How Chronic Stress Affects the Body and Mind

by | Sep 20, 2022 | Anxiety, Depression, Health, Stress, Well-being | 0 comments

Stress in any capacity is demonstrated to have adverse effects on the entire body system, including the brain. It can take a toll both emotionally and physically. Chronic stress especially affects the body and mind. A variety of factors contribute to overall stress levels such as home life, work, school, relationships, friendships, socio-economic status, current events, and even the recent pandemic.  

Chronic stress, which is high levels of stress over a long period of time, is linked to both minor and severe long-term effects. Gaining knowledge as to why increased cortisol is so detrimental is important for both inciting the motivation to lower stress levels as well as understanding why the body and brain may be suffering. 

Immune Dysfunction

Arguably the most harmful effect of chronic stress is its impact on the immune system. We rely on our immune system to protect us from anything from the common cold to Covid-19. Lymphocytes, or white blood cells, are responsible for fighting off infection. Stress significantly decreases the number of lymphocytes in the body. As a result, we are less equipped to fight off ailments. One of the underlying reasons for this is the inflammation that occurs.  

Short-term stress actually has the ability to limit inflammation, but chronic stress does precisely the opposite. The strain that is put on the body with chronic stress requires significant energy and attention from the systems within. As a result, other areas are neglected, and immunity is one example of this. Those that do not take steps to manage stress are far more susceptible to becoming ill and are less equipped to fight off any diseases or illnesses they encounter. 

Increased Risk Of Heart Attack And Stroke

Stress is linked to poor coping mechanisms, which can lead to both heart attack and stroke. Some examples of these poor coping tools are smoking, drinking alcohol, lack of exercise, and unhealthy food consumption. All of these contribute directly to increased risk of both heart attack and stroke, as well as physical health in general.  

One of the most significant contributors to this increased risk is high blood pressure. This occurs when the force of blood against the walls of the heart and arteries is too high. Maintaining a healthy level of blood pressure is challenging to do when experiencing high volumes of stress. Blood pressure is increased during the fight or flight response, as adrenaline is dumped into the bloodstream. Because this is a physiological response, it is nearly impossible to prevent. One of the best ways to avoid this increased level of blood pressure is by managing stress. 

Tension Headaches

One of the most common symptoms of stress is muscle tension. Over long periods of time, muscle tension can morph into tension headaches, which are a re-occurring form of headache that involves immense pressure. Tension headaches are more commonly considered uncomfortable rather than painful but can interrupt daily activities significantly. They are described as feeling like a tight rubber band is placed around the head. It is challenging to focus on any important tasks or activities as a result.  

With chronic stress, chronic tension headaches can occur often. They officially fall under the category of chronic after 15 consecutive days of experiencing them. The inability to look at a screen, converse, or move can have an incredibly detrimental effect on personal and professional aspects of a person’s life. They can have a similar impact as migraines, in which noise and light can exacerbate the discomfort. Stress management is a proven way to decrease or eliminate tension headaches. 

Depression And Anxiety

Stress has a direct effect on mood. It can cause increased irritability, inability to focus, trouble sleeping, frustration, and anger. Experiencing any of these symptoms for an extended period of time has the ability to morph into depression, anxiety, or both.  

For starters, lack of sufficient sleep is linked to a wide range of issues, depression included. The body regenerates during sleep, and without proper time to accomplish this, the entire body suffers.  

Additionally, those experiencing chronic stress are less likely to take care of themselves. They will lack exercise, eat an unhealthy diet, turn to alcohol, and isolate themselves. These choices can lead to depression and anxiety in a multitude of ways, including decreased gut health and increased blood pressure.  

Another way stress can cause depression is through relationship disruption. With lowered mood, strain is placed on romantic relationships as well as friendships. In general, others are less likely to want to spend time with someone suffering from negative moods on a regular basis. As a result, isolation is further perpetuated, and depressive symptoms can increase. 

