7 surprising ways stress can affect your body

by Kaiser Permanente |
Man looks outside a window on rainy day

We all experience stress from time to time, but not everyone experiences it in the same way. Often it can take a toll on the mind, but it can also affect your body. Sometimes physical symptoms are your body’s way of telling you that you’re under too much stress.

“Patients come in with real physical symptoms, but they aren’t caused by any illness,” says Loretta Howitt, MD, a psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente’s Los Angeles Medical Center. “Stress is the underlying problem that needs to be addressed.”

Whether you have physical signs, mental and emotional symptoms, or both, finding healthy ways to manage stress can help you find relief.

Common physical signs of stress

You might be stressed and not even realize it. When in doubt, talk to your doctor to rule out any physical health issues. But if these symptoms sound familiar, stress could be to blame.

Dry mouth and trouble swallowing

Stress can reduce the production of saliva. This can cause dry mouth and make it difficult or uncomfortable to swallow.

Hair loss

Hair falls out naturally all the time: Hair grows, takes a little rest, and falls out to make room for new hair. Each hair is in a different phase of this cycle. Stress can cause more hair to enter the resting phase at once. This can lead to increased, more noticeable hair loss.

Upset stomach

Stress can cause gastrointestinal symptoms of all types, including abdominal pain, heartburn, nausea, diarrhea, and constipation.

Muscle aches and pains

Stress can cause your muscles to tense up — and over time, that can lead to pain and soreness almost anywhere in the body. Often, you’ll feel stress-related aches and pains in your neck, back, and shoulders.

Jaw, ear, or head pain

Many people unconsciously clench their jaws or grind their teeth when they’re under stress. This can cause uncomfortable tightness or soreness.

Lightheadedness and dizziness

Stress can raise your heart rate and cause rapid, shallow breathing. This can make you feel dizzy or lightheaded.

Lack of sexual desire

Stress can cause hormonal changes. These changes can lead to decreased sex drive, erectile dysfunction, irregular menstrual cycles, and missed periods.

Self-care for stress management

Fortunately, you can do some simple things to help relieve stress. These small acts of self-care can have mind-body benefits in the moment and over time.

Eat right and stay hydrated

When you’re stressed, it’s easy to abandon healthy habits. But they can make a big difference in how you feel. Keep healthy foods on hand. Cut back on sugar and caffeine, and drink plenty of water

Prioritize exercise

Exercise is key to managing stress. Any type of physical activity can help. The benefits are immediate, and they’ll become even more noticeable over time.1

Get outside and into nature

Getting outdoors can help relieve stress. Spending just 20 to 30 minutes in nature can lower levels of stress hormones by 20%.2

Explore mindfulness meditation

Mindfulness meditation is a popular way of managing stress. Sit quietly, focus on your breathing, and pay attention to the present moment. Research suggests this can reduce levels of stress hormones.3 There’s evidence that other types of mindfulness activities can help protect against stress as well.4

Connect with others

Connecting with family and friends and keeping relationships strong can help you cope with stress and become more resilient. And the benefits go both ways. Supporting someone else can boost your mood and enhance well-being. Make plans to meet up or catch up over the phone, video chat, or even with a text.

Get creative

Studies have shown that spending time being creative can help with stress.5 It doesn’t matter what you do — painting, writing, playing music — as long as you enjoy it.

Choose positive ways to cope

Some things like drinking, overeating, or smoking may feel like quick fixes. But over time, they can be harmful to your health. They can even cause problems that make stress worse. Developing new, healthier ways of coping can help break this cycle — and provide deeper, longer-lasting relief.

“Try to be aware of how you handle stress so you can make healthier choices,” Dr. Howitt says. “Consider keeping a journal of your habits, so you can understand your patterns. Make a list of positive actions you can take — like calling a friend, going for a walk, or putting on music and dancing.”

Ideally, over time, these healthier choices will become your new go-to activities for stress relief.

Finding your path to a less stressed life

There’s no magic solution that relieves stress for everyone. You might have to try several different tools and techniques before you find what works best for you. Dr. Howitt suggests taking it one small, manageable step at a time. "Set achievable goals,” she says. "Small changes can make a meaningful difference in how you experience stress — both mentally and physically."

Practicing self-care is always a good idea, but some people need more support. If something still doesn’t feel right — or you have questions about how to manage stress in positive ways — talk to your doctor.

Self-care apps to support well-being

Digital self-care apps are another resource to help you manage stress and navigate life’s challenges. Learn more about these tools, available at no cost to Kaiser Permanente members.

Kathrin Wunsch et al., “Habitual and Acute Exercise Effects on Salivary Biomarkers in Response to Psychosocial Stress,” Psychoneuroendocrinology, August 2019.

MaryCarol R. Hunter et al., “Urban Nature Experiences Reduce Stress in the Context of Daily Life Based on Salivary Biomarkers,” Frontiers in Psychology, April 4, 2019.

3Adam Koncz et al., “Meditation Interventions Efficiently Reduce Cortisol Levels of At-Risk Samples: A Meta-Analysis,” Health Psychology Review, July 7, 2020.

Brian Chin et al., “Psychological Mechanisms Driving Stress Resilience in Mindfulness Training: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” Health Psychology, August 2019.

“Getting Creative Really Does Boost Your Mood, Survey Suggests,” BBC News, May 8, 2019.