Is Your Stress Harming Your Health?

Occasional stress is a fact of life and may have some benefit. But it’s important to understand and watch for the downsides.

man working on laptop at night

Updated on April 19, 2023.

Most of us feel stress from time to time. It rarely feels good, but some anxiety may not always be a bad thing. In small doses, stress can be beneficial.

“Having a little bit of stress in your life is important, because it forces us to change and modify and adapt,” says Cesar Figueroa, MD, a psychiatrist in Macon, Georgia. “When you experience stress in response to a problem, it allows you to organize yourself and learn from the experience to become a better person.”

Too much stress, however, can take a toll on your health. It can weaken your immune system and even contribute to heart disease.

Here’s how you can use daily stress to increase your performance—and recognize when you’re dealing with too much.

How short-term stress can work for you

An occasional burst of short-term stress isn’t usually cause for alarm. The infamous “fight-or-flight” response—that danger-inspired hormone rush that tenses your muscles, raises your blood pressure, and spikes your heart rate—also allows you to react quickly and decisively.

“I ask my patients, ‘How else do you think our caveman ancestors survived being chased by saber-toothed tigers?’ If they just chilled out and did deep breathing when confronted with such dangers, none of us would be here today,” Dr. Figueroa says.

These days, you’re not likely to be fighting off ferocious beasts. In the 21st century, short-term stressors are more likely to be a late-night emergency text or missing an important work deadline.

But you can reap advantages from that surge of adrenaline and cortisol you get when an email from your boss hits your inbox labeled “red-alert priority.”

This rush of stress hormones boosts the level of sugar circulating in your bloodstream, giving you a jolt of energy. Meanwhile, your brain’s activity goes into overdrive, drawing more oxygen and glucose from the blood for peak performance. This, in turn, may improve your memory and concentration in the short-term, explains Figueroa, which is why you may find that you’re miraculously productive when you’re up against a rapidly approaching deadline.

There is some evidence that short bursts of stress may also benefit the brain on a cellular level, possibly ramping up the production of new brain cells in the hippocampus (the memory center of the brain). But this research and most other compelling studies thus far have been conducted in animals and is not necessarily translatable to the human brain. More research is needed to better understand how acute stress may benefit brain health.

Why too much stress can hurt

Intermittent jolts of stress—whether caused by a truck veering into your lane on the highway or your boss’s last-minute request to rewrite her speech—may increase mental alertness and cognitive performance, helping you rise to the occasion.

But chronic stress is different. That might involve a harrowing commute every morning, combined with a boss who routinely hurls crises into your lap, topped off with other gnawing stressors like marital woes, financial troubles, worries about children, or aging parents. Too much of that sort of stress over a prolonged period of time can be harmful.

“Chronic stress becomes bad,” Figueroa cautions. “You want to be able to turn your stress response on and off, much like a thermostat.”

When stress is left unchecked—when you’re in fight-or-flight mode 24/7—and those stress hormones are constantly churning throughout your body, Figueroa says, they do damage to everything from your heart and brain cells to your immune system.

Stress can also lead to poor sleep, which over time can contribute to anxiety, irritability, and other mental health issues. A 2021 study of about 274,000 adults published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease found that those who reported sleeping six or fewer hours each night over a two-week period were 250 percent more likely to experience frequent mental distress.

Consistently logging sleep outside the optimal range of seven to eight hours per night has also been linked to an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and other chronic conditions. For example, a 2021 systematic review and meta-analysis found that short sleep duration was linked to a higher risk of metabolic syndrome, a group of conditions that increase your odds of many serious illnesses. The results, published in Frontiers in Endocrinology, showed that those who got less than six or more than nine hours of sleep each night were at highest risk.

Assess your stress

You can help determine if your stress is reaching harmful levels by keeping track of day-to-day symptoms such as:

  • Feeling more irritable than usual
  • Having trouble falling and staying asleep
  • Headaches
  • Feeling depressed and/or anxious
  • Getting sick with the common cold or other infections more frequently or easily

If you’re noticing any of these symptoms, and they seem to persist for more than a couple weeks, it may be a sign that stress is straining your body, says Figueroa. The trackers in the Sharecare app (available for iOS and Android) can help you keep tabs on your sleep and stress levels so you can see which way your stress is trending.