Leaky Gut

Leaky gut is a condition that stems from stress on the digestive system. As recent studies have shown, gut health plays a significant role in mental health. In contrast, mental health has the ability to impact gut health as well. Leaky gut occurs when the intestines experience increased permeability. This happens when amino acids typically utilized in the gut need to be repurposed elsewhere due to high cortisol levels in the body. As a result, contents from the intestines are leaked into the bloodstream. The outcome of this is less nutrient absorption, along with a host of other symptoms like fatigue, weight gain, allergies, and even auto-immune conditions. The danger of this stress-related condition is that it has the ability to put even more stress on the body, which further perpetuates the damage. 


The adrenal glands are responsible for secreting cortisol and adrenaline when stress occurs. They are a vital part of the body’s fight-or-flight response. Too much cortisol being dumped into the body can result in chronic fatigue, which can make day-to-day activities feel challenging. Being chronically tired is a result of significant strain being put on the body. This can become a vicious cycle, as stress causes fatigue, and fatigue prevents a person from accomplishing vital tasks. As a result, stress levels increase even further. Additionally, experiencing prolonged stress becomes draining mentally and emotionally.  

Tips To Combat Stress

Fortunately, there are many science-based methods to lower stress levels. One of the most impactful and research-backed practices is called breathwork. Breathwork is essentially self-soothing by way of controlling our own breathing. There is a wide range of specific routines to accomplish this, and one example is known as box breathing. Box breathing involves breathing in for a count of five, holding the breath for a count of five, slowly releasing for a count of five, and repeating. This practice has the ability to lower heart rate, stop panic attacks, and refocus.  

Another effective tip for combating stress is exercise. Yoga, pilates, running, and weight training are all fantastic ways to undo high levels of stress. Ultimately, any form of movement can provide benefits to the body that will counteract the heavy doses of cortisol. Even simply going for a walk can promote the release of endorphins, which improve mood and incite relaxation.  

One study showed that combining walking and meditation can help decrease stress. Those that meditated while they walked experienced higher levels of stress relief than those who did not. This comes as no surprise, considering the immense benefits of meditation for stress reduction, even when done alone.  

Meditation is the practice of focusing the mind and controlling thoughts. During periods of high stress, rumination is commonly experienced. Repeated thinking about stressors can perpetuate the problem. Meditation allows the mind to focus on something else can lead to a decrease in blood pressure, respiration rate, and anxiety. An example of a simple meditation practice involves focusing on the five senses. This is as easy as consciously thinking about something you can see, taste, smell, hear, and touch. 

Stress is a necessary bodily reaction. Control the amount of stress you experience by taking preventative measures such as exercise, proper nutrition, meditation, and breathwork. Although we cannot eradicate stress completely, we can lower its impact on our daily lives and reduce the negative effects that come along with chronic stress. 

We Can Help!

MHThrive provides Individual Therapy, Couples and Marriage Counseling, and Family Therapy at our locations in Katy, The Woodlands, and the Clear Lake area of Houston, Texas. We also provide telehealth therapy for anyone who resides within the State of Texas. To schedule an appointment with one of the MHThrive therapists, contact us at 713-477-0333 or visit to learn more.

If you or someone you know is experiencing any mental health or substance abuse issues, New Dimensions can help. Our team of experienced therapists and psychiatrists can help you overcome these challenges and help you develop the skills you need to thrive. To schedule a complementary assessment or to find out more about our programs, contact us at 1-800-685-9796.

Online Treatment Programs provides Teletherapy Partial Hospitalization and Intensive Outpatient Programs allowing participants to receive intensive therapy with our licensed therapists and psychiatrists without having to leave home.  If you or someone you know is struggling to overcome depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, trauma, panic attacks, PTSD, alcoholism, drug abuse, or other mental health or addiction issues, we can help.  To schedule a complementary assessment or to find out more about our teletherapy programs, contact us at 1-800-685-9796.