Prolonged stress and anxiety can take its toll on our mental and physical health. Here are some things that may happen, plus what you can do to help decrease stress throughout your body.

Carolyn Williams, Ph.D., R.D.
November 17, 2020
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Credit: Getty / Tirachard Kumtanom / EyeEm

Stress is a normal daily occurrence that is triggered by a stressor or perceived threat. Stressors can range from a car speeding through a stop sign to an argument with a friend to a looming work deadline. Even though we tend to focus on its mental health aspects, stress is driven by underlying physiological changes. These changes are designed for our survival and occur as part of the body's stress response which works like this:

  1. When the body senses an immediate threat (stressor), the nervous system elicits the fight-or-flight response.
  2. This triggers the brain to release the hormones adrenaline and cortisol which speed up heart rate, breathing, reaction time and muscle contractions so the body has the resources needed to handle, outrun or escape the stressor.
  3. As the stressor ends or dissipates, the body then slowly returns to normal, breathing and heartbeat slow and muscles slowly relax.

This protective response is designed to occur in brief, sporadic intervals, so the problem occurs when stress sticks around or develops into anxiety. In fact, the prolonged stress response begins to take a toll on the body. This means that in addition to impacting how we think and feel, stress and anxiety also affect our physical body and overall health. Here are seven things that may happen to the body when you're stressed or anxious—plus what to do to help alleviate the stress you're feeling.

1. You're constipated—or the opposite

A prolonged stress response can impact how quickly food moves through the body, so it's not uncommon to have either constipation or diarrhea when stressed or anxious. Individuals who have a condition like irritable bowel syndrome may be particularly susceptible to flare-ups when stressed.

2. You're at an increased risk for getting sick

Stress reduces the number of white blood cells to fight infection, but it also contributes to a low-grade inflammatory response due to elevated cortisol. Inflammation is an immune response, but this type isn't a good one because it overworks the immune system, making it less capable of functioning at full potential. Overall, the immune system takes a direct hit, making you more susceptible to catching a cold or getting a virus.

3. You're finding more gray hairs

Stress causing hair to turn gray is often joked about, but research suggests there's actually truth to it. The flight-or-flight response is initiated by the sympathetic nervous system, and there are sympathetic nerve endings in each hair follicle. When under stress, these nerve endings release norepinephrine, which causes pigment cells to leave the follicle. Without pigment, hair turns gray or white.

4. Your blood pressure is high

When the body's stress response is triggered, the heart beats faster and harder to circulate oxygen. This is a good thing when it helps you deal with a brief stressor. However, this starts to take a toll on the heart and blood vessels when the stress sticks around, leading to high blood pressure and potentially even a heart attack.

5. Your appetite and weight changes

Changes to appetite usually go one way or the other. Some people find they lose their appetite when under chronic stress, and hormones likely play a role in diminishing appetite or even causing a nauseous feeling. Others find they eat more. This is due to higher cortisol levels increasing appetite and hunger, but comfort foods are often used a coping mechanism as well when under stress.

6. You may experience insulin resistance

Designed to increase glucose in the blood so there is ample fuel for your fight-or-flight response, cortisol inhibits the effectiveness of insulin. Momentarily, this is helpful, but when prolonged, this leads to high blood-glucose levels and insulin resistance, which encourages weight gain and metabolic changes and can lead to the onset of type 2 diabetes. In fact, a 2010 scientific review suggested that individuals with depression, anxiety and stress have a higher risk of developing diabetes.

7. Your risk of infertility may increase

Stress and anxiety can impact reproductive health in both men and women. A prolonged stress response leads to lower testosterone levels in men, decreasing sperm count and quality. In women, ongoing stress can lead to irregularities in the menstrual cycle and may contribute to infertility. A 2018 article concluded that cognitive therapy can help lower stress and anxiety in women struggling to get pregnant and may result in a significant increase in pregnancies.

Here's what you can do to help decrease stress

Talking with a therapist can certainly help you target sources of stress in your life and strategize ways to manage that stress (most insurance plans cover at least some sessions with a therapist). Also, don't be afraid to talk with your supervisors, friends and family about what's going on. Other things you can do starting today include turning off stressful news and logging off of social media sites that often misconstrue reality. Sleep also plays a vital role in stress management, so try to going to bed earlier and utilize some strategies to help you sleep more soundly. And, last but not least, take a look at your diet—some foods have the tendency to increase stress, while others help to calm it down.

Carolyn Williams, Ph.D., RD, is author of the new cookbook, Meals That Heal: 100+ Everyday Anti-Inflammatory Recipes in 30 Minutes or Less, and a culinary nutrition expert known for her ability to simplify food and nutrition information. She received a 2017 James Beard Foundation Journalism Award, and her work is regularly featured in or on respective websites for Cooking Light, RealSimple, Parents, Health, EatingWell, Allrecipes, My Fitness Pal, eMeals, Rally Health and the American Heart Association. You can follow her on Instagram @realfoodreallife_rd or on carolynwilliamsrd.com.