Doctor Shares 5 Surprising Things That Stress Does To Your Body

Doctor Shares 5 Surprising Things That Stress Does To Your Body

March 30, 2022

Clinical Contributors to this story:
Eric C. Alcera, M.D.

For those of us who work, commute, have relationships, care for families and try to pack too many responsibilities into each day, stress may be an ever-present, unwanted companion.

You experience stress when your body responds to an emotionally or physically challenging situation. Short-term stress isn’t associated with health problems, but long-term or chronic stress is. 

“When your body recognizes that you are stressed, it releases hormones to help you get through the situation, but in the modern world, those hormones aren’t always helpful,” says Eric C. Alcera, M.D., a behavioral health specialist at Hackensack Meridian Health. “In the past, a burst of stress hormones like cortisol or adrenaline may have helped you run to safety when you were being chased by wild animals, but when you’re sitting at your desk feeling stressed about a work project, the influx of stress hormones doesn’t have the same effect.”

Common health problems that are associated with chronic stress include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Tension headaches
  • Weight loss or weight gain
  • Diabetes

Surprising effects of chronic stress

Chronic stress may also impact your body in unexpected ways. 

  1. More sick days. People who are under constant stress may be more likely to have a weakened immune system. They’re more likely to get sick more often than people who aren’t under as much stress, whether from colds, the flu or other illnesses. This health effect may be more noticeable among chronically stressed people who don’t get enough sleep, because sleep helps to protect the immune system.
  2. Sexual problems. Chronic stress may lead to excess production of cortisol, the so-called “stress hormone.” The presence of too much cortisol may decrease sex drive in both men and women. Too much stress may also make it more difficult for couples to conceive: Chronic stress may affect a woman’s ability to become pregnant and a man’s ability to produce normal amounts of healthy sperm. Couples who work together to lower stress levels may help to improve their libido or their chances at conception.
  3. Cognitive problems. People who experience chronic stress may experience short-term or long-term memory problems, as well as lapses of good judgment, due to the presence of stress hormones like cortisol. They may also have difficulty paying attention while trying to learn new things. Decreasing stress levels should help to improve stress-related cognitive function.
  4. TMJ. If you clench your jaw in response to chronic stress, you may be at greater risk of developing temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ), a condition that is associated with jaw pain, headaches and a popping or clicking sound that happens when you open or close your jaw. Taking steps to reduce stress may help, as can wearing a mouthguard at night, to prevent yourself from grinding your teeth in your sleep.
  5. Acne. Chronic stress may lead to the production of more cortisol than usual, which may cause the skin to produce more oil than usual. Oily skin increases the likelihood of pimples and acne. Chronic stress may also trigger flares of other skin conditions, including eczema and psoriasis.

How to counteract the effects of stress

Adopting healthy habits may help you feel less stressed, which may make you less likely to experience stress-related health problems. Try to incorporate these lifestyle habits into your routine:

  • Eat a healthy diet, with more of an emphasis on fruits and vegetables and less of an emphasis on junk food.
  • Exercise daily for at least 30 minutes, since physical activity helps to boost mood and counteract stress.
  • Get enough sleep every night, in the range of 7 to 8 hours.
  • Nurture friendships and maintain social connections, which should help to improve your mood and make you feel less overwhelmed.
  • Avoid stressful situations whenever possible.

Next Steps & Resources:


The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.

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