When Stress Becomes Physical

No doubt you’re aware that stress can negatively affect your health—both mentally and physically. What you may not know, however, is that the symptoms of stress often play off each other, increasing the severity of each one. While physical symptoms like insomnia or back pain are no fun for anyone, the physical indicators of stress can be a useful tool to help you identify the cause of your stress. So the sooner you recognize the signs of stress in your life, the sooner you’ll be able to reduce or eliminate it and improve your emotional and physical well being.

While it’s true that stress can physically present itself in a number of ways, here are a few of the most common ones:


Many of us have spent late nights burning the midnight oil, unable to put down the thoughts and responsibilities of the day. But studies show that this can be a self-perpetuating cycle. Certain components of emotion seem especially linked to sleep, meaning that people who haven’t slept well may respond more emotionally to certain stressors. This may create an ongoing cycle: you become more stressed in certain situations because of lack of sleep—and then you have trouble sleeping the following night because of increased stress levels.

Stomach Problems

Your brain and your gut are both linked through the nervous system, allowing mental stress to crop up as physical symptoms like stomach aches. Excess or persistent stress can cause constipation, diarrhea, cramping and even vomiting. While exercise and medication can help with these issues, determining the source of your stress and dealing with it will also help.

Back Pain

Your body manufactures certain hormones when you experience high levels of stress. These hormones are nature’s way of preparing you to take action. They elevate your heart rate, raise your blood pressure and even tighten your muscles. When this happens too often, it can lead to muscle aches and pains. As with insomnia, this cycle can perpetuate itself. If back pain is stress-related, the pain cycle continues, and you grow timid and anxious about daily activities.

Skin Issues

Your skin is particularly sensitive to high levels of hormones called androgens, which increase during times of stress. Androgens over-stimulate the oil glands in your skin, and this can cause excessive acne. Stress can also affect your immune system, which in turn affects the condition of your skin. Excess stress may even cause rashes and increase the sensitivity of your skin.

Noticing the physical symptoms of stress can be a helpful way to determine if there is too much stress in your life, or if you are not properly handling the stress. Keep in mind that there are physical issues that could cause the same symptoms; when in doubt, speak with your physician.


David Lowenstein, Ph.D. is a psychologist and the clinical director of Lowenstein & Associates, Inc. in Columbus, Ohio. In addition to providing therapeutic services to individuals and families, he offers training and consultation to numerous associations, schools and agencies around the country. Additionally, he is a frequent radio and TV guest and a resource and contributing writer for numerous newspapers and magazines nationwide.