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The 7 effects of stress on health. Are you safe from them?

The seven effects of stress on health. Are you safe from them?

Is stress a cause or an effect?

As per The World Health Organization’s definition, health is "a state of total physical, mental and social well-being - not simply the absence of disease or disability".

Most of us are aware that stress is responsible for causing many health conditions. Let us now try and understand if it is the cause, effect or both.

Stress as a cause and effect

When there is a stressor, the response to stress causes wear and tear on the body and organ systems, which reduces optimum health, and in fact increases the body’s sensitivity to stress!

Stress as  a cycle


As per The American Institute of Stress:

  • About 33% of people report feeling extreme stress.
  • 77% of people experience stress that affects physical health.
  • 73% of people have stress that impacts their mental health.
  • 48% of people face problems sleeping due to stress.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has declared stress as a workplace hazard.

Seven ways in which stress can impact our health and functioning

a. Physical

It is now widely recognised that severe or chronic stress, particularly when coupled with a lack of predictability or perceived lack of control, can cause a variety of long-lasting physiological changes that wreak havoc on multiple organ systems.

a. i) Nervous system

  • The central nervous system is particularly important in triggering stress responses; it plays a central role in interpreting contexts as potentially threatening. Notably, It isn’t “what” chronic stress does to the nervous system, but rather that continuous & repeated activation of the nervous system can become problematic for other bodily systems.
  • The most common symptoms experienced are headaches and sleep-related issues.

a. ii) Cardiovascular system

  • Short-term or momentary stress - such as meeting a deadline, getting stuck in traffic, or having to slam the brakes in order to avoid an accident suddenly - causes a sharp rise in heart rate and raised blood pressure.
  • Long-term or chronic stress can raise the risk of lifestyle diseases such as hypertension, heart attack, or even a brain stroke.
  • It also appears that how a person responds to stress can affect cholesterol levels and it can contribute to higher cholesterol levels.

a. iii) Respiratory system

  • Stress can cause shortness of breath and rapid breathing.
  • Psychological stressors can exacerbate breathing problems for people with pre-existing respiratory diseases such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

a. iv) Gastro intestinal system

  • Stress can affect communication between the brain and the gut. This may act as a trigger point for pain, bloating, and other gut issues to become more apparent. The gut is also home to millions of bacteria which act as a major influence on gut and brain health. This can potentially impact one’s ability to think, and even affect emotional well-being.
  • Stressful situations may often make it difficult to swallow food, or increase the amount of air intake due to hyperventilation, which can increase burping, gassiness, and bloating.
  • Stress can also affect the digestion of food and what nutrients the intestines absorb. Severe stress has been known to cause vomiting. Moreover, high stress levels often cause an irregular rise or drop in appetite. 
  • Stress acutely affects people suffering from chronic bowel disorders, such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) or Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). 

a. v) Musculoskeletal system

  • With acute stress, there is an increase in muscle tension. With chronic stress, when muscles are taut and tense for long periods of time, it may trigger other reactions within the body and even promote stress-related disorders. 
  • Tension-linked headaches and Migraine headaches are linked with chronic muscle tension in the shoulders, neck and head.
  • Musculoskeletal pain in the low back and upper extremities is commonly linked to stress, especially job-related stress.
  • Stress also contributes to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS).

a. vi) Reproductive system

In males

  • Over extended periods of time, chronic stress can affect testosterone production, resulting in a diminished sex drive or libido, and may even cause issues such as erectile dysfunction or impotence.
  • Prolonged stress also negatively impacts sperm production and maturation, creating complications for couples who are trying to conceive.

In females

  • High stress levels may be linked with absent or irregular menstrual cycles, excessive pain during periods, and irregular changes in the length of menstrual cycles.
  • Prolonged stressful situations also negatively impact a woman’s ability to conceive, the health of her pregnancy, and her postpartum emotional adjustment.
  • Premenstrual syndrome - Stress may often make premenstrual symptoms more difficult to cope with. Such symptoms include cramping, fluid retention and bloating, negative mood (feeling overtly irritable) and sudden mood swings.

