Updated 05 July 2013

Stress and your body

What are the symptoms of stress? And how does it affect your body? We take a closer look.


The following are symptoms of the acute “flight-or-fight” stress reaction:

  • Fast beating, racing heart, often palpable
  • Blood pressure soars
  • Fast racing breath
  • Digestion slows down
  • Sweaty palms. Stress causes extreme heat in the body.
  • Dry mouth
  • Muscles tense
  • Blood clots faster
  • Glucose and fats pour into the blood to provide energy for all the action taking place inside the body
  • Rushing thoughts
  • Irrational fears and anxiety

Stress, disorders and disease:

Long-term and unmanaged stress can cause and exacerbate the following:
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Allergies, hives, hay fever
  • Asthma
  • Migraines
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Eczema
  • Psoriasis

Stress and your heart
Heart attack, high blood pressure, thickening of the arteries (atherosclerosis or plaque formation), thrombosis (formation of blood clots), stroke. Many medical doctors believe that occupational, relationship, financial or work related stress is the most important risk factor and cause for coronary heart disease and heart attacks, often starting with a silent elevation in blood pressure.

Go for regular physical check-ups – high blood pressure is a silent disease, as is early diabetes, high cholesterol and thickening of the arteries! It’s important to determine your day to day working blood pressure, not only the one that’s measured in the doctor’s room while you’re anticipating hell and damnation! However, the tendency for your blood pressure to rise might indicate a reactive narrowing of the blood vessels (arteries) when you experience situations that are stressful for you.

Stress and your skeleton
Backaches, headaches and muscle tension are very common and most people will suffer from one or more of these conditions during their lifetimes. Tension plays a major role in muscle spasm often associated with stress. Disorders of this kind are often related to chronic stress and the feeling of helplessness individuals experience when they feel unable to cope with the cause of their stress.

Environmental stressors such as pollution, poor working conditions, poor ergonomics (such as too low computer chairs leading to repetitive strain injury), noise combined with emotional factors, often lead to backaches, headaches and other musculoskeletal problems. This diminishes the efficacy and productivity in the workplace tremendously. The cost of backache alone in western countries comes to astronomical figures. Individuals suffering from these conditions (such as backache, tension headaches, migraine, muscle cramps, spasms, diminished flexibility and mobility of muscles and joints, susceptibility of injuries) often do not eat properly, they live a sedentary life and/or they abuse painkillers. This in turn makes them even less able to cope with stress.

Stress hormones also interfere with the body’s ability to build bone, resulting in bone loss, especially in women.

Stress and sexual problems
Impotence, premature ejaculation, lowered libido, frigidity, loss of self confidence, premenstrual tension and even infertility in men and women are associated with long-term unmanaged stress. These symptoms in turn exacerbate the stress. A well-balanced sex life is essential for our ability to manage sex and for our general health and well-being.

Stress also plays a major role in the individual’s experience of the transition periods of life: teenagers, menopause (male and female), retirement and old age.

Stress and chronic fatigue
Under optimal levels of stress we are productive, creative, communicative, enthusiastic and healthy. Once we pass the level of optimal performance, we enter the negative phase of stress with low efficiency, productivity, creativity and poor interpersonal relationships. These cumulative factors lead to mental and physical fatigue.

Mental fatigue, ironically, often drives us to do even more to achieve the same level of performance. This further depletes our reserves and resources, leading to a disruption in homeostasis, or internal balancing of endocrine, neurological and immune function. Physical and mental fatigue leads to more stress in a vicious circle often leading to “burn-out”.

Stress and obesity
Because of the secretion of cortisol in long-term stress, fat tends to accumulate around the abdomen and back. The fat is stored in anticipation of the coming famine. This is due to the stress signal of the basic survival of the human species response. Your body’s reaction to stress is the same as primitive man’s who was constantly involved in a fight for survival. Fat storage was and still is, great for survival during famines.

Stress, diabetes and insulin resistance
The adrenalin released during the stress reaction inhibits insulin, the major hormone whereby the body removes sugar from the blood. This is great when we have a physical response to a stressor or trigger that threatens our survival.

