7 surprising ways stress can affect your body

Stress is inevitable. But it’s especially poignant during uncertain times like these, with Aussie’s mental health deteriorating by 8 per cent from where it was in 2019 before the global pandemic.

Whether it’s due to a busy work schedule, chaotic family life or existing financial worries, we all experience stress and it can have a surprising impact on our mental and physical health and well-being.

Young annoyed female character, sceptical face expression
Stress can have a surprising impact on our mental and physical health. Photo: Getty

It’s natural to feel stressed, in fact, 74% of adults have felt stressed at some point over the last year and felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. And while triggers of stress can sometimes be trivial, the effects it has on our bodies is not.

Here, the team at private rehab clinic Delamere have shared with Yahoo Lifestyle a few ways that stress is wreaking havoc on your body.

Stress can shrink your brain

While stress may be an unavoidable part of life, prolonged exposure can take a toll on both your body and the brain. Overcoming stressful situations in day-to-day life can make us more resilient, but when stress is severe or chronic, it needs to be addressed immediately. That’s because this form of stress can have a huge impact on our brains.


Even amongst healthy people, stress can lead to shrinkage in areas of the brain which are associated with emotions, metabolism and memory. Higher levels of stress cause raised levels of the hormone cortisol. A raised cortisol level in the blood will impact brain size, function and also performance when individuals are exposed to cognitive tests.

A study published in the journal Neurology confirmed that people with a higher than average level of cortisol, which is the stress hormone, have smaller brain volumes and worse memory.

Stress ball help to relieve the stress and muscle tension
Higher levels of the stress hormone can lead to shrinkage in the brain. Photo: Getty

You might have irregular periods

Stress can take its toll on you - and your menstrual cycle. For some women, stress can play a huge role in causing irregular, missed periods, make your period heavier or stop altogether.

While emotional stress like the breakdown of a relationship, busy work schedule or family life can incite these changes to your menstrual cycle, so can physical stressors, such as weight loss or increased exercise. The reason why stress can alter periods is to do with hormones.

Stress causes a rise in cortisol levels, which can suppress the hormonal cycle responsible for a person’s ovulation and period. As your stress levels continue to rise, there is a possibility that your menstrual cycle will temporarily stop, a condition known as secondary amenorrhea.

sad woman looking on pregnancy test unexpected
Stress can also make it harder to conveive. Photo: Getty

It makes it harder to conceive

Being stressed over a long period of time may make it harder to conceive. The process of having a child can naturally trigger stress and anxiety.

Increased stress levels will affect the hypothalamus part of the brain which regulates hormones, which in turn control your menstrual cycle. Stress could mean that you ovulate at a later period than normal, or not at all. Research published by the American Journal of Epidemiology discovered that women with higher levels of stress are 13% less likely to conceive than those who aren’t exposed to as much stress.

There are plenty of simple changes to make to your lifestyle that will help you and your partner to feel more relaxed and less stressed. Start by eating more healthy, exercising more, meditating or participating in yoga can all help to lower stress levels.

Stress makes you vulnerable to illness

One of the most common ways stress impacts our body is by preventing our immune system from functioning to the best of its ability, making us more vulnerable to illness. When we are stressed, our immune system’s ability to fight off potential antigens is reduced.

Stress decreases the body’s lymphocytes - the white blood cells which help to fight off infection. The lower your cell count of lymphocytes, the greater the risk you are for viruses, including the common cold and cold sores.

When we are exposed to stress, our cortisol levels increase, which can weaken the immune system if raised for too long. It can also lead to higher levels of inflammation, which can weaken your immune system making it harder to protect you.

Stress can disrupt your memory

Having memory problems is quite a common experience when we are feeling stressed, anxious or depressed. When we are exposed to stressful situations, we find it more challenging to think clearly and learn new information. When our minds are preoccupied with a stressful situation, we are distracted instead of being fully observant.

Stress can even affect how our memories are formed. When stressed, we often find it more difficult to generate short-term memories and transmit these into long-term memories.

Our memory is often hazy of encounters we face when stressed. As the body creates the hormone adrenaline which prepares the body to find potential danger, during this period we are unable to focus on other things around us.

student girl with eyes closed and head in hands crying
Memory function can also deteriorate. Photo: Getty

You lose your libido

Stress can have a big impact on your sex life, too. When your body produces too much of the hormone cortisol, it can lower your libido. During a chronic state of stress, your body will focus entirely on producing cortisol, and not have time to focus on other hormones which it should be creating, including sex hormones such as testosterone and estrogen.

It causes weight gain It

If you’re struggling with an expanding waistline, then stress could be one of the culprits. It plays a role in weight gain. While in the short term, stress can reduce your appetite, left untreated, stress can boost your hunger.

Cortisol, which is the hormone that controls the way our bodies respond to stress, can stimulate your fat and carbohydrate metabolism, generating a surge of energy in your body. This process increases your appetite. While stress can also cause you to seek comfort in unhealthy food habits, craving sweet, fatty and salty foods.

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