Mental health professional counseling a patient whose stress affects their well-being.

How Does Stress Affect Your Physical and Mental Health?

Stress is a natural part of everyday life; everyone experiences stress, even if they don’t have an anxiety disorder or other mental illness. But if your body experiences long-term stress, it can cause bigger problems.

Stress affects mental health just as much as mental health problems affect your body’s stress response in return. Plus, stress-related issues can manifest into physical health problems, as well. 

[FREE GUIDE] Wondering if you’re suffering from everyday stress or an anxiety disorder? Download this free guide to learn the difference!

What Is Stress?

Stress releases hormones and chemicals from the adrenal glands. This is a natural part of being human; it’s a survival mechanism designed to help you cope with immediate threats. But, your stress response isn’t always appropriate for the situation you’re in.

Stress triggers your sympathetic nervous system (SNS), and SNS causes your adrenal glands to release epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) into your bloodstream. Epinephrine raises heart rate and blood pressure so that you can perform well physically in times of danger or pain; it also increases focus and alertness so that you can respond quickly, whether by fighting or fleeing from any threats (called the “fight or flight response”).

Everyone experiences stress. And, in fact, a little bit of stress can be good for your health, but chronic stress negatively affects both your mental and physical health.

Heightened, short-term stress without the existence of an anxiety disorder is your body protecting itself. It can stem from factors like sensing danger or urgency to complete a task. However, there is a difference between acute and chronic stress.

Acute Stress

Acute stress results from unexpected or traumatic events like car accidents, personal or family issues, and other distressing experiences. Acute stress usually lasts only as long as the event itself; once the event has passed and you’re no longer in danger, your body returns to its normal state.

Chronic Stress

While acute stress centers around specific events, chronic stress is long-lasting. It’s when you feel overwhelmed and under an intense amount of pressure over an extended period of time. The long-term impact of stress affects your overall well-being, including both mental and physical health.

Effects of Stress on Mental Health

A person’s mental health affects their natural stress response. For example, someone with an anxiety disorder is more likely to experience high amounts of stress, even if not warranted by the situation.

Stress can also develop into mental health problems. Chronic stress increases the likelihood of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, sleep problems, and other mental health issues. For example, sleep problems aggravate mental health issues by increasing the severity of symptoms. Vice versa, mental health problems also affect sleep if the brain cannot relax at night.

That goes hand in hand with mental health research noting a link between substance abuse and mental health problems. In fact, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that over nine million American adults have co-occurring disorders.

Acute stress, sparked by a singular traumatic event, can also lead to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Stress Affecting Physical Health

The impact of stress can also lead to physical health issues. Prolonged stress increases the likelihood of developing physical health conditions: high blood pressure, heart disease, and a weakened immune system, just to name a few.

When in a stressful situation, your body is on high alert and may show physical symptoms. The release of stress hormones causes the cascade of physiological changes in your body that result in the physical symptoms of stress like muscle tension and even decreased digestive function.

According to the American Psychological Association, stress affects the major systems within the body:

Musculoskeletal System

Stress causes the muscles in the body to tense up, leading to migraines, tension headaches, and even lower back pain.

Respiratory System

Stress may trigger shortness of breath and rapid breathing. Acute stress from a traumatic event may even trigger an asthma attack, hyperventilation, or panic attacks in extreme situations.

Cardiovascular System

Stress affects the cardiovascular system by increasing heart rate and blood pressure. Prolonged exposure to stress exacerbates these problems and turns into health conditions like heart disease.

Endocrine System

The endocrine system produces cortisol, which is known as the stress hormone. This stress response provides energy to the body needed to address situations causing acute stress. Chronic stress, however, causes a disconnect in this bodily response.

Sources of Stress

An infinite number of stressors can cause stress. They range from major life events to everyday hassles that become overwhelming.

Even positive life changes can cause stress, such as planning a wedding or moving to a new city. A large amount of stress, even if stemming from a positive life event, can lead to increased levels of anxiety and depression.

It’s well known that major events trigger your body’s stress response, but everyday hassles can also affect your overall well-being if they become too much to handle. For example, work stress combined with small stressors within the home can lead to poor mental health.

Unfortunately, sources of stress are unavoidable and different for every individual.

The Pandemic’s Effect on Stress

The COVID-19 pandemic affected people in every country across the globe. During this time, people experienced intense social withdrawal, since being in close proximity to family members and other loved ones was dangerous.

Not only did the social isolation and chronic stress of contacting a virus play a factor, but seeing the number of people becoming sick or passing away as a result caused long-term stress. Experts predict a rise in post-traumatic stress disorder as a direct result of the pandemic.

Self-Care for Stress Relief

Stress affects everyone differently, but the good news is that stress management is a learnable skill. Taking the initiative to perform self-care and stress relief activities reduces stress levels and lessens the likelihood of developing long-term complications from chronic stress.

Take time for yourself every day to relieve stress and its harmful effects on your mental health. Dealing with stressors is different for everyone and depends on your own personal interests.

Common Self-Care Activities

    • Yoga/Meditation
    • Reading
    • Physical Activity
    • Spending Time in Nature
    • Eating Healthy Meals
    • Staying Hydrated
    • Taking a Social Media Break
    • Practicing Deep Breathing
    • Getting a Good Night’s Sleep

Meridian HealthCare Can Help With Chronic Stress

Stress is normal, but it shouldn’t run your life, and constant stress can be an indicator of a larger problem. If you struggle with chronic stress or anxiety, the mental health professionals at Meridian HealthCare can provide the guidance needed to live a happier, healthier life.

When stress affects your mental health, it’s time to regain control of your life. Learn more about the counseling options that will make a difference!