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Stress and health are closely connected. But what is stress? Stress is a response to a perceived threat or danger. Once upon a time, when humans were hunting and gathering, our stress response was triggered by an external danger. When that instinct was triggered, it was the body’s signal to release hormones that gave us quick wits and fast response times. This fight or flight instinct was vital to our survival.
Fast forward to our modern world. Most of us no longer need to hunt and gather to survive. Other “threats” now trigger our stress response, including factors related to things like work, finances, and relationships. Stress can be temporary or it can hang on long-term, affecting hormones, mood, illness, and all aspects of your health and wellness.
What are the effects of stress on your health?
The stress impact on health can be significant, both physically and emotionally. Consider the following downstream effects of stress:
- Colds, flu, viruses, and other illnesses
- Depression and anxiety
- Heart problems or heart attack
- Insomnia or sleep disruptions
- Irritability and anger
- Stomach and gastrointestinal problems
- Substance use
- Trouble concentrating
What are the effects of stress on the immune system?
Over time, the effects of stress can build up in your brain and body. This kind of long-term, or chronic stress can weaken the immune system1, putting you at risk for sickness--from simple colds to more serious illnesses.
When you feel stress, your body creates a hormone called cortisol, which enters the bloodstream. For short durations, cortisol can help regulate many of your body’s natural functions, including sleep, weight, blood pressure, and blood sugar.2 However, when you are suffering with long-term stress, cortisol levels remain elevated. This contributes to inflammation and reduced white blood cell counts, both of which can weaken the immune system.
What are some of the causes of stress?
Almost anything can cause stress, depending on the situation and your ability to cope with it, but here are some of the more common stressors:
- Job and workplace: Deadlines, challenging bosses, troublesome colleagues, office politics, even harassment and discrimination in the workplace—all these things can keep you awake at night with worry and fear. Your job is a big part of your daily life. When things aren’t going well, stress at work can mount. On the other hand, if you’re unemployed, stress factors may be related to loss of income, and basic necessities such as food and shelter.
- Money and finances: Looming bills, credit card debt, bill collectors, identity theft and fraud, even the act of checking your savings account balance, can all inspire stress. For most people, money is a necessity. Some people are struggling just to make ends meet and others are unemployed or underemployed. Worries may swirl around how to buy groceries, pay the electric bill, pay the doctor’s bill, and how to pay the rent or mortgage. The downstream effects of stress can make surviving and thriving even more challenging.
- Disasters and trauma: Natural or man-made disasters and traumatic events can have major impacts on someone’s life. Tornadoes, wildfires, hurricanes, and flooding, can lead to loss of life, home, and community. This kind of stress can become overwhelming. The stress of traumatic events like being the victim of an attack or in a serious accident can likewise lead to deep and long-lasting stress and health issues.
- Relationships and family: Children, divorce, separation, loneliness, and even the responsibility of caring for a family can have stress impacts. For those dealing with the death of a loved one, sickness, or having to play a role as caregiver for an ill or elderly family member, stress also plays a major role in health and wellness.
Is all stress bad for your health?
Some forms of short-term stress can be a benefit. For example, maybe there’s a project at work you’ve put off for weeks that’s now coming due. The pressure you suddenly feel to deliver that project is actually stress. This type of stress is short-lived. It can give you increased stamina, focus, and an adrenaline high so you can deliver on time. Some people who work well under pressure, understand how to put this type of short-term stress to good use.
Consider, the temporary and sudden stress of a near miss car accident--your heart is pounding and your hands are shaking. The adrenaline rush allowed you to think and act in a split second. That instinctual fight or flight response helped you narrowly escape an otherwise bad situation.
So not all stress is bad, but it’s important to understand the difference.
Tips for managing the impact of stress on your health
When managed, the stress impact on health can be lessened. Try these tips when you’re feeling stressed out:
- Identify stressors: Acknowledge feelings of stress. What is it that’s eating at you? Is it work, or money, a relationship, or something else? Once you know this, you can begin to deal with your stress in a healthy way.
- Talk to a therapist or counselor: Tell them what’s going on and how you’re feeling. They can help identify what’s stressing you out and offer helpful advice on working through it. If you have a plan through your employer, they may offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). EAPs typically provide no cost confidential access to a counselor or therapist as part of your employment benefits.
- Exercise and get active: Getting active is one of the easiest and best ways to de-stress. Taking a walk, riding a bike, going for a run, gardening, yoga, or weightlifting, can change your focus and your brain hormones. Exercise creates endorphins3, which are hormones that make you feel better and happier. When you feel happier, stress can be held at bay. Daily exercise and movement is key to helping counteract the effects of stress.
- Meditate: Meditation can lower blood pressure and ease anxiety and tension.4 If you’re feeling stressed, you might try a meditation technique, or some quiet mindfulness to help manage it.
- Get involved in enjoyable activities: Find a hobby or volunteer opportunity. When you’re engaged in an activity that you enjoy, it shifts focus away from your stress and onto something else.
The effects of stress can lead to physical and emotional health issues. If you’re struggling with stress, there are many ways to manage it. You can also talk to your doctor or a therapist about stress and health issues.
This information is for educational purposes only. It is not medical advice. Always consult your doctor for appropriate examinations, treatment, testing, and care recommendations. Any third party content is the responsibility of such third party. Cigna does not endorse or guarantee the accuracy of any third party content and is not responsible for such content. Your access to and use of this content is at your sole risk.
How stress affects your health, American Psychological Association, https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress, accessed March 25, 2019.
Stress symptoms: Effects on your body and behavior, Mayo Clinic, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-symptoms/art-20050987, accessed March 25, 2019.
1 Does stress weaken your immune system? Prevention, April 2020, https://www.prevention.com/health/a31816486/does-stress-weaken-immune-system/
2 What is Cortisol? WebMD, https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/what-is-cortisol#1, accessed March 27, 2019.
3 Exercise and Stress: Get moving to manage stress, Mayo Clinic, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/exercise-and-stress/art-20044469, accessed March 27, 2019.
4 Meditation, Stress, and Your Health, WebMD, https://www.webmd.com/balance/guide/meditation-natural-remedy-for-insomnia#1, accessed March 27, 2019.