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Stress and Your Body

Do you know what stress is doing to you?

Stress and Your Body

Whether it's the morning traffic crunch on the Dan Ryan or that laundry list of appointments, everyone has stress.

Stress isn't always bad — it can motivate you to meet deadlines or respond to challenges. But all too often stress causes physical or emotional fallout — from upset stomachs to sleepless nights.

When faced with a stressful scenario — a looming deadline or a first date — our bodies release hormones, including cortisol and epinephrine, that help us react to the situation.

This "fight-or-flight response" has a purpose: If you're actually in danger, it provides extra energy and alertness to help you defend yourself or flee. But often there is no imminent danger, and our stress comes from daily hurdles or ongoing relationship or financial worries.

How harmful stress is to you depends on the level of stress, how you cope with it and your body's physical response to it. Although stress affects everyone differently, some problems can indicate that it is causing your health to suffer:


Trouble sleeping.

"Many factors can cause and prolong sleep problems, and stress is among the most common," says James K. Wyatt, PhD, director of the Sleep Disorders Service and Research Center at Rush.

For example, stress can trigger or worsen insomnia. It can be hard to take your mind off your worries, and stress also prompts physical changes, such as increased heart rate, which may make sleep difficult.

In addition, people who are under a great deal of stress often experience shallow sleep, or brief awakenings they can't recall.

Furthermore, Wyatt says, sleeping less can increase stress and weaken our immune system's response. Though there's no "stress meter" to measure whether you're too stressed, how you feel during the day can help indicate how well you're sleeping at night, Wyatt says.

For instance, if you're having difficulty concentrating, or feeling fatigued or overly irritable, stress may be affecting your sleep. If it is, a sleep-promoting medicine may help you through an extremely difficult time.

"If stress is prolonged, medication is no longer the appropriate way to improve your sleep," Wyatt says. "That's when we look at lifestyle changes."

That can mean taking a hard look at the stress in your life and taking steps to address it. As Wyatt notes, the greater the stress and the longer it lasts, the greater the toll throughout the body.

Digestive issues.

Stress can send your stomach into fits of queasiness or indigestion. And if you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) — a chronic condition that includes abdominal pain, bloating, and bouts of diarrhea or constipation — stress can make your symptoms worse, says Ece Mutlu, MD, a gastroenterologist at Rush.

Stress can affect intestinal function in several ways:

  • It can speed up or slow down the normal movement of intestinal contents, resulting in diarrhea or constipation.
  • It can delay emptying of the stomach contents, causing nausea or fullness
  • It may heighten your perception of activity in the digestive tract that normally isn’t noticed, so you feel discomfort, pain or bloating.

Also, research at Rush has demonstrated that stress may trigger inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) — which causes swelling in the intestines and symptoms such as pain and diarrhea — in people who are prone to the condition, possibly due to genetics.

The effects of stress can be felt in the pelvic region as well. Stress-related tightening of the pelvic muscles can contribute to pelvic pain, painful intercourse and urination difficulties. A pelvic floor physical therapist can help.

If you're having persistent physical symptoms from stress, that level of stress is not good for you. And when you’re already dealing with a chronic illness such as IBD, your coping mechanisms for dealing with stress deteriorate, Mutlu says. "The help of a psychologist is very valuable to help you learn skills to deal with stress," she says.

Back aches and pains.

Stress can make existing back pain worse or help trigger pain if you’re predisposed to back problems.

Stress causes muscle tension, which can lead to aches and pains. Furthermore, research suggests that stress alone may provoke chronic back pain, possibly due to stress-related biochemical changes that cause the brain to interpret pain differently.

If you have neck pain or back pain that lasts for several weeks, it’s a good idea to see your primary care doctor. Seek help sooner if you also have loss of bladder or bowel control or trouble walking.

Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) pain.

Stress has been linked to problems with the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), where the lower jaw meets the skull. TMJ problems can include pain around the jaw, earaches, headaches, uneven wear of the teeth, clicking or popping with opening of the mouth, locking of the joints, or pain when chewing.

Stress can lead to increased muscle tension, and certain people will manifest that stress by grinding or clenching their teeth, especially while asleep.

Belly fat build-up.

Stress can go to your waistline, says cardiologist Annabelle Volgman, MD, director of the Rush Heart Center for Women.

“Cortisol (released by your body during stress) tends to make both women and men, but especially menopausal women, deposit fat more in the belly area,” she says. Excess fat stored around the middle is linked to increased risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes.


Stress can exacerbate existing depression and actually cause depression in some people, notes psychiatrist John Zajecka, MD, clinical director of the Depression Treatment and Research Center at Rush.

Studies show that elevated cortisol levels can lead to physiological changes in the brain, including the degeneration of cells that help regulate memory and mood, Zajecka says.

Major life changes, grief and isolation can increase your risk for depression but so can being constantly bombarded by everyday stresses at work or at home. Add a family history of depression to the mix, and your risk is even higher.

Skin conditions. 

Although problems such as eczema and psoriasis have genetic causes, stress appears to worsen them, according to Michael Tharp, MD, a dermatologist at Rush.

Similarly, stress may also aggravate hives. One explanation involves the nerve network that extends from the skin to the brain, where we perceive sensations such as hot or cold. Under stress, this "electrical hookup" could work in reverse, so that the brain signals the release of chemicals in the skin, triggering an infl-ammatory response.

Heart health.

According to Lynne Braun, PhD, CNP, nurse practitioner at the Rush Heart Center for Women, many doctors believe there’s a correlation between stress and heart disease, though more research is needed to prove this link.

Some studies suggest that stress also contributes to heart disease risk factors such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Take control of your stress

“Because stress can take such a toll on your health, it’s important to watch for early signs of stress overload, which include headaches, fatigue, troubled sleep, increased irritability or anxiety, or getting sick more often than usual,” says Zajecka. “People have to listen to their bodies.”

A variety of approaches can help you cope with stress, including exercise and relaxation techniques. Stress can affect so many different aspects of your health that it’s important to take steps to reduce it or improve your ability to cope with it.

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