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Blog>Guides>Stress Symptoms: Physical Effects of Stress on the Body

Stress Symptoms: Physical Effects of Stress on the Body

Article index


  • What is stress and how does it affect the body?

  • Can stress affect my work?

  • How can I stop stress?

Introduction to the Physical Effects of Stress

Whether it’s a taxing life event or your workplace that has you feeling uptight, stress affects every one of us and can spring a lot of uncomfortable, weird, and downright frightening effects on our bodies. As much as we may try, stress tends to be unavoidable — and is even found to be beneficial in small amounts. However, too much stress can quickly take a negative turn, manifesting into a whirl of emotional symptoms that may end up affecting your physical health.

Feelings of stress in today’s fast-paced world are commonplace, especially in the workforce. High-stress professions, including some you might not expect, can bring on a variety of stressors. To stay healthy and ready for life’s challenges, it's important to recognize stressors and create a plan to manage the day-to-day stress in our lives.

What Is Stress?

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines stress as the body and mind’s response to external or internal stressors — i.e. how the changes within your body’s systems influence the way you behave and feel. By design, this stress response serves to protect you and set your body into action. The problem is, these mind-body changes can set off a variety of unpleasant physical symptoms. Think you’re the only one that gets queasy at the mere thought of public speaking? You’re not alone. The uncomfortable physical sensations of stress have afflicted humankind across eons of evolutionary time.

Physical Symptoms of Stress on the Body

As mentioned earlier, stress can make you queasy and want to run from the room. Whether it’s butterflies before a presentation, tension in your shoulders from too many tasks on your plate, or a racing heart while trying to hit a deadline, you’ve likely experienced some of the uncomfortable feelings that accompany stress.

For some, though, these physical sensations have become a large part of everyday life — to the point where they feel normal. It may come as a surprise to learn that stress is the culprit behind all these sensations.

Whether short-term or long-term ailments, the physical symptoms of stress share some commonalities.

The physical symptoms of stress on the body can show as the following:

  • Upset stomach. Stress can wreak havoc on the digestive system and cause a host of uncomfortable issues, such as heartburn, constipation, or Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).

  • Panic attacks. Researchers link elevated levels of the stress hormones cortisol and norepinephrine to unexpected panic attacks — and even cardiovascular symptoms, such as increased heart rate and chest pain.

  • Shortness of breath. In fight or flight mode, the brain readies all the body systems against harm. With blood pumping harder and faster and muscles flexed ready for action, the breath quickens and can cause shortness of breath.

  • Decreased sex drive. A lowered libido can get you down, and you can likely blame it on cortisol and norepinephrine. High levels of these stress hormones can reduce sex drive, produce overwhelming feelings of fatigue, feed an overactive mind, and more.

  • Under or overeating. Stress can change eating habits. Depending on the person, stress may cause some people to ignore hunger cues and lose weight, while others crave comfort foods, leading to weight gain.

  • Increase of colds. Chronic stress can affect the immune system and leave you vulnerable to viruses like the common cold. Too much cortisol in the body reduces the number of white blood cells called lymphocytes that help fend off illness.

  • Muscle tension. You know how muscles flinch when startled? Our muscles tense up in response to stress as well. In short-term stressful situations, muscles ease and relax. However, chronic stress can lead to long-term muscle tension and cause tension headaches and migraines or pain in the lower back, neck, and shoulders.

Can Stress Have a Negative Impact on Work?

The short answer is yes. People under constant attack of stress can experience more sick days and lower job satisfaction.

The following are a few reasons why stress can negatively impact work.

  • Decreased focus

  • Poor time management

  • Unresolved work conflicts

  • Stress-related illness

  • Burnout

Common Causes of Stress

Stress can come at you from all directions. The following lists some common causes of stress in the workplace that may resonate with you.

  • Poor organization

  • Unsupportive management

  • Long hours

  • Unclear role

  • Monotonous work

  • Inadequate materials or resources

  • Job insecurity

  • Tense relationships with colleagues or management

How Can You Prevent Stress?

That’s the million dollar question, right? To protect your physical and mental health, it's important to recognize and manage stress levels. Some self-care tips for managing stress include taking care of yourself, seeking out social support, engaging in self-relaxation techniques, and taking breaks as needed.

Take Care of Yourself


Meeting our basic health needs can help reduce stress. When you feel the effects of stress taking over, take extra measures to make sure your needs are taken care of.

Make time for some exercise, get enough sleep, and eat a well-balanced diet. Try to limit too much junk food, caffeine, and alcoholic beverages. These simple tips can greatly improve how you feel and help you manage stress more effectively.

Seek Out Social Support


Reaching out to a good friend or family member can help lighten the mental load of stress, and studies show that social ties can provide a lot of other health benefits too, such as greater resilience, coping strategies, and improved resistance against disease. Our social interactions help us better survive in this crazy world, so social support is a nice aid in the battle against overwhelming stress.

Engage in Self-Relaxation


Stress creates a lot of tension in the body. Activating the body’s natural relaxation response can help bring you out of a persistent stressed state. This type of stress management includes a variety of techniques that can lower blood pressure and reduce your heart rate. Fortunately, these techniques require nothing but your attention and include meditation, yoga, tai chi, deep breathing, and visualization.

Take Breaks When Needed


If you’ve neglected taking breaks, you may think this extra time at work helps you get more done, but it's actually the opposite. Workers who take regular breaks experience more productivity, job satisfaction, better mental health and well-being, and less stress. When always on the go, people can get decision fatigue and lose the ability to conjure up creative ideas or out-of-the-box thinking.

Some ways to consider enhancing the way you currently take breaks include eating a healthy snack outside, hydrating with your favorite beverage, practicing some deep breathing exercises, or taking a brisk walk.

Prioritize and Organize


Life likes to throw us challenges. However, when stress gets really bad, it can feel like we’ve been strapped to the center of a large rotating dart board, while an endless procession of tasks are aimed at the bull’s eye. A plan can help get things rolling and keep you centered, breaking you out of this paralysis. Although not a foolproof way to escape stress, taking time to prioritize and organize can help you stay in control of the situation and feel less helpless.

When making a plan, create a realistic, balanced schedule that makes time for what’s important and avoids over-commitment. Consider setting the alarm a bit earlier to get you out the door sooner. Even an extra 10 minutes can reap rewards and minimize stress levels.

Take Action to Prioritize Your Well-Being

Say no to high blood pressure, tension headaches, and nervous system overload. Keep your sanity and health and discover the vast array of low-stress jobs on Joblist. Take our quiz and find the perfect match for your skills.

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