How Stress Works

The Effect of Stress on Physical Health

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. Chronic stress over time can have lasting health effects.

With the fast-paced, high-pressure lives that many of us lead, full of hefty job and family responsibilities, it's no wonder that we sometimes feel stressed to the limit and out of control of our lives. We all have to live with stress, but if not reined in, it can profoundly affect both mind and body. Fortunately, you can gain control of your life, slow things down, and curb stress.

Stress doesn't just arise from unpleasant, aggravating events. Positive happenings like getting married, starting a new job, being pregnant, or winning an election can also tense us up.


Stress isn't all bad, either. In fact, it protects us in many instances by priming the body to react quickly to adverse situations. This fight-or-flight response helped keep human beings alive when their environment demanded quick physical reactions in response to threats.

The problem in modern times is that our body's stress response is regularly triggered even though our lives are not in danger. Chronic exposure to stress hormones can damage the body.

Everything from headaches, upset stomach, skin rashes, hair loss, racing heartbeat, back pain, and muscle aches can be stress related.

The perception of stress is highly individualized. What jangles your friend's nerves may not phase you in the least, and vice versa. In other words, what matters most is not what happens to you, but how you react to what happens to you.

The Health Effects of Stress

It is now considered a well-established fact that psychological stress can be a trigger or important factor in a variety of physical symptoms and diseases processes. There is abundant evidence of this link in the medical literaure as well as in current medical practices. For example:

  • Medical research suggests that up to 90 percent of all illness and disease is stress-related, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Evidence shows chronic stress can lower immunity and make people more susceptible to infections. Conversely, stress-reduction strategies, such as meditation, relaxation, and exercise, have been shown to help reverse this effect (by increasing the number of infection-fighting T cells and feel-good chemicals called endorphins in the body, for example) and prevent disease.
  • Stress has been shown to contribute to the development of heart disease and high blood pressure. As a result of those findings, most heart programs incorporate stress management and exercise, and stress reduction now plays a very prominent role in both the treatment and prevention of cardiovascular diseases.
  • Skin doctors have found that many skin conditions, such as hives and eczema, are related to stress.
  • Stress is thought to be a common cause of everyday aches, pains, and health problems, such as headaches, backaches, stomachaches, diarrhea, sleep loss, and loss of sex drive. Stress also appears to stimulate appetite and contribute to weight gain.

The best way to reduce the amount of stress in your life and avoid these possible health risks is to identify the stress triggers in your life. In the next section, we will explain what a stress trigger is and how you can spot one.

­ This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.