|Different Types of Stress
|Type of stress
|What It Is
|Acute stress is a short-term type of stress that occurs in response to an immediate threat or challenge, whether scary or exciting. This type of stress can occur in day-to-day life.
|Narrowly avoiding a car accident, public speaking, downhill skiing
|Episodic Acute Stress
|Episodic acute stress occurs when you experience acute stress with some frequency or regularity.
|Repeated high-pressure work projects, caregiving for a loved one
|Chronic stress is an ongoing and consistent feeling of pressure over a long period of time.
|Losing a job, experiencing financial problems, getting divorced, long-term illness
Table of Contents
How Does Stress Affect The Body?
An acutely stressful experience triggers the body’s protective response from the sympathetic nervous system, or the “fight-or-flight” response, Shannon Bennett, PhD, site clinical director for NewYork-Presbyterian’s Youth Anxiety Center, told Verywell.
When your brain perceives that you are under some sort of attack or threat, every fight-or-flight system activates, which causes a surge of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline.
“When the fight-or-flight system fires, every system in our body is changed,” Bennet said. “The result is that our heart rate increases, our blood pressure increases, our breathing changes to bring more oxygen to the blood, our muscles tighten, and certain parts of our body slow down.”
Stress hormones continue to surge until the body and brain have decided that the environment is safe and that the stressor has passed. When that is determined, the body’s opposing system, called the parasympathetic nervous system, or the “rest and digest” system, will kick in. This brings your body back to a neutral state, slowing down respiration, restoring energy reserves, stabilizing heart rate, and allowing you to feel safe, Patricia Gerbarg, MD, assistant professor in Clinical Psychiatry at New York Medical College, told Verywell in an email.
Experts say when you never get a break from stress (chronic stress) and maintain a fight-or-flight level for an extended time—whether that’s for hours, days, months, or years—health conditions like cardiovascular illness, heart disease, hypertension, brain aging, muscle pain, digestive problems, sleep issues, and other inflammatory diseases can occur.
“Without opportunities to rest and relax and experience a break from stress, it can be really problematic for both our mental health as well as our physical health,” Bennett said.
Common Body Parts Impacted By Stress
According to Bennet, the physical impacts of stress are quite individualized.
“Everyone’s stress manifests stress in different ways—some people may experience it in their gut, others in their head—and that may be genetic,” she said. “Some systems in our body are a little more sensitive or vulnerable than others, but once we become aware of how stress most impacts our own body, then we can start to think about what to do to take care of ourselves.”
Below are the main areas of the body where stress can trigger symptoms and what you can do about it.
Cortisol and adrenaline cause an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, Bennett said. In addition, in moments of acute stress, these hormones cause your blood vessels to tighten and redirect more oxygen to areas that may need it most, like larger muscles.
“Our breathing changes to bring more oxygen to the blood and our muscles tighten so that we can be more powerful or fast if we were fighting or running,” she said.
However, if you experience episodic or constant stress over a longer period, the ongoing increase in heart rate and blood pressure can cause chest pain, heart disease, and a higher risk of stroke, heart attack, or hypertension, Gerbarg said.
“Both the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system enervate the heart. Activation of the sympathetic system speeds up the heart,” she said. “If this becomes excessive in vulnerable individuals, it can cause a rapid heart rate or even irregular heartbeats.”
If you consistently experience a rapid heart rate due to stress, experts recommend:
- Taking intentional and deep breaths
- Relaxing your face
- Drinking plenty of water
Stress may cause respiratory symptoms such as shortness of breath, rapid and uncontrolled breathing, or even asthma attacks, Bash said.
This happens because during an acutely stressful experience, your airways can narrow, including the bronchi—two large tubes responsible for distributing air throughout the lungs.
Gerbarg said for healthy people and those without respiratory disease, this usually isn’t serious. But for people with asthma, recent COVID, or other respiratory problems, rapid breathing can make symptoms worse or even exacerbate breathing problems for those with existing conditions, like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
To get your breathing under control when you’re stressed, you can:
- Breath in and out slowly
- Relax your neck and shoulder muscles
- Sit up straight and lean forward, or stand
Stomach and Gut
If your stomach has ever been in knots ahead of a nerve-wracking event, you already know you may not feel very hungry when you’re stressed. That’s because stress—whether acute or chronic—can affect your digestive system in all sorts of ways, leading to a range of potential symptoms:
- Stomach pain
Bash said it can also worsen symptoms if irritable bowel syndrome.
When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, it can lead to an increase in stomach acid, ulcers, and reflux, Gerbarg said.
“The sympathetic input can also cause reduced blood flow to the stomach and contraction of the muscles in the walls of the stomach,” she said, explaining why cramps are possible.
To alleviate an upset stomach due to stress, start by incorporating these easy interventions:
- Eating high-fiber foods
- Drinking plenty of water
Head, Neck, Shoulders, and Back
Chronic stress often leads to muscle tension, particularly in the areas of the neck, back, or shoulders, Gerbarg said.
For example, when the long muscles of the back are tense for extended periods, they become shortened, which can lead to poor posture and back pain. This can also cause herniated, bulging, and ruptured discs, as well as sciatic nerve pain.
“When one of the sciatic nerves gets compressed, it becomes inflamed and painful with pain running down the leg,” Gerbarg said. “Stress can cause tension in other muscles, such as the jaw, leading to temporal-mandibular joint pain, or TMJ.”
In some cases, muscles tightness from stress can impact your head, resulting in headaches and migraines, Bennett said. A stress-induced headache or migraine can contribute to insomnia, depression, lack of motivation, and anxiousness.
If stress is causing tension in your upper body, there are at-home remedies you can try before seeing a professional, like a physical therapist, acupuncturist, or masseuse. These include:
- Neck circles
- Shoulder rolls
- Application of warm compresses
- Regular movement throughout the day, especially if your job involves sitting
When to Seek Professional Help for Stress
If you’ve tried common strategies to manage your stress (e.g., getting enough sleep, maintaining a healthy diet, regularly exercising) but they don’t seem to be helping, it may be time to seek support from a professional or specialist, Gerbarg said. Therapists, like psychologists, or counselors trained to help with stress are appropriate providers for stress treatment.
You may also want to see an expert if you are experiencing recurring anxiety or panic attacks, or find yourself avoiding situations that may cause anxiety and depression.
“When a stressor is getting in the way of living life the way that you want to be living it, impairing your relationships, or prompting you to engage in unhealthy behaviors, that’s a reason to seek professional support,” Bennett said.
What This Means For You
Stress can affect different parts of the body, including the heart, muscles, head, lungs, stomach, and gut. How you go about managing your stress can depend on where you experience it the most. However, experts say following healthy lifestyle behaviors like getting enough sleep and exercising daily can help regardless.