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Major Side Effects of Being Too Stressed Out, Says Science

These are some of the severe physiological consequences of living a high-stress life.
FACT CHECKED BY Keenan Mayo
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Even before a global pandemic arrived last year, constant stress had become so ubiquitous many of our lives that most of us had simply learned to live with it. But according to a 2020 survey put together by the American Psychological Association, it's time we take greater action, as stress levels in America have now reached "national mental health crisis" levels.

While it's true that a certain level of stress is unavoidable—and perhaps even healthy—there are a number of signs that stress is not only controlling your life but also profoundly impacting your body in several alarming ways. You could be damaging your immune system, harming your skin, and even setting yourself on the path to serious health problems down the road.

What follow are some of the most common signs and symptoms associated with both acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) stress. However, before you read on, please remember that what stress does to one person's body is likely different than what it does to yours. (How stress manifests itself in an individual depends a lot on the person, their personality, and various other physical or mental factors.) But if you're experiencing any of these, consider seeking professional help. And for at least one trick that will make you better instantly, make sure you're aware of The One Thought You Should Think About When You're Stressed, According to a New Study.

1

You've got a weakened immune system.

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Chronic stress can leave your immune system in a seriously weakened state. When we're stressed, our bodies release the hormone cortisol to control inflammation. In the short-term, this is a good thing. The trouble starts when that stress sticks around for the long haul. Over time, all that extra cortisol leads to more inflammation and lower lymphocyte (white blood cell) levels. In a nutshell, living in a constant state of stress can make you much more vulnerable to infections, viruses, and illnesses.

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2

You're having trouble remembering things.

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An especially stressful incident can make you feel like you're finding your way through a smokey room for the rest of the day. In these moments, it's hard to concentrate on anything besides what is stressing you out.

Once upon a time, the tendency for stress to induce "tunnel concentration" was actually useful. Our stress responses evolved over time to help ancient humans survive in much crueler and more dangerous environments than we live in today. Back then, a stressor wasn't an ominous text message but a deadly predator. In such cases, it was probably a good idea to focus solely on the matter at hand.

Similarly, stress can make forming new memories more difficult and impede the recollection of older memories. This meta-analysis of over 100 stress-centric studies reports that the presence of stress before or during memory formation can hamper the entire process. Additionally, constant stress frequently results in mental exhaustion, which is linked to memory issues. This research found that a group of participants still showed signs of memory trouble three years after their mental exhaustion had passed. If you're feeling stressed, make sure you're avoiding The Worst Foods to Eat When You're Stressed Out, According to Science.

3

Your muscles are tense and staying tense.

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Like a drill instructor ordering their troops to stand at attention, stress puts the entire body in a heightened, on-guard state of awareness. Your muscles aren't spared; our muscles tense up to protect us from potential injury in response to stress. So, it shouldn't come as a surprise that constant stress results in some serious muscle tension and associated pain fairly quickly. Imagine flexing your bicep for a full hour. Ouch.

All that muscle tension can lead to neck pain, headaches, backaches, shoulder pain, and overall body aches. If you've been noticing more aches and pains lately, stress may be to blame. And speaking of pain, make sure you're aware of The #1 Way Sitting Too Much Is Damaging Your Body Right Now, Say Experts.

4

You're making your heart work harder.

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We all know the feeling. You're taken by surprise or unsettled by something and suddenly it feels like your heart is beating out of your chest. That's your "fight or flight response" kicking in—yet another evolutionary holdover that often does more harm than good in a modern context.

In the short term, an acute stress episode can induce heavy breathing, heart palpitations, and chest pain. Meanwhile, chronic or constant stress has been linked to a higher risk of heart disease and high blood pressure. This research from Harvard University found that when we're stressed, the emotional center of the brain (the amygdala) jumpstarts white blood cell production. That leads to more arterial inflammation, which is linked to greater risk of both heart attack and stroke.

Stress can also indirectly harm your heart. When we're feeling stressed, we tend to indulge in junk food, alcohol, or perhaps cigarettes (depending on your vice of choice). Similarly, it's that much harder to focus on exercise while stressed out. All of these lifestyle choices can indirectly raise one's risk of heart disease.

5

You're breaking out.

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When we're stressed our skin becomes oily and sweaty. This can spark acne outbreaks. Stress is also linked to numerous skin conditions such as eczema, rosacea, and psoriasis—likely due to its tendency to weaken the immune system. An intense bout of stress can even cause a skin rash, hives, or cold sore flare ups. Additionally, sleep loss caused by stress can lead to bags under the eyes, and stress is known to reduce skin elasticity and promote the development of wrinkles. It isn't hyperbole to say that chronic stress literally ages us more quickly.

6

You're going gray or even losing your hair.

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It's been parodied time and time again in movies and TV, but that doesn't make it any less true. Constant feelings of stress will turn your hair gray. Research published just last year even documents how this occurs: Our stress-induced sympathetic nervous system activity inflicts permanent damage on the pigment-generating stem cells that color hair follicles.

As if gray hair at an early age wasn't bad enough, stress can also lead to hair loss and balding. Specifically, stress can trigger a hair condition called telogen effluvium. In a nutshell, this condition causes more hair follicles than normal to enter their "resting phase." When this occurs, tons of hair can fall out during daily activities like combing or showering. And if you're feeling the effects of acute stress, know that Spending $5 On This Will Provide You With Instant Happiness, Says Science.

John Anderer
John Anderer is a writer who specializes in science, health, and lifestyle topics. Read more