How stress can harm your health

Learn about stress and how to handle its downsides.

Stressed woman holds her hands up to her lowered head

Updated on May 13, 2024.

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 have important benefits.

Here’s how: When you have a problem and become stressed, you learn from the experience. It helps you prepare for the future. You can even become a better person.

Too much stress, however, can take a toll on your health. It can weaken your immune system. It can also be a big factor in heart disease.

Here, learn how to use daily stress to improve your life. Plus, find out how to recognize when you’re dealing with too much.

How short-term stress can work for you
We all experience a little stress sometimes, like fighting with a friend or a work emergency.

This kind of stress isn’t usually a problem. It may even be useful. It triggers your body’s “fight-or-flight” response. This response can:

  • Give you a jolt of energy
  • Make your muscles tense up
  • Cause your heart to beat faster
  • Help you react to danger in the moment
  • Help you make important decisions quickly
  • Improve your memory and focus for a time

Your fight-or-flight response can help you in many stressful situations. It may explain why you get a lot of work done in times of stress.

Short bursts of stress could also help the cells in your brain. It may help create new brain cells, too. Scientists are still studying this.

Why too much stress can hurt

Chronic stress is different than occasional stress. It happens when you are stressed all the time, or almost all the time. It can be caused by one thing or many different things together.

Common causes of chronic stress include:

  • Money troubles
  • Problems at work
  • Issues with your partner
  • Challenges with children, parents, or other relationships

Over time, too much chronic stress can be harmful. It can put you in fight-or-flight mode all the time. This can damage your heart, brain cells, immune system, and more.

Chronic stress can also lead to poor sleep. Not sleeping well for a long time can contribute to:

  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Lack of focus
  • Issues with memory
  • Problems with judgment or making decisions
  • Other mental health issues

Sleeping about seven to eight hours each night is best for most people. When you regularly sleep less, it raises your risk for some serious illnesses, like heart disease and diabetes.

Assess your stress
Is your stress level harmful? You can help decide by keeping track of your symptoms each day. These can include:

  • Feeling more short-tempered than usual
  • Having trouble falling and staying asleep
  • Headaches
  • Feeling depressed and/or anxious
  • Getting sick more often or easily

If you have these symptoms for at least a few weeks, it may be a sign that stress is straining your body.

Try keeping track of your symptoms using a pen and paper or your phone. Some apps are designed to track stress symptoms.

How to manage stress
Different people process stress in different ways. There isn’t one right way to manage it that will work for everyone.

But you can help control your stress by making healthy changes. This includes:

  • Eating a healthful diet
  • Trying to move more each day and stay active
  • Resting enough
  • Doing enjoyable things like reading, listening to music, or talking with friends

You can also try tips like these:

Be self-aware. Learn how you respond to stress. For example, when some people are stressed, they have trouble sleeping or drink more alcohol. When you understand your reactions, you can take steps to manage your stress in a healthy way.

Take a mindful walk. Walking can help improve your mood and lower stress levels. Practicing mindfulness while you walk may boost those benefits. Mindfulness means focusing on the present. Avoid thinking about things that have already happened or what might happen in the future. Listen to the sound of your breathing and look at your surroundings.

Try gentle exercise. Yoga, tai chi, or simple stretching can boost your mood and help you relax. Block off time in your day for exercise. That way, it will become part of your daily routine.

Seek support. Talk to your healthcare provider (HCP) about your stress level. Discuss how it affects your health and quality of life. If your stress disrupts your daily routine, it may be a sign of a more serious health issue.

It’s also important to stay connected. Reach out to friends, loved ones, and others who can give you support.

Focus on sleep. When you’re anxious, it’s hard to quiet your mind and rest. And when you can’t rest, it can make you more anxious.

So, take steps to improve your sleep. Try the following:

  • Do a few minutes of stretching, yoga, or meditation before bed.
  • Avoid electronics at least 30 minutes before bedtime, including your phone.
  • Try keeping your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet at bedtime.

When stress is overwhelming
There are times when stress can become too much to handle. If you feel overwhelmed or use drugs or alcohol to cope, speak with an HCP. They can help you stop and find other ways to cope.

If you or a loved one have thoughts of suicide or self-harm, take action. Call, text, or chat 988 right away for the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. You will be connected to a person who will listen to you 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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