Whether it’s a short-term frustration like rush hour traffic or a major life event such as divorce or job loss, stress can negatively affect our bodies.
Stress is very personal. One person’s unpleasant experience can be another’s thrilling adventure (think rollercoaster). A little bit of stress is actually thought to be good for memory and motivation. However, about 70% of doctor visits and 80% of serious illnesses may be exacerbated or linked to stress.
Here are ten surprising ways that stress can affect the body. The good news is that there is much you can do—exercise, relaxation, and more—to reduce the impact of stress in your life.
- Cravings – Studies have linked cortisol, a hormone released during times of stress, to cravings for sugar and fat. Scientists believe the hormone binds to receptors in the brain that control food intake. And if you already have a high body mass index, you may be even more susceptible.
- Heart Conditions – The exact relationship between stress and heart attack is still unclear, but evidence is mounting that there is one. A recent study of 200,000 employees in Europe found that people who have stressful jobs and little decision-making power at work are 23% more likely to have a first heart attack than people with less job-related stress.
- Insomnia - Stress can cause hyperarousal, a biological state in which people just don’t feel tired. While major stressful events can cause insomnia that passes once the stress is over, long-term exposure to chronic stress can also disrupt sleep and contribute to sleep disorders.
- Headaches - “Fight or flight” chemicals like adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol can cause vascular changes that leave you with a tension headache or migraine, either during the stress or in the “let-down” period afterwards. Stress also makes your muscles tense, which can make the pain of a migraine worse.
- Blood Sugar – Stress is known to raise blood sugar, and if you already have type 2 diabetes you may find that your blood pressure is higher when you are under stress. One study of obese African American women without diabetes found that those who produced more stress-related epinephrine when asked to recall stressful life events had higher fasting glucose and bigger blood sugar spikes than those with lower epinephrine, suggesting it might raise your risk for getting diabetes too.
- Digestion - Heartburn, stomach cramping, and diarrhea can all be caused by or worsened by stress. In particular, irritable bowel syndrome or IBS (characterized by pain and bouts of constipation and diarrhea) is thought to be fueled in part by stress. However, stomach ulcers, once thought to be caused by stress, are triggered by H. pyloribacteria, which can be treated with antibiotics.
- Skin – Most acne sufferers already suspect this is true, and they seem to be right: Stress can give you zits. Research suggests that students with acne are more prone to outbreaks during exams compared to less stressful time periods. An increase of male hormones known as androgens could be a culprit, particularly in women. Stress can also trigger psoriasis to appear for the first time or make an existing case more severe.
- Back Pain – Stress can set off an acute attack of back pain as well as contribute to ongoing chronic pain, probably for the simple reason that the “fight or flight” response involves tensing your muscles so that you’re ready to spring into action. One recent study in Europe found that people who are prone to anxiety and negative thinking are more likely to develop back pain, while a U.S. study tied anger and mental distress to ongoing back pain.
- Stroke – A study of 20,000 people who had never had a stroke or heart disease found that stress was linked to an increased risk of stroke. In another recent study, healthy adults who had experienced a stressful life event within the past year were four times as likely to suffer a stroke than their less-stressed counterparts.
- Colds – People exposed to common cold viruses are less likely to fight off the germs successfully if they have ongoing psychological stress in their lives. Researchers believe stressed people’s immune cells may be less sensitive to a hormone that turns off inflammation, which could offer a clue to why stress can be correlated with more serious diseases as well.