When stress gets physical: How your stress response connects with your health

We all experience stress. Some people deal with it more often and more intensely than others. But those pressure-filled periods don’t just impact your mood. When stress gets physical, the result can be lasting problems. Do you know how your stress response connects with your health?

Have you had headaches that won’t go away? 

Do you get that agonizing pain behind your eye or in your neck when you’re tense?

Are you experiencing persistent pain in your back?

 Is your digestive track out of whack?

All of these health conditions could be worsened by stress. Stress takes a physical toll on your body in ways you might not know. Before you continue to suffer or get treatments that don’t target the right source, learn how stress and chronic pain are connected.


How the body responds to stress

When we feel a threat—the pressure of a deadline, an overload of things to do—the stress response kicks in. It’s similar to the fight-or-flight instinct. You choose to fight off that threat or flee from it.

When the stress response is activated, your body secretes hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline. They make your heart beat faster, increasing blood flow to your muscles so they react faster. 

While this is happening, the other systems—digestion, tissue repair, and reproduction—are put on hold so your body’s resources can all be directed to managing the emergency.

Now let’s imagine that the stress response keeps going. Here’s how your body reacts.

  • Those hormones are pumping on overtime. Your blood pressure spikes and if it remains at a high level, you’re at a higher risk of heart disease.
  • The stress response hormones mobilize energy to fight off the threat. That action causes glucose to pour into your bloodstream and makes cells less sensitive to insulin, which leads to the possibility of diabetes.
  • The hormones released during the stress response switch on inflammation in the nervous system. This can lead to nerve sensitization where nerves are hypersensitive. Even a slight touch can be painful. Nerve sensitization is at the root of many chronic pain conditions (headaches, back, neck, stomach, bladder), digestive problems (irritable bowel syndrome), fibromyalgia, and many other stress-related disorders.


Manage your stress by managing your thoughts.

Physical and psychological issues—whether you are eye-to-eye with a grizzly bear or with your bills—trigger the same stress response. To avoid the stress-related conditions, work on managing your stress.

Yes, that’s easier said than done. But you can start by learning the triggers. Who or what sparks that anxious feeling? Is it a person or a situation? Both? A colleague or a family member? Running behind schedule? Debt? Do you take on more responsibility than you should? 

Figure it out. Write down in a journal every trigger you can uncover so you can see it right in front of you. 

Ask yourself, “Why does this stress me out?” Be honest. Anything less will not reduce stress. Are you afraid of failing, of not being liked? Whatever it is, dig in and uncover the reasons. I guarantee, you’ll learn so much about yourself and it will help to manage stress.

Next, think about ways to respond differently to your stressors. Look for a different perspective than the one you have. How could you respond so that trigger isn’t pulled? This is a tough one, and takes practice. 


As a doctor, here’s my most valuable advice: Take care of yourself. Be kind. Enjoy life. Prioritize time to do things that make you feel happy and relaxed. Even if it’s a 10-minute break from your busy day. 


Your body is talking to you.

When your body is under an overwhelming stress load, it will tell you there’s something wrong. You may have pains you can’t explain, sleepless nights, lack of energy, brain fog, and a host of other physical problems. Everyone’s body communicates with them differently. You can medically treat the physical symptoms, but if you don’t get to the root cause—excess stress—you’ll never fully heal.

I’ve gathered more than two decades of research, knowledge, and experience in my forthcoming book, Sunbreak. My goal is to provide a resource for people suffering as a result of a stress-related condition.