Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How Stress Makes You Sick

Catch the early signs that you're getting overwhelmed.

Everybody has problems. When your problems weigh on your mind nonstop, you begin to show the signs of stress in your body. Don't feel alone: in one study of working age people visiting a primary care doctor, 35 percent of women and 26 percent of men said they felt “tense, restless, nervous or anxious, or…unable to sleep at night” much of the time.

Once you begin to show signs of stress, your health may become another source of worry. That’s why it’s important to recognize the connection between stress and your health and make stress relief a priority. You might feel that you have no spare time, but actually you will be more effective if you find that half hour to knit, walk outdoors near greenery or prepare a healthy meal at a leisurely pace.

Stress can trigger everything from acne to changes in appetite.

Acne. Some research shows that college students with acne find the condition gets worse during exams. You can help avoid this by getting enough sleep and eating well during the stressful period.

Headaches. Some 60 percent of working-age adults get headaches sometimes, and they come more often the more stressed out you are, according to a study of more than 5,000 people. It’s common for an ongoing headache problem to develop after a big stressful event. Teenagers who get headaches tend to be especially stressed, too.

Chronic Pain. People with chronic pain tend to have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their blood or hair, which may come from stress or the pain itself. There’s also evidence that being anxious about your relationships is linked to chronic pain. We tend to think that sore muscles come with age, but back and neck pain are common among stressed-out teenagers as well.

Colds. You’re likely to get more colds when you’re under stress, according to a review of 27 studies.

Fatigue. People feel more tired when they’re stressed out, and the stress also interferes with their sleep, in a classic bad loop. In a large survey of Germans, nearly 26 percent of men and more than 34 percent of women reported fatigue during the last six months, and 9.7 percent said they’d had substantial fatigue lasting six months or longer. Another study of more than 2,300 adults in Michigan with no history of insomnia or depression found that stressful events predicted insomnia a year later.

Digestive Problems. Evidence is growing that stress triggers changes in the microbes in the gut that eventually lead to problems like irritable bowel syndrome or auto-immune digestive illness. In the short term, you may just find yourself having occasional stomach aches and need to watch for specific foods that trigger them.

Changes in appetite. Many people gain weight when they’re stressed out. Research has documented what you’ve probably noticed: people tend to focus on a limited group of usually unhealthful “comfort foods.” Other people lose their appetite.

Consciously taking action to reverse these symptoms may help reduce your stress and motivate you to take action in other areas, like a troubled marriage or unrealistic work demands.

A version of this piece appears in Your Care Everywhere.

More from Psychology Today

More from Temma Ehrenfeld

More from Psychology Today