How stress affects your health and wellbeing

Stress is something most people face at some time in their lives, and it’s estimated that three-quarters of all adults have felt so stressed that they feel overwhelmed.

The body is able to handle stress in small doses from time to time, but ongoing, chronic (long-term) stress can cause a number of health conditions, including high blood pressure, headaches, stroke, infertility and heart disease.

What is stress?

Stress is how your body responds to pressure. It can cause physical, mental and emotional reactions. It’s a normal part of life and in small doses can help you cope with difficult situations as it primes your body to deal with an emergency, making you more alert, focused and responsive in demanding situations.

How does stress affect your body?

When you feel stressed, your hypothalamus (the part of your brain that controls the release of hormones from your pituitary gland) triggers the release of stress hormones that cause your fight, flight or freeze response.

It’s a mechanism designed to keep you safe, as it prepares you for action by increasing your heart and breathing rates. However, if your body is firing up a stress response too frequently, it can have a negative impact on the various systems your body relies on for normal functioning.

Stress and your musculoskeletal system

Your musculoskeletal system includes your muscles, bones, joints, tendons and ligaments. They work together to help your body move but also to maintain its structure and stability.

When you feel stressed, your muscles tense and put pressure on your musculoskeletal system. Spending too much time in this state of tension can lead to painful conditions eg too much tension in your shoulders and back can cause headaches and migraines.

Stress and your respiratory system

Your respiratory system is responsible for delivering oxygen to your cells and removing carbon dioxide from your body.

Stress can cause the airway between your nose and your lungs to constrict, causing laboured or rapid breathing. In most people, this causes nothing more than slight discomfort. However, if you have a respiratory disease such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), it can worsen your symptoms.

Stress and your cardiovascular system

Your cardiovascular system pumps blood around your body, delivering oxygen and nutrients to your cells. It’s made up of your heart and your blood vessels.

When you feel stressed, your heart rate increases and your heart’s contractions grow stronger. The blood vessels that supply your larger muscles widen (dilate) to allow more blood to be pumped to certain areas of your body, and your blood pressure increases.

Consistent and frequent bouts of stress can cause damage to your heart and blood vessels. It can increase your chances of developing hypertension (high blood pressure) and heart disease and having a stroke.

Stress and your endocrine system

Your endocrine system consists of glands — including your pituitary gland — that produce and release hormones. These hormones control a range of functions in your body, such as breathing, reproduction and metabolism.

When you feel stressed, your pituitary gland produces cortisol, sometimes known as the stress hormone. Cortisol increases the amount of energy you have available to you in three ways: 

  • By improving your brain’s use of glucose (sugar)
  • By increasing glucose levels in your bloodstream
  • By mobilising fatty acids stored in your liver 

This helps you feel more energised and alert — exactly what’s needed in a stressful situation.

However, a consistently high level of cortisol in your body can affect some of your body’s core functions. Symptoms of too much cortisol can include:

  • Depression and difficulty concentrating
  • Diabetes
  • Digestive difficulties and/or weight gain
  • Heart disease
  • Migraines or headaches and poor memory
  • Poor sleep
Man struggles to fall asleep

Stress and the male reproductive system

In men, in particular, increased levels of cortisol and stress can impact the reproductive system.

Chronic stress can reduce the production of the sex hormone testosterone, affecting your sex drive and sometimes leading to erectile dysfunction or impotence. 

Stress can also cause low fertility by negatively affecting sperm production and quality. Motility (the sperm’s ability to swim) and morphology (the size and shape of the sperm) can both be affected.

Stress and your immune system

Your immune system is responsible for fighting off infections in your body.

If you’re experiencing frequent stress, your body is almost constantly in alert mode. With an overproduction of stress hormones, your body’s immune system isn’t able to respond in a normal way to infections, such as a common cold virus.

Tips on avoiding stress

Acute stress ie a one-off stressful situation, such as having to slam on your car brakes while driving, causes a quick-fire stress response in your body. This isn’t likely to result in any long-term damage.

Chronic stress, on the other hand, does have the potential to cause long-term problems. This is because your body is persistently activating its stress response. It’s therefore important to find approaches to help you manage stress in your life.

Effective approaches include:

  • Avoiding drinking too much alcohol and caffeine and stopping smoking
  • Getting plenty of sleep
  • Making time for friendships, family and hobbies
  • Practising techniques that help you relax, such as mindfulness, yoga, meditation and deep breathing
  • Taking regular exercise
  • Trying to view situations with a sense of humour, where possible, and trying to find perspective to see beyond the immediate source of stress

If you’re experiencing stress, take the time to put in place some strategies for managing it. In the short term, it will help you feel better, and in the long term, it will minimise your chances of developing a number of stress-related health problems, some of which could potentially go on to become life-threatening conditions.

We hope you've found this article useful, however, it cannot be a substitute for a consultation with a specialist

If you're concerned about symptoms you're experiencing or require further information on the subject, talk to a GP or see an expert consultant at your local Spire hospital.

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Author Information

Cahoot Care Marketing

Niched in the care sector, Cahoot Care Marketing offers a full range of marketing services for care businesses including: SEO, social media, websites and video marketing, specialising in copywriting and content marketing.

Over the last five years Cahoot Care Marketing has built an experienced team of writers and editors, with broad and deep expertise on a range of care topics. They provide a responsive, efficient and comprehensive service, ensuring content is on brand and in line with relevant medical guidelines.

Their writers and editors include care sector workers, healthcare copywriting specialists and NHS trainers, who thoroughly research all topics using reputable sources including the NHS, NICE, relevant Royal Colleges and medical associations.

The Spire Content Hub project was managed by:

Lux Fatimathas, Editor and Project Manager

Lux has a BSc(Hons) in Neuroscience from UCL, a PhD in Cellular and Molecular Biology from the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology and experience as a postdoctoral researcher in developmental biology. She has a clear and extensive understanding of the biological and medical sciences. Having worked in scientific publishing for BioMed Central and as a writer for the UK’s Medical Research Council and the National University of Singapore, she is able to clearly communicate complex concepts.

Catriona Shaw, Lead Editor

Catriona has an English degree from the University of Southampton and more than 12 years’ experience copy editing across a range of complex topics. She works with a diverse team of writers to create clear and compelling copy to educate and inform.

Alfie Jones, Director — Cahoot Care Marketing

Alfie has a creative writing degree from UCF and initially worked as a carer before supporting his family’s care training business with copywriting and general marketing. He has worked in content marketing and the care sector for over 10 years and overseen a diverse range of care content projects, building a strong team of specialist writers and marketing creatives after founding Cahoot in 2016.