How Stress Affects the Body

Defining Mental Health

Mental health is psychological, emotional, social, and cognitive well-being. It includes how we think, feel, behave, cope with stressors, and relate to others. Perhaps more than any other pillar of whole-person health, your mental health is incredibly bio-individual. The way you think about and interact with the world around you is truly unique – and it will naturally shift as your circumstances and life experiences change

As with physical health, there are some mental “healthy basics” that will be beneficial to most people. These healthy basics include awareness, acceptance, and compassion. Another healthy basic is balancing mental rest with mental activity – giving your mind space to wander and refresh while offering plenty of engagement opportunities, like learning, socializing, or getting into a creative flow.

When many people think of mental health, they think of stress. In truth, stress is a key player in this pillar of whole-person health.

What Is Stress

Did you know that approximately 75% of adults have experienced at least one symptom of stress? On a basic level, stress is something that can cause tension – physical, mental, and/or emotional. A stressor is anything that causes you to feel that tension or the experience of stress.

Whether you realize it or not, what most people think of as stress starts as your body subconsciously reacting to something it perceives as “dangerous.” From an evolutionary standpoint, you’re hardwired to shift into the stress response when you sense danger. This is a result of the sympathetic nervous system being triggered to avoid things like lions, tigers, and bears. While this response can be lifesaving in the wilderness, it’s not very helpful in modern daily life.

Stress And Your Health

Stress starts in the body, often without your conscious awareness. While this physical stress response is protective, it can significantly impact your health over time.

Physiology of Stress

Physically, stress affects the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is the branch of the nervous system that regulates internal organs automatically – no effort from you required. It includes the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

Sympathetic Nervous System

Your sympathetic nervous system is the “fight or flight” part of the autonomic nervous system. It helps the body prepare to respond to a perceived threat and inhibits any nonessential functioning. This system is triggered when you experience stress and is known as the stress response.

Parasympathetic Nervous System

Your parasympathetic nervous system is the “rest and digest” part of the autonomic nervous system. It relaxes the body and helps it focus on post-stress recovery and maintenance of regulatory functions, like digestion and immunity.

Stress and the Physical Systems

Stress is a natural part of life. However, if your body is constantly triggered by stressors, it can have serious health implications. It’s important to understand not only how stress affects the sympathetic nervous system, but also how it can negatively affect all systems in the physical body.

Altered mood (including anger and depression), lack of energy, and sleep issues

Altered hormone function, which can lead to immune disorders, chronic fatigue, depression, weight gain, and diabetes

Hyperventilation (which can lead to panic attacks) and exacerbated symptoms of respiratory disorders, like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

Increased blood pressure and heart rate, higher cholesterol, and increased risk for heart attack

Increased vulnerability to infection and reduced ability to fight off and recover from illness

Disrupted hunger cues, stomach cramps, nausea, and acid reflux

Inhibition of the body’s primary sex hormone (gonadotropin), which can negatively affect ovulation, lower testosterone production, decrease fertility, and reduce libido

Aches and pains and chronic muscle tension, which can lead to headaches, compromised range of motion, and irregular breathing

Joint pain and decreased bone density, which can lead to osteoporosis over time