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Stress and Health: How A Troubled Mind Affects Your Body

By on July 14, 2018 in Stress Relief with 0 Comments

With the way our mind and bodies are wired, it is no surprise that our mental health is closely linked to our physical health.  A troubled mind can affect your body in many ways. Those suffering from poor emotional health tend to take less effort in taking care of themselves.

Poor diet, infrequent exercise, and disturbed sleep can lead to a deterioration of the immune system. In trying to cope with stress, anxiety or depression, the sufferer may depend on addictive substances such as alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs.

However, studies have also shown mental illness can manifest certain symptoms in our bodies. This is due to the effect of stress on hormones like cortisol, spikes in our adrenaline and heightened nervous activity. Stress, in small doses, can be useful since it gives us a sense of self-preservation. We go into ‘fight or flight’ mode. Once we dealt with the situation, the stress is alleviated and our bodies go back to normal.

Man on cellphone struggles with stress

However, those with mental health issues tend to find it very hard to cope with stress. The constant activation and re-activation of the body’s stress system can have many negative effects on the body.

Physical effects of stress

A Harvard Medical School research paper and articles from American Psychological Association demonstrate there is a link between poor mental health and physical symptoms. Those suffering from anxiety or depression usually displays several physical problems, for example:

Digestive or gastroenteritis issues

It is common for people suffering from anxiety to have digestive issues such as diarrhea, stomach pain, nausea and bloating. The symptoms are often very similar to irritable bowel syndrome IBS.  Chronic stress from anxiety can cause an overproduction of stomach acid and reflux causing extreme pain and can even lead to peptic ulcers.

Chronic headaches or migraines

Stress affects the muscles in our body without our conscious realization. The tension that results can exacerbate underlying stress disorders. In the neck and head area, muscle tension may even promote problems such as a migraine.

Chronic headaches are also a product of ‘catastrophizing’.  This is when the mind cannot stop the train of negative thoughts which in turn produce more stress and anxiety in a never-ending cycle.  The negative thought train can also contribute to insomnia.

Coronary problems

For those who are already suffering from coronary or heart problems, stress is believed to exacerbate the condition. It causes a constant ongoing increase in heart rate, palpitations, and inflammation in the coronary arteries, all of these can lead to heart attacks. ‘Stress eating’ and making poor diet choices will also exacerbate the problem.

Chronic Pulmonary Diseases (COPD)

Stress and anxiety can also bring an onset of a severe panic attack, hyperventilation and in some cases full-blown asthma attacks.  Rapid breathing associated with stress is usually fine for otherwise healthy people, but for those suffering from emphysema or chronic pulmonary diseases, this can be dangerous or can lead to more frequent hospitalization.

Effects on sexual drive and women’s menstrual cycles

Prolonged stress can have a negative effect on hormones such as estrogen and progesterone. This, in turn, can affect sex drive as well as a woman’s menstrual cycle. This could be a blow to those who are trying to start a family. For men, stress and issues with mental health can lead to a drop in testosterone and erectile dysfunction.

Other physical problems

Chronic stress can also lead to changes in our body’s metabolism and have a significant impact on our weight.  It can also lead to chronic back pain. 

How to cope

Since stress is the contributing factor, the way to deal with the physical effects is to cope better with stress.  Keeping on track with exercise, diet, and nutrition and taking control of alcohol or tobacco intake can go a long way in helping your body deal with stress.

For those already getting help with their anxiety or depression, your counselor or therapist will probably have given you the tools to cope.  This could be using mindfulness or cognitive behavioral therapy as a technique to reframe stress and take back control.

Another piece of advice: while consulting with your doctor about your physical symptoms, it is good to speak about your mental health as well. Your doctor cannot always tell the state of your mental health. As in the example above, digestive problems caused by anxiety can be mistaken for irritable bowel system and it is important that your doctor can diagnose the causes correctly to better help you.


Mental health and stress have a direct impact on your body. The physical symptoms can be mistaken for other illnesses.  To get the right treatment and support, those suffering from stress and other mental health conditions should inform their doctors. The goal is to alleviate chronic stress and once this is handled, the physical symptoms will tend to disappear.

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About the Author

About the Author: Tom Andrews BSc is the editor of He devotes his time to psychology and mental health research and also enjoys climbing, hiking, and team sports. Tom is a contributor to several other highly regarded health magazines and blogs.


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