Diseases of the reproductive system

When stress is high, there are higher chances of aggravating symptoms of reproductive diseases, such as the herpes simplex virus or Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). 

a. vii) Immune system

  • Stress affects the ability of the body to fight illness and delays the body's ability to recover from illnesses.

Skin and hair - Stress can cause problems such as acne, psoriasis, eczema, and permanent hair loss.

  • Other issues like obesity and eating disorders are also considered to be affected by stress levels.
  Impact of stress on our health and functioning

b. Psychological

Stress affects our emotional and mental state. When it becomes overwhelming and prolonged, it increases the risk of mental health challenges. Stress can either directly cause or acts as a precipitating factor in already vulnerable persons. People who don't experience the full range of symptoms to be diagnosed with any mental health disorder can still experience varied symptoms like:

  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Anxiety and restlessness
  • Low mood, loss of interest
  • Panic attacks
  • Indecisiveness
  • Irritability
  • Impaired judgment
  • Compulsive behaviours
  • Low self-esteem
  • Having difficulty quieting or relaxing the mind

c. Cognitive functions

“Cognitive functions” broadly refer to mental processes related to acquiring knowledge, manipulation of information, and logical reasoning.

Stress can affect cognitive functions in the short term as well as over the long term. Chronic stress has consistently been associated with poor cognitive function, faster cognitive decline, and higher incidences of dementia. The cognitive symptoms include:

  • Constant worrying
  • Forgetfulness
  • Disorganization
  • Trouble focusing/poor concentration
  • Racing thoughts
  • Pessimistic outlook
  • Limited attention span
  • Decreased problem-solving abilities
  • Difficulty following instructions


d. Communication

Stress can interfere with thinking and speech. One can easily get frustrated, can have difficulty choosing words carefully and have trouble expressing things in an appropriate way. There is a tendency to give confusing non-verbal signals and misunderstand the other person’s intentions. Another area stress can affect communication is public speaking - it can cause significant anxiety and might lead to the activation of the fight-or-flight response.

e. Addictions  

Stress is a well-documented risk factor in the development of addiction and in higher vulnerability to addiction relapse. People under stress have difficulty controlling their urges. The strong linkage between stress and addiction is the self-medication theory, which suggests that the person may resort to addictions to cope with the tension associated with stressors. 

Addictions could be:

  • Substances like alcohol and smoking
  • Food addiction
  • Gambling
  • Shopping addiction
  • Computer addiction

f. Interpersonal relationships

Stress can spill from one area into other areas of our lives, affecting the quality of our close relationships. It can create a negative cycle where partners “catch” each other’s stress. It can bring out a person's worst traits and increase vigilance, wherein one is more likely to notice negative behaviours and react to them in unhealthy ways. Stress can make one show less interest, empathy and affection, and can cause withdrawal from friends and family. It can interfere with one's ability to resolve conflict in relationships

g. Organizations  

In a survey of Indian workers, 70% reported that they experienced stress at least once during the working week on a regular basis. Stress levels in the Indian workforce are much higher than the Asia-Pacific average of 60%.

Employees' stress can have a negative impact on overall business and organisational productivity and efficiency. It can also produce counter-productive work behaviours. The effect of stress at the workplace may include:

  • High absenteeism
  • Poor timekeeping
  • Poor performance and productivity
  • Low morale
  • Poor motivation
  • Increased employee complaints
  • Increased ill-health, accidents and incidents reports


Stress, though commonly experienced, provided the nature of its impact on various aspects of our health and day-to-day functioning, should not be ignored.  It is one of the reversible causes of low productivity and mental health, which when efficiently identified and managed can prevent many health-related issues.

Schedule a demo to learn how your organisation can get the best employee health and well-being experience with ekincare's commitment to quality.

Dr Raga Sandhya (MRCPsych) is a Specialist Psychiatrist with demonstrable experience in Palliative Care and Psycho Oncology, Child Psychiatry, Geriatric Psychiatry, Addiction and Consultant-Liaison Psychiatry.