How to manage stress

Stress manifests in different ways for different people, and there is no one-size-fits-all remedy for everyone. That said, you can take the first steps toward keeping stress in check by adopting an overall healthy lifestyle. This includes eating a healthful diet, getting plenty of exercise, resting enough, and incorporating activities that give you pleasure, like spending time reading, listening to music, or catching up with friends, advises Figueroa.

You can also try tips like these:

Go for a walking meditation. You probably know that getting regular exercise can help improve your mood and lower stress levels. But the benefits of movement may be even more pronounced when you practice mindfulness—the art of focusing intently and non-judgmentally on your breathing and surroundings, suggests a 2018 study published in the journal Psychology of Sports and Exercise.

Be self-aware. Over time, the effects of stress can build up, taking a toll on your heath and overall quality of life. By learning to recognize how you respond to stress—such as having trouble sleeping, drinking more alcohol, being more easily irritated, or feeling depressed or tired—you can take steps to better cope with your stress and manage these effects.

Get regular physical activity. A 30-minute daily walk can help boost your mood and ease stress. You could also try some other gentle exercises that may help you relax, such as yoga or tai chi. Blocking off time in your schedule for physical activity can help ensure that it becomes part of your daily routine. Stress can also slow your metabolism. Being more active can help offset this effect and help prevent unwanted weight gain.  

Seek out support. Be sure to talk to your healthcare provider (HCP) about your stress level and how it’s affecting your health and quality of life. Stress or anxiety that disrupts your daily routine may be a sign of a more serious health issue. It’s also important to stay connected to friends, loved ones, and members of your community who can provide you with some support.

Prioritize sleep. When you’re anxious, it’s hard to quiet your mind and rest. This creates a vicious cycle: Your body compensates by churning out even more stress hormones to keep you awake and alert. It might help to take a look at your sleep hygiene. Try doing a few minutes of yoga or meditation before bed to help you nod off. Avoid digital devices, such as your phone, tablet or laptop, at least 30 minutes before bedtime; the blue light they emit can throw off your body’s internal clock, making it harder to fall asleep.

There are times when the stresses of life—from everyday nuisances to long-term burdens—accumulate and become too much to handle. If you find yourself self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, or simply feel overwhelmed, ask your HCP for a reference to a mental health professional.

If you (or a loved one) feel like you’re reaching a breaking point with thoughts of suicide or self-harm, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or call, text, or chat 988 right away. You will be connected to a person who will listen to your concerns without judgment.

Article sources open article sources

Mayo Clinic. Stress management. April 8, 2022.
Office on Women's Health. Stress and your health. Page last updated: February 17, 2021. 
Blackwelder A, Hoskins M, Huber L. Effect of Inadequate Sleep on Frequent Mental Distress. Preventing Chronic Disease. 2021 Jun 17;18:E61.
Cai H, Wang XP, Yang GY. Sleep Disorders in Stroke: An Update on Management. Aging Dis. 2021 Apr 1;12(2):570-585.
Sleep Foundation. How To Determine Poor Sleep Quality. March 11, 2022.
Kirby ED, Muroy SE, et al. Acute stress enhances adult rat hippocampal neurogenesis and activation of newborn neurons via secreted astrocytic FGF2. Neuroscience. Apr 16, 2013.
NIH: National Institute of Mental Health. “I’m So Stressed Out! Fact Sheet.” Accessed August 1, 2022.
Yang CH & Conroy DE. Momentary negative affect is lower during mindful movement than while sitting: An experience sampling study. Psychology of Sport and Exercise. July 2018. Volume 37, Pages 109-116.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sleep and Sleep Disorders: Sleep and Chronic Disease. Last reviewed August 8, 2018.
Che T, Yan C, et al. The Association Between Sleep and Metabolic Syndrome: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Front Endocrinol (Lausanne). 2021 Nov 19;12:773646. 

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