We have looked at how stress affects the brain, gut, and immune system, and how it is linked to our overall health.  Let’s break it down further by learning how stress affects the rest of the body.

How Stress Affects the Nervous System:

Chronic stress causes the nervous system to become unbalanced, and in some cases, even exhausted.



The nervous system has several divisions:

  • Central Nervous System: The Brain and Spinal Cord
  • Peripheral System, which is divided into:
    • Somatic Nervous System
    • Autonomic Nervous System, which is divided into:
      • Sympathetic Nervous System, when under stress:
        • increasing heart rate
        • increasing blood pressure
        • dilating the pupils
        • increasing perspiration
        • increasing blood flow
        • breathing becomes deeper and faster
        • adrenaline is produced which stimulates the heart and other organs to help defend the body.
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System: Relaxes the body by slowing the heart rate, constricting the pupils and generally returning to a state of relaxation.

Most bodily functions and the organs which carry them out, hidden away in the chest, abdomen, pelvis or skull, are not consciously controlled. Their nerve supply comes from the autonomic nervous system (ANS) which continues to work and direct the organs that are essential for life without conscious intervention. The autonomic nervous system controls the heart, the blood vessels, and thus temperature-control and such actions as blushing, breathing, the digestive system, the filling of the bladder, and some but not all aspects of the reproductive system. This aspect of the nervous system may not be under our control, but its action can be determined by our state of mind. The smooth running of the autonomic nervous system reflects the amount of stress someone is suffering, so any change that produces symptoms may be a measure of the tension in someone’s life. When people are stressed, the nervous system is disturbed.

The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) has a direct role in physical response to stress.  When the body is placed under stress, the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) generates the “Fight or Flight” response, where the body shifts its energy toward fighting off a life threat or fleeing. The SNS signals adrenal glands to release both adrenalin and cortisol hormones, causing the heart to beat faster, respiration rates to increase, blood vessels to dilate, digestive processes to change, and glucose levels to increase. Once the immediate stress is over, the body usually returns to the unstressed state.

Chronic stress can result in a long-term drain on the body and as the SNS continues to trigger physical reactions, it causes a breakdown of the body.  Stress may not cause permanent damage to the nervous system, but because of chronic stress, the nervous system can cause damage to the rest of the body.

How Stress Affects the Muscles:

When the body is stressed, muscles tense up. Muscle tension is almost a reflex reaction to stress — the body’s way of guarding against injury and pain.  Sudden stress triggers the muscles to tense up all at once, and then release their tension when the stress passes.

Chronic stress causes the muscles in the body to be in a more or less constant state of guardedness. Tense muscles can be quite painful if they last a while. Tension in the shoulders, neck, and head can cause migraines that will only compound the stress.   When muscles are tense for long periods of time, this may trigger other reactions of the body and even promote stress-related disorders such as tension headaches and migraines.

How Stress Affects the Respiratory System:

Stress causes you to breathe harder. Those with asthma or a lung disease may struggle with getting the oxygen needed to breathe.  Studies show that acute stress can actually trigger asthma attacks, in which the airway between the nose and the lungs constricts.

Stress can also cause rapid breathing, hyperventilation. This can possibly lead to a panic attack.


How Stress Affects the Reproductive System:

Sex: Stress, acute or chronic, can wreak havoc on sexual function.  Reduced sexual desire and inability to achieve orgasms in women and erectile dysfunction in men are examples of how stress affects the body’s ability to have or enjoy sex.

Pre-Menstrual Cycle (PMS): Studies show that women experiencing higher levels of stress also experience more intense PMS symptoms and pains.

Fertility: The first rule with trying to become pregnant is “Stop Trying and Let it Happen.”  This is said by many because the stress related to trying to conceive can be tied to the reason a couple cannot conceive.  Chronic stress can affect fertility.  Stress hormones have an impact on the hypothalamus, which produces the reproductive hormones.  Stress may change a woman’s menstrual cycle, bringing it sooner or delaying ovulation and pushing the cycle back.  With men, stress can lower the quality and number of sperm produced.

Menopause: Estrogen drops during peri-menopause and menopause.  Stress during this time of life combined with the drop in hormone may be linked to the mood changes.


“The brain’s hypothalamus produces GnRH, which stimulates the pituitary gland to produce the peripheral hormones, luteinizing hormone and follicle-stimulating hormone, which in turn stimulate production of testosterone, estradiol and sexual behavior. Stress makes the adrenal gland produce glucocorticoids, which act directly on the hypothalamus to suppress GnRH production. UC Berkeley researchers have now found that glucocorticoids also boost hypothalamic GnIH production, which acts to reduce GnRH production as well as to directly lower pituitary secretion of sex hormones, thereby suppressing the entire reproductive system.”

Lifestyle Changes to Destress:

Although treating stress cannot cure medical problems, stress management can be a very important part of medical treatment. Specific stress reduction approaches may benefit different medical problems. For example, acupuncture can help reduce harmful heart muscle actions in people with heart failure, but it has no effect on blood pressure. Relaxation methods, on the other hand, may help people with high blood pressure.

Stress reduction may improve well-being and quality of life in many people who are experiencing stress because of severe or chronic medical conditions.  Several strategies have been shown to help reduce stress, such as exercise, practicing mindfulness-based stress reduction (meditation and yoga), and engaging in a cognitive behavioral therapy program.

Ideas to help destress:

  • Seek help from a qualified mental health care provider if you are overwhelmed, feel you cannot cope, have suicidal thoughts, or are using drugs or alcohol to cope.
  • Get proper health care for existing or new health problems.
  • Stay in touch with people who can provide emotional and other support. Ask for help from friends, family, and community or religious organizations to reduce stress due to work burdens or family issues, such as caring for a loved one.
  • Recognize signs of your body’s response to stress, such as difficulty sleeping, increased alcohol and other substance use, being easily angered, feeling depressed, and having low energy.
  • Set priorities and decide what must get done and what can wait, and learn to say no to new tasks if they are putting you into overload.
  • Note what you have accomplished at the end of the day, not what you have been unable to do.
  • Schedule regular times for healthy and relaxing activities.
  • Explore stress coping programs, which may incorporate meditation, yoga, tai chi, or other gentle exercises.
  • Practice Relaxation Techniques
  • Exercise regularly-just 30 minutes per day
  • Walking
  • Yoga
  • Tai Chi
  • Meditation:
  • Acupuncture
  • Chiropractic Care
  • Make sure to get plenty of sleep, eat a balanced diet, and avoid tobacco use and excess caffeine and alcohol intake, as forgetting these aspects of life will significantly increase your stress levels.


Resources: — American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry — The American Institute of Stress — National Institute of Mental Health — National Alliance for the Mentally Ill — Mental Health America