in dealing with some of the most frequent effects of stress. Constant worries distort the spleen function resulting in overall fatigue and lack of vitality. The physical manifestation of an impaired spleen function is its larger size.


When you experience a sudden shock the brain releases the protein neuropeptide S which keeps you alert. The brain also suppresses short-term memory, concentration, sensitivity, and the ability to think logically. All this is with the ultimate purpose to help you respond quickly to the crisis.


Stress can cause a number of negative effects in your intestines such as diarrhea, constipation, decreased nutrients absorption, decreased oxygenation, impaired blood flow resulting in ineffective metabolism, decreased enzymatic output, alterations in gastrointestinal motility, negative effects on intestinal microflora

Beware! Stress can be Slow

Stress may accumulate slowly so it may be difficult to notice it and if not relieved it may seriously affect your overall health.

For instance usual daily routines such as driving might turn out to be constant sources of stress, which slowly and persistently affect our physical and emotional state.

Thus stress accumulates day by day and the physical effects of stress may show up unnoticed by you.

Physical Effects of Stress on the Internal Systems

The American Psychological Association have summarized the most common physical effects of stress on the internal systems of human's body.

Nervous System

When stress physically or psychologically the body suddenly shifts its energy resources to fighting off the perceived threat. In what is known as fight or flight response, the sympathetic nervous system signals the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol.

These hormones make the heart beat faster, raise blood pressure, change the digestive process and boost glucose levels in the bloodstream. Once the crisis passes the systems usually return to normal

Musculoskeletal System

Under stress muscles tense up. The contraction of muscles for extended periods can trigger tension headaches, migraines and various musculoskeletal conditions.

Respiratory System

Stress can make you breathe harder and cause rapid breathing, which can bring on panic attacks in some people.

Cardiovascular System

Acute stress – stress that is momentary, such as being stuck in the traffic – cause an increase in heart rate and stronger contractions of the heart muscle. Blood vessels that direct blood to the large muscles and to the heart dilate, increasing the amount of blood pumped to these parts of the body. Repeated episodes of stress can cause inflammation in the coronary arteries, thought to lead to heart attack.

Endocrine System

Adrenal glands
When the body is stressed the brain sends signals from the hypothalamus, causing the adrenal complex to produce cortisiol and the adrenal modulla to produce epinerphine – sometimes called “stress hormones”

Gastrointestinal System

Stress may prompt you to eat more or much less than you usually do. If you eat more or different foods or increase your use of tobacco or alcohol you may experience heartburn or acid reflux.

Your stomach may react with “butterflies” or even nausea or pain. You can vomit if the stress is severe enough.

Stress can affect digestion and which nutrients your intestines absorb. It can also affect how quickly the food moves through your body. You may find that you have diarrhea or constipation.

Reproductive System

In men excess levels of cortisol, produced under stress, can affect the normal functioning of the reproductive system. Chronic stress can impair testosterone and sperm production and cause impotence.

In women stress cause absent or irregular menstrual cycles or more painful periods. It can also reduce sexual desire.

Immune system

The immune system is the internal system which is designed to protect us from any external bodies (viruses or bacteria). It costs a lot to the body meaning that it has very high energy usage.

Under stress your body needs energy to run or fight! This is why it changes its chemistry to suppress the immune system. This is why we usually get ill before or after exams or big challenges at work. Check some more details regarding the impact stress has on your immune sytem.

SOURCE: American Psychological Association

Other Physical Effects of Stress

Let’s now have a look at some of the most frequent physical effects of stress:

