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How Stress Impacts Your Physical Health

By The Rescue® Team

Stress can be good for you. In fact, stress helps you survive and often makes life vivid and exciting. Then why does it feel so bad sometimes, and when does it become too much?

There are four main factors in how stress will affect you physically: 

  • Whether you’re experiencing eustress or distress (good or bad stress)
  • The severity of the stress
  • The duration for which you experience stress 
  • The frequency of your stress

Eustress is often helpful, and a bit of distress can be fine in the grand scheme. The concern for physical health can begin if you are feeling very distressed for an extended period – chronic stress – or you are very frequently or quickly stressed. Without a chance to rest and reset, your nervous system can go into overdrive and cause serious physical conditions that can reduce sleep quality, social health, physical ability and life expectancy. 

Chronic stress can impact your mental health, leading to distraction, overwhelm, anxiety or depression. This article will focus on the physical side of stress.

What are eustress and distress?

Distress is the type of stress most people think of when discussing stress. Distress is a form of stress that negatively affects you and can prevent you from feeling happy, healthy or productive. Eustress is positive stress which motivates you to achieve new goals or overcome challenges while feeling energised and excited. 

How stress hormones impact your body

When you experience stress, your body releases hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. This mechanism is in many ways a survival skill, as it gets us into fight or flight mode to protect ourselves against a threat. But, as our society has evolved to have fewer immediate threats to our lives compared to the days of hunting for food and seeking shelter, our bodies can ‘overreact’ to situations as though our lives were in danger. 

Adrenaline increases your heart rate and elevates your blood pressure, which, while helpful for running from a mammoth, can have harmful impacts when it goes on for too long. Cortisol plays many roles in the body; it is thought of as the ‘stress hormone’ because it is released after adrenaline to help keep you alert. It also releases sugar into the bloodstream for fast energy. When cortisol sticks around too long, it can impact your mental health and physically lead to weight gain, weak bones and muscles and high blood pressure and blood sugar.

How stress can physically change the body

Like eustress can be good for us, our bodies are also equipped to handle a certain amount of distress. When stress is acute, it can be challenging while it’s happening and leave you feeling tired, but the occasionally short bout of stress probably won’t change your body. When stress is chronic, frequent or the ongoing result of a traumatic event, all those stress hormones in high amounts can be a long-term drain on the nervous system and impact other bodily functions too.


Chronic stress can create constant muscle tension, which can lead to headaches and pain.


Stress can be a lot of work for the heart and blood vessels. Chronic stress might increase the risk of heart conditions or diseases. 

The brain

Aside from the impacts on mental health, stress can change the structure and function of your brain, which can lead to memory issues or a decrease in cognitive ability.

Digestive and gastrointestinal 

Stress may drive you to eat more or cause you to lose your appetite. It’s possible to lose or gain weight because of chronic stress. Stress can also interfere with how you absorb nutrients which could lead to constipation or other health issues.

Immune system

Your immune system takes a hit from severe stress. It’s difficult for your immunity to function at optimal capacity alongside stress hormones, so you might get sick more often.

Reproductive health

Chronic stress can impact sex hormones which can reduce sex drive and may also reduce fertility. 

When to seek help for symptoms of stress

While a bit of stress now and then is normal and even healthy sometimes, please assess the impact of stress on your life if you experience:

  • A significant drop in emotional resilience 
  • Mood swings or changes in mood for over two weeks
  • Withdrawal from friends or social situations
  • Feelings of anxiety or depression
  • Ongoing fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Rapid and unexpected changes to weight 
  • Ongoing digestive issues
  • An increased frequency of cold symptoms

You can speak to a GP who can refer you to the relevant health professional, like a therapist or physiotherapist. Our article Stress Awareness and Ways to Cope can help with some strategies to manage and reduce stress. Our Open Letter to Stressed Leaders discusses types of stress and tips for leading a more balanced life, particularly when people rely on you. We hope understanding stress in your body, using these strategies and reaching for RESCUE Remedy® when you need a helping hand will guide you through times of emotional demand.