6 Ways Stress Hurts Your Health — and What to Do About It

Kristen Domonell Fact Checked
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Do you remember the last time you went a week without feeling stressed out? According to the most recent “Stress in America” report from the American Psychological Association, many of us are still dealing with the aftermath of traumatic stress from the pandemic, not to mention ongoing racial injustice, global warming and other major social issues. The report also found that adults ages 18 to 44 are dealing with increased rates of mental illness.

Chronic stress causes inflammation in the body and can take a toll in the form of myriad health problems, from heart troubles and sleepless nights to packing on unwanted pounds.

Chronic stress isn’t just about traumatic events 

It’s not just major life events, like a death in the family, moving or losing your job that can contribute to health problems. Even little nuisances you deal with day in and day out can start to affect your physical and emotional health over time, says clinical psychologist Patrick Raue, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

“Research shows that the accumulation of day-to-day problems of living and minor stresses — as they accumulate and build up and become chronic — can be more harmful than big life events,” he says. “They tend to pile up and can take on a life of their own.”  

Physical symptoms of stress 

Stress can affect your entire body, not just your brain. Here are some of the most common ways it can show up — and remind you that you might need to work on managing your stress levels.  

Memory problems 

Always misplacing your keys or forgetting where you parked? Chronic stress can cause brain fog, which includes symptoms like forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating and lack of mental clarity. 

Heart disease 

When you’re stressed out all the time, you might develop high blood pressure or high cholesterol, and the health of your blood vessels may be compromised. Stress can also drive people to overeat, drink more alcohol or smoke. All of these things increase your risk for cardiovascular disease and stroke.   


Stress can be a headache, literally. But for people who get migraines, the weekend after a big presentation might be even worse than the day of. Why? Stress triggers the release of cortisol, a hormone that helps in reducing pain. Without this increased level of cortisol, migraines can become more intense and unbearable — it’s often called a let down headache according to the American Migraine Foundation.

Weight gain 

Stress causes some people to eat more. For example, researchers found that premenopausal women consume more food — especially sweets — on the days they're stressed. Let’s be real: Who hasn’t stress eaten chocolate? It’s important to note that weight gain in and of itself isn’t a bad thing for everyone, but for some people, it can be a problem.   

Decreased exercise motivation 

Consider yourself lucky if you like to take your stress out on the pavement. For most people, stress impairs efforts to be physically active. But even though it might seem like a catch-22, forcing yourself to get out and move can help you reduce stress, studies show.  

Poor sleep 

You don’t need a study to tell you that a stressful day can lead to a stressful night of tossing and turning. And missing out on sleep can lead to a vicious cycle of being stressed out, not sleeping well and then stressing out about how you aren’t sleeping. How you cope with stress may also hurt your sleep. Using drugs or alcohol, distracting with TV or a movie — or avoiding dealing with your stress at all — are all linked with an increased insomnia risk. 

Learn how to handle stress 

Whether it’s stress from work or the madness that is the Seattle housing market, learning to deal with it can have a positive impact on your health. The first step? Identifying that you’re stressed out in the first place, says Raue. 

“If you’re feeling sad or anxious or overwhelmed, think of that as a red flag that there’s a problem or a stress that’s existing and you might be feeling stuck with that,” he says. “If you can look at that like a challenge or a cue to action, that can help you identify what in the situation is under your control.” 

Some things, like the price of a two-bedroom house in Ballard, can’t be controlled. Other things, like tackling a big project at work, can be. Once you’ve identified what’s stressing you out, try setting goals you can meet, says Raue. If you’re freaking out about what needs to get done at the office, divide it into smaller, more manageable tasks, he suggests.   

It also can be helpful to write out a step-by-step plan about what you will do first, when you will start and what you want to do next, says Raue. 

“As you are following through with your plan, take stock of how the process is going. Appreciate your efforts if you have met your goals,” he says. “But if obstacles or difficulties come up, think of this as new information about the problem you are facing and then revise your plan.”      

If you find you’re unable to work through your stress with these simple strategies, talking with a professional, like a psychologist or clinical social worker, is a great way to learn. Raue often recommends an approach called problem-solving therapy to his patients who need help reframing their problems and managing stress more effectively. 

Once you start managing your stress, you should notice a decrease in physical symptoms — and that you’re starting to feel better all around. 

This article was originally published on October 9, 2017. It has been reviewed and updated with new info. Kristen Domonell and McKenna Princing contributed to this article.