  • Aggression
    This is an emotional state of anger towards you, another person or sometimes towards the whole world. Usually you can assess this state as wrong but you can not stop it. It is stronger than you and keeps manifesting day after day.
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  • Apathy
    This is a feeling that you don’t care about anything and you don’t want to do anything. The apathetic person is not interested in the events around or in the future and can not do anything to protect themselves in case of a danger.
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  • Guilt
    This is a feeling which comes when we have already done or want to do something which we classify as wrong. Often the thought which results in guilt might be unconscious such as: “If I was more careful I would be so rude to Jim this morning”.
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  • Numbness
    Sometimes as a result of stress you can not feel anything in a particular part of your body – legs, arms… They just do not obey to your orders.
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  • Headaches
    Headaches might be caused by different reasons, one of them being chronic overwork and stress. In addition tensions and deep disappointments can also result in stress and terrible headaches. Find out more about stress headaches and how to deal with them.
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  • Hot and Cold Waves
    This is a feeling of hot or cold in turns irrelevant of what the temperature of the air is. First you feel hot and immediately afterwards cold.
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  • Depression
    Depression is a state in which you are sad and feel that you can not enjoy anything because your situation is so difficult and unpleasant. Present and future look so dark and obscure resulting in suspicions and fears suppressing the pleasure from the usual simple things.
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  • Diarrhea
    The state of guts is painful and often causes diarrhea as a result of stress. The guts can not be controlled and this happens with no obvious reason.
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  • Sweating
    Pumping sweat for no reason even if it is cold. The sweating is not caused by extensive physical work. It starts from palms and armpits and can show up on face and the whole body.
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  • Tingle
    You have a slight stinging feeling in the arms, fingers, legs or toes. Sometimes the feeling is like you have thousands of needles stuck in your legs…
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  • Nightmares
    Those are the bad dreams you often have. Some people dream exactly the same dream many times, which might result in states of chronic fears and depression.
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  • Bad mood
    Bad mood and lack of mood at all are the slighter forms of apathy and depression. They are not so unpleasant and usually manifest as unwillingness to talk and share or indifference towards any undertakings of the team.
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  • Tension
    This is the feeling coming with the strong will to do something even if it is not so clear what exactly. It comes because you are ready to do something but at this very moment you either can not or do not have the resources needed.
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  • Inability to focus
    This feeling is similar to forgetting facts for short period of time. You know that something has just gone through your mind but can not recollect it. It is there but you can not use it immediately… Or you listen to somebody and until he finishes his sentence you have already forgotten the beginning.
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  • Low self esteem
    This is the feeling that you are good for nothing and can not do anything of true value. All others look better to you and more skillful to do their job.
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  • A sense of vomiting
    You constantly want to vomit and often do not want to eat. Sometimes you just have the feeling that you will vomit straight away.
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  • Irritability
    You are easily annoyed and feel irritated by everything and by everybody. You think that everything you are told is wrong and think how come the person in front of you is so blind to not see it?!
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  • Disappointment
    It is the state of feeling rather sad because something has not happened or something is not as good as you hoped. Disappointment comes also when you have been denied something you want or need. It may come when you just feel helpless to do anything.
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  • Loneliness
    This is the unhappiness because you do not have any friends or do not have anyone to talk to. It is the feeling that you are isolated by your relatives, friends and colleagues. Often you feel that nobody cares about or understands your problems and worries.
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  • Speeded heartbeat
    You feel that your heart will break. With no reason your heart just beats so fast and hard that you feel something will happen to it. It is not necessary to have a particular threat.
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  • Being worried
    You keep thinking about problems of yours or about problems that might happen; you feel scared with no specific or direct threat. When you are worried you are also anxious, tensed, irascible; you can not focus, feel unhappy, can not sleep or have nightmares.
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  • Tiredness
    If you feel tired, you want to rest or sleep. Tiredness is natural consequence of long working hours or conflicts and is one of the most common physical effects of stress. If tiredness becomes chronic it is a sure signal that our body can not restore effectively from stress.
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  • Other
    Other usual physical effects of stress are aches and pains allover the body. Starting with backache, neck ache, stiff neck, muscle ache and ending with tight shoulders, chest pain, upset stomach, constipation the result is always the same – total discomfort and inability to focus even after persistent attempts for relaxation. The lack of focus dooms to failure any task we initiate.

Most of those are normal reactions of ours to changes in the surrounding environment. They become indicative physical effects of stress if they manifest persistently in the course of time and we can not restore completely to our normal physical condition.

Known Illnesses

physical effects of stress

It is believed that more than 50% of all visits to doctors are initially caused by stress.

Many health care professionals consider stress as one of the fundamental reasons for illnesses such as cancer and heart attack.

Others have already proved that humans under stress are more vulnerable and not resistant to trivial diseases such as simple flu.

Numerous couples all around the world and especially Europe and USA are struggling in having their own babies because of stress.

More than 60% of all men on this planet suffer the pains of inflamed hemorrhoids the main reasons for which are the work under pressure and the inability of meeting numerous tight deadlines.

Actions Against the Physical Effects of Stress

It is all about you!

The fight against the physical effects of stress starts from realizing the real problem. And the real problem is that stress exhausts your body on a daily basis. This means that urgent counter actions on your behalf are necessary - on a daily basis as well.

Have a look at the 3 SIMPLE STEPS strategy to manage stress which helps you blend in your daily round the effective actions which will reduce stress levels and will make the physical effects of stress disappear.

The good news is that more and more employers realize that productivity of their employees is closely related to the levels of stress they experience on a daily basis. Thus they start to be more and more interested in the ways to reduce stress levels at the work place and in this way limit as much as possible any physical effects of stress.

For instance some American companies report reduced paid leave after the implementation of stress relief areas in the company where employees can rest in calm for a couple of minutes during the day.

Adding gyms and other leisure activity areas or just organizing stress management seminars can also contribute to the overall reduction of stress levels experienced by employees.

Try Tiger balm. It really helps relieving most of the physical effects of stress.


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