Illustrated infographic showing the physical and psychological effects of stress.

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Stress is a fact of life for us all. Our bodies react to it in such a way that we have the additional acuity, energy, and strength needed to address the challenges at hand. Although experiencing stress is universal, understanding it is not. Below, we examine the effects of stress on our minds, bodies, and social lives.

Your Brain on Stress

Stress is most immediately processed by your brain. Once triggered, your brain unleashes a cascade of hormones that create many of the other reactions we commonly associate with stress. (1)

  • Stress “Enters” the Amygdala
    • The amygdala receives images and sounds and accordingly assigns them the emotion of panic.
    • When the amygdala perceives danger, it signals the hypothalamus.
  • Signals from the Hypothalamus
    • The hypothalamus acts like a command center, controlling the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, which speed up or slow down responses, respectively.
    • With the signal from the amygdala, the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system.
  • Fight-or-Flight
    • The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for triggering the fight-or-flight response to provide you with a burst of energy to confront or flee from danger.
    • When activated by the hypothalamus, the sympathetic nervous system triggers the release of the hormone epinephrine, also known as adrenaline.
    • Epinephrine creates a chain reaction of the common effects of stress: faster heartbeat, muscle tension, quickness of breath, and sharpened senses.

The Effects of Stress

Stress affects both our minds and our bodies. Because changes in our psychology can impact us physically and vice versa, the effects of stress can be interrelated, and we often experience distinct symptoms — especially in cases of chronic stress.

Physical Effects of Stress (2)

  • Headache
  • Muscle tension and pain
  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue
  • Decreased libido
  • Upset stomach
  • Insomnia

Psychological Effects of Stress (2)

  • Mental fog
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Lack of motivation
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Irritability and anger
  • Sadness and depression

Bodily Reactions to Stress

Far from impacting only the brain, stress takes its toll on all the systems of the human body. While stress sometimes catches us off guard, chronic stress can have debilitating effects.

Nervous System (3)

  • Interference with timing, balance, and communication
  • Decline in short-term memory
  • Mood and anxiety disorders

Musculoskeletal System (4)

  • Muscle tension
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Chronic pain
  • Muscle atrophy

Respiratory System (4)

  • Shortness of breath
  • Hyperventilation
  • Panic attacks
  • Asthma attacks

Cardiovascular System (4)

  • Increased heart rate
  • Strong heart contractions
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Inflammation
  • Hypertension
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke

Endocrine System (4)

  • Increased hormone production
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Metabolic disorders
  • Immune disorders

Gastrointestinal System (4)

  • Fluctuation in appetite
  • Heartburn and acid reflux
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Gassiness
  • Bloating
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea or constipation

Reproductive System (4)

  • Reduced libido
  • Fertility problems
  • Irregular menstruation

Signs of Stress on the Body

While many of the effects of stress are internal, some are readily apparent. (5)

  Stressed Relaxed
Weight Rapid gain or loss Stable
Hands Trembling, sweaty Steady, dry
Skin Red, broken out, itchy Clear
Breathing Labored Regular
Speech Rapid, mumbled Fluent

Social Impact of Stress

Stress affects not only you, but also your family, friends, and colleagues. which. The psychological and physical effects of stress can come together to have debilitating social impacts.

Increased levels of the hormone vasopressin, which is also released when we become stressed, can lead to: (6)

  • Difficulty negotiating interpersonal relationships
  • Greater isolation, frustration, and stress
  • Further increased levels of vasopressin

The symptoms and impacts of stress often create a cycle that can be difficult to break. Don’t let stress get the best of you. Educating yourself about the physical and psychological effects of stress is the first step to living a healthier, stress-free life.

Pursuing a Counseling Career

Interested in helping people find healthy ways to deal with the physical and psychological effects of stress? Consider an online master’s degree in mental health counseling from Malone University. Our program gives you the opportunity to gain hands-on experience while still benefiting from an online classroom environment.