Everyone knows that stress is harmful, but not everyone knows how it can negatively impact a person’s physical, mental and behavioral health.

Stress is a powerful force with the ability to produce a range of effects. In small doses, stress can provide a mild performance boost as it allows people to focus and achieve better results in work, school or athletic endeavors.

Unfortunately, the negative effects of stress outweigh small or infrequent performance enhancements. As stress increases over time, many people experience the harmful impact of stress on health.

Physical Effects of Stress

Although stress is commonly seen as a mental health issue, the physical effects of stress on the body are significant. Some physiological effects of stress include:

  • Body aches: Stress makes your body tense and tight. In time, this stiffness can trigger muscle aches and pains throughout the body. 
  • Headaches and migraines: Tension in the body caused by stress can result in headaches as well as migraines. 
  • Cardiac issues: High stress causes heart rate and blood pressure to increase. In the short-term, these effects are not problematic, but they can build towards long-term problems. 
  • Stomach problems: Feeling of stress can create general stomach discomfort, diarrhea and even vomiting.
  • Weight gain: When someone is stressed, the body releases the hormone cortisol, known to increase appetite and store more fat.
  • Reproductive issues for women: Women with low-stress levels report fewer issues becoming pregnant than women with high stress levels.

The physical health effects of stress are individualized, so someone could have all of these symptoms while another person could have only one. No matter the case, the short-term effects of stress on physical health can severely impact someone’s well-being.

Emotional Effects of Stress

Either directly or indirectly, stress imposes unwanted emotional symptoms. The mental effects of stress can create new psychological symptoms, or they can make preexisting symptoms much worse.

When people have high stress, they tend to funnel these feelings toward either sadness or worry. The emotional effects of stress will eventually grow into a full depressive or anxiety disorder unless the person seeks assistance and takes action.

With depression, a person can experience intense sadness that continues for most of the day. Their mood may be low and easily triggered, so even a TV commercial could elicit a tearful response.

With anxiety, the person will worry excessively about the people and situations in their life. In some cases, the worry will grow into extreme forms of anxiety, such as panic attacks or phobias.

Anxiety and depression are linked to high stress, but people who experience regular stress can also feel many other mental health effects, like:

  • Anger and irritability: These people may develop anger problems or build resent towards self or others
  • Restlessness: High stress can make someone feel uncomfortable in their own skin or impatient
  • Poor focus: Mental health issues like depression, anxiety and attention-deficit  hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) all involve poor attention, which can also result from stress

Behavioral Effects of Stress

The unwanted impact of stress seems to spread over all aspects of life. Stress can impact someone’s physical health and mental health, so it only makes sense that it can also modify their behaviors.

The behavioral effects of stress include:

  • Weight loss or gain: Stress can make someone overeat and cause the body to store more fat, but it can also cause depression, which may lead to weight loss.
  • Sleep and energy changes: Stress tends to impact energy and motivation. People with high stress could find themselves napping during the day, exercising less and feeling fatigued.
  • Social problems: High stress affects the way people interact with each other. With increased rates of anger, irritability and sadness, a person could experience frequent conflicts. Alternatively, some may isolate and avoid people entirely.

The behavioral signs of stress are damaging, but at times, the coping strategies people use to feel better are even worse. People with high stress often turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to deal with stress. Because of this link, someone may start to use or increase the use of substances, which could result in new stressors. 

Long-Term Effects of Stress on Health

The short-term effects of stress can be harmful, and the long-term effects of stress are even worse. With time, the intensity and frequency of health-related problems tend to increase. For example, short-term stress leads to cardiovascular issues like increased heart rate and blood pressure. In the long-term, the body becomes less resilient, and more serious concerns like stroke or heart attack could occur.

Many other short-term effects of stress on health build toward more hazardous long-term effects, like:

  • Weight gain leading to obesity
  • Stomach issues resulting in irritable bowel syndrome
  • Mental health symptoms growing into persistent psychological conditions

Additionally, women with long-term stress report more concerns with their menstrual cycles. They may have worse PMS symptoms or sporadic and irregular periods. Sexual health issues in both sexes can also arise because of stress. People with high stress are less interested in sex and find it more challenging to become aroused. 

Effectively Managing Stress

Since people cannot stop all stress from entering their lives, effective stress management techniques are essential. With stress management, a person can identify and resolve the stressors before the mental, physical and behavioral effects have a chance to set in.

Some of the best stress management techniques are overlooked as being overly simple, but these basic principles can be quite effective. To begin, a person should focus on promoting good physical health through improved sleep, diet and exercise. Addressing these facets of life when stress is high can be challenging, so start slowly to create consistency and build better habits.

From there, a person can move into mental health stress relievers, like practicing healthier self-talk, journaling and devoting extra time to self-care. Stress can diminish self-esteem, so self-care is important to mental wellness.

Be sure to avoid negative coping skills when possible. Drinking or using drugs may seem like a way to reduce stress, but people frequently go overboard and abuse these substances. Substance abuse is an unhealthy coping skill that can hinder the use of other coping skills.

Anyone struggling with the effects of stress or negative coping skills should consider professional treatment. Dual diagnosis programs at The Recovery Village can address co-occurring stress disorders and substance abuse. Reach out to a representative today for more information.

Megan Hull
Editor – Megan Hull
Megan Hull is a content specialist who edits, writes and ideates content to help people find recovery. Read more
Eric Patterson
Medically Reviewed By – Eric Patterson, LPC
Eric Patterson is a licensed professional counselor in the Pittsburgh area who is dedicated to helping children, adults, and families meet their treatment goals. Read more

Office on Women’s Health. “Stress and Your Health.” Accessed August 24, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.