Stress and its effects on the body

Posted by Heather Doggett on 11 September 2019

Stress is not a mental illness but can manifest into one if it is not dealt with.  Stress can also cause significant physical symptoms – this is often linked to the fight or flight response which releases hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline into our body when we are exposed to constant daily life pressures or significant stressful life events.  The diagram shows just how our stress response impacts physically on our body.

Although we cannot always control the external stress in our life, we can try to break the cycle of getting more stressed by developing a better understanding of our stress, how it may be impacting us, and by changing our response to it:

  • Stressed body eg tense shoulders, racing heart, indigestion
  • Stressed thoughts eg I can’t cope, I’m going to lose my job
  • Stressed behaviour, eg rushing around, avoidance, short temper
  • Stressed feelings eg frustrated, angry, overwhelmed


Controlled breathing – You can do this exercise sitting or standing with your eyes open or closed.  Concentrate on your breathing for a few minutes, breathing in slowly and calmly though your nose and then slowly out through your mouth.  Try to fill your lungs on the inhale and then slowly empty on the exhale. Controlled breathing can be used anytime and anywhere to switch off the body’s stress response.

Deep muscle relaxation – Start off by sitting or lying somewhere quiet where you are warm and comfortable.  This relaxation exercise takes you through different muscle groups in your body, teaching you first to tense and then to relax.  Start at your feet and tense up your toes for a count of 5 seconds then relax for 10 seconds. Move on to your feet and tense the whole foot for 5 seconds then relax