When we have chronic stress, without the physical outlet, as is mostly the case, sustained high sugar levels combined with high cortisol (the hormone secreted during long-term stress) levels and a susceptible individual, this might lead to diabetes in later life. Stress also exacerbates existing diabetes. Diabetes can, in turn, lead to other diseases, mostly cardiovascular disorders.

Stress and your skin
Research shows that 40% of skin disorders are associated with stress. Many doctors believe that it is much higher. Dermatitis and eczema are often the direct result of stress. Other skin disorders, such as psoriasis, urticaria (hives), acne and herpes simplex (cold sores) are exacerbated and often caused, by chronic stress. Unsightly skin conditions often lead to more emotional stress due to the social implications.

Stress and your digestion
The link between stress and ulcers in the stomach or duodenum, is complex. Ulcer development is associated with continual stress and high levels of gastric acid. People with ulcers, on the other hand, are often very susceptible to stress and tend to be anxious. The Helicobacter pylorum infection often associated with ulcers, also indicates an immune system that’s functioning below par. This in turn, is often a result of long-term unrelenting stress. Zinc deficiency, often associated with chronic stress, has been implicated in the gastric mucous membrane sensitivity for high acid levels.

Other digestive problems linked with stress: oesophageal spasm, diarrhoea, irritable bowel syndrome and spastic colon, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease.

Stress and your immune system:
Short-term stress enhances immune function. Sustained stress suppresses immune function. The more stress, the fewer antibodies you will produce. Both kinds of immunity (cell mediated and humoral immunity) are affected by unrelenting stress, which means that you’ll be more likely to be infected by viruses (also those linked to cancer), bacteria, fungi and parasites.

You’ll also be more sensitive to environmental toxins, electromagnetic emanations from high tension electrical cables and pollution. The link between stress and immune function is far-reaching, explaining the effect stress has on disorders ranging from the common cold, autoimmune diseases (such as multiple sclerosis, systemic lupus erythematosis, rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease) to HIV/Aids, through to cancer.

Stress and substance abuse
The inability to cope with stress often leads to the increased consumption of alcohol, tranquillisers, drugs to help people sleep, use of recreational drugs and smoking. This is a mistaken effort to try and relieve tiredness, anxiety and life pressure.

Alcohol’s initial effect is to mimic the stress reaction. The later effect of alcohol is depression. Alcohol may give a short-term lift which appears to relieve tension, but can, in the long term, turn into a problem of changed behaviour and dependency.

Tranquillisers and sleeping pills often lead to dependency and a need for increased and stronger dosages to have an effect (tolerance). Smoking may also have a transient calming effect, but nicotine actually mimics the stress response. Smoking can damage virtually any organ of the body.

There appears to be a link between smoking, alcohol abuse, high consumption of coffee – an example of addiction by association, all in a futile attempt to address the high stress levels in a person’s life. The accumulating effect of addiction and poor lifestyle choices considerably weakens the ability to cope with stress and increases the risk for developing various diseases.

Stress and depression
This is the mental disorder mostly associated with stress. High cortisol levels and a serotonin-noradrenalin dysfunction, all common to chronic stress, are all implicated in depression.

Stress can make individuals more susceptible to psychiatric disease and also exacerbates existing conditions.

Stress and insomnia
Sleep disruption is one of the earliest symptoms of stress. Sufficient sleep is extremely important for us to function properly and to be able to manage the day-to-day stresses of living. Sleep helps for emotional and physical recovery after a stressful day. Insomnia is therefore a major problem as it diminishes our resistance to stress.

Other symptoms of stress
Nightmares, forgetfulness, fatigue, persistent irritability, apathy, lack of concentration, social withdrawal, loss of or increase in appetite, increased coffee and tea consumption, increased aggression.

Stress and the South African situation
We are exposed to crime on a daily basis, wherever we live. Most South Africans live in a constant state of fear and anxiety. This is a good example of how fear, anxiety, guilt, despair and hatred constantly evoke the fight-or-flight reaction, which has to be processed and balanced.

By taking control of how you utilise your fear reaction, you can change from being a victim to being in control of a situation.

(Health24, updated September 2008)


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