Young black man sitting with his head in his hand

What are the physical side effects of stress?

By Jenilee Matz, MPH Jan 27, 2023 • 13 min

From a single stressful event to chronic worry, stress can affect our bodies in a variety of ways. Your palms may sweat, your heart may race, or you may have “butterflies” in your stomach before a stressful situation, like a job interview, first date or big game. This type of short-term stress can be a good thing, helping us improve our performance or meet goals. But long-term stress, such as caring for a family member with a chronic disease or being in a toxic relationship, can take its toll on your body. It may lead to stomachaches, muscle aches, trouble sleeping, loss of energy and more. Chronic stress may even put you at risk for more serious health problems, including high blood pressure and heart disease. Here you’ll get the answers to some questions you may have about stress and health.

Can stress make you sick?

Yes. Over time, high levels of stress can weaken your immune system. This can compromise your body’s ability to fight off infections, such as a cold or flu, meaning you may get sick more easily. Stress may also lengthen the time it takes you to recover from an infection.

Can stress cause heart attack?

Ongoing stress is linked with cardiovascular events, including heart attacks. Chronic stress may also contribute to high blood pressure, which can pose a risk for heart attacks. What’s more, when you’re feeling stressed, you may engage in unhealthy behaviors as a way to cope. Stress may lead to smoking, drinking too much alcohol, eating unhealthy foods and not exercising. Each of these habits can have a negative effect on heart health.

Can stress cause a stroke?

Chronic stress may lead to high blood pressure, which is a risk factor for stroke. Lasting stress may also contribute to unhealthy habits, such as smoking, alcohol use, overeating and physical inactivity. These behaviors can also contribute to cardiovascular disease risk.

Can stress cause chest pain?

Yes. Stress-related chest pain has several possible causes, such as:

  • Stress cardiomyopathy: In some cases, intense stress can trigger the heart muscle to become suddenly weakened. This condition is also known as “broken heart syndrome,” and it can cause symptoms similar to a heart attack, including chest pain.
  • Panic attack: Stress can trigger a panic attack. While panic attacks aren’t life-threatening, they can cause chest pain and other symptoms that may feel like a heart attack, which can feel frightening.

Many other factors can bring on chest pain or discomfort, including more serious causes. Therefore, if you have chest pain symptoms, you should seek medical attention right away.

Can stress cause diarrhea?

Yes. There is a direct connection between stress and digestive issues. When you feel stressed, your body releases a surge of hormones and chemicals. Elevated levels of these substances can have a negative effect on your digestive system. You may experience indigestion, increased hunger, cramps or diarrhea from stress.

Can stress cause constipation?

Yes. Stress can affect your digestive system and cause a host of symptoms, including constipation. People may experience increased stress or anxiety when anticipating upcoming events. This can lead to gastrointestinal disturbances. Disruptions in normal routine, as is the case with travel, can result in stress-related constipation. In addition, stress may lead to poor eating habits, not drinking enough water and not exercising enough, which can all contribute to constipation.

Can stress cause nausea?

Yes. Stress can cause your stomach to feel upset. You may have nausea or a loss of appetite. Certain stress hormones that are released by your body may be responsible for nausea and other physical symptoms of stress.

Can stress cause hair loss?

When you’re constantly under a lot of stress, hair loss can occur. High levels of stress may contribute to several conditions that can cause hair loss:

  • Telogen effluvium happens when significant stress makes a portion of your hair follicles go into the resting phase. Months later, they may fall out when you brush or wash your hair.
  • Alopecia areata occurs when the immune system attacks hair follicles, resulting in hair loss. Alopecia areata may be caused or worsened by several factors, including severe stress.
  • Trichotillomania is an overwhelming urge to pull out hair from your scalp, eyebrows or other parts of your body. This hair pulling is a way to cope with negative emotions that may stem from stress or other feelings.

Can stress cause vertigo?

Stress itself does not cause vertigo (a sensation that feels like the room is spinning when it isn’t). But stress can make many types of vertigo worse or even trigger a vertigo attack in Meniere’s disease.

Can stress cause dizziness?

When you’re stressed, the muscles that help you breathe can tense up, which may leave you short of breath and dizzy. When a person is anxious or having a panic attack, the resulting fast breathing or hyperventilation may cause dizziness as well.

Can stress cause seizures?

Stress can trigger seizures in some people with epilepsy (a central nervous system disorder that causes unusual brain activity and seizures). Stress can also cause problems sleeping, which can bring on a seizure in epilepsy. In addition, severe emotional stress is a common cause of nonepileptic seizures. Nonepileptic seizures may look similar to epileptic seizures, but they occur without abnormal activity in the brain and may be induced by psychological stress.

Can stress cause cancer?

At this time, there’s no solid evidence that shows stress directly causes cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). However, people under stress may engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking, overeating or drinking too much alcohol, which can increase their risk for cancer. In addition, stress may affect the immune system, which can increase a person’s risk for certain health conditions or illness. Some studies suggest that stress hormones could possibly awaken dormant cancer cells that may remain in the body after cancer treatment.

What’s the link between stress and weight?

There is a known connection between stress and weight gain. During times of stress, it may be challenging to make nutritious food choices. It’s common to reach for high-calorie comfort foods or alcohol to fill emotional voids during times of intense stress. Cortisol, which is a hormone produced in response to stress, may increase appetite and the urge to eat more comfort foods. Taking in excess calories can lead to weight gain. This means if you’re under a lot of stress, weight loss may be challenging. On the flip side, some people lose their appetite and eat less when they feel extremely stressed short term, which can result in weight loss.

Can stress delay a period?

High levels of long-term stress have been shown to lead to irregular periods in some women. In some cases, severe, chronic stress can also cause ovulation (the release of an egg from the ovaries) and menstruation to stop.

Can stress cause yeast infections?

Yeast infections are caused by an overgrowth of the fungus Candida. Stress, pregnancy, illnesses and certain medicines, such as birth control pills or steroids, may affect the immune system and allow Candida to multiply.

Are ulcers caused by stress?

Peptic ulcers are sores that develop on the lining of the stomach and upper part of the small intestine. In most cases, peptic ulcers are caused by Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection and long-term use of aspirin and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs.) While stress doesn’t cause ulcers, stress can make ulcer symptoms worse.

Stress gastritis, which is sometimes referred to as a stress ulcer or stress ulceration, is not the same as a peptic ulcer. This condition causes ulcers to develop in the stomach. It can occur in critically ill people following physical trauma, shock, hemorrhage or sepsis.

Can stress cause increased sweating?

Yes. When you feel stressed, anxious or excited, your body may respond by releasing sweat. There are two different types of sweat glands in your body: eccrine and apocrine glands. Eccrine glands cover most of your body, and they release fluids when your body temperature rises in an effort to cool your body. Apocrine glands are located in areas with hair, including in your armpits and groin. These glands release a milky fluid when you’re stressed, sometimes called “stress sweat.” This type of sweat is odorless at first, but when it mixes with bacteria on your skin, it produces body odor.

Can stress cause neck pain?

Yes. Neck pain has many potential causes, and stress is one of them. Emotional stress can cause you to tense up and tighten the muscles in your neck and shoulders unintentionally. This can lead to hard knots, tightness, soreness and pain in your neck.

Can stress cause nosebleeds?

It’s unlikely that stress would trigger a nosebleed. Common causes of nosebleeds include injury, irritation, very cold and dry air, nose picking, blowing your nose too hard, sinus or pituitary surgery, deviated septum, chemical irritants, overuse of nasal sprays and dry nasal passages.

Can you die from stress?

Excessive stress can have negative consequences on your health. Stress may cause you to assume unhealthy lifestyle behaviors, such as consuming alcohol in excess, smoking, or eating an unhealthy diet. These behaviors can increase the risk of serious, chronic health issues, such as high blood pressure and heart disease. These conditions can be fatal, especially when left untreated.

While stress is a normal and unavoidable part of life, finding healthy ways to reduce or cope with stress may help protect your overall health. Try to ease stress by carving out time for things you enjoy, taking deep breaths and reframing negative thoughts into positive self-talk. If you’re having trouble managing stress, speak with your healthcare provider. They can help you find ways to manage your stress in a healthy way.

Published August 2020. Reviewed and clinically updated by Julie McDaniel, MSN, RN, CRNI, January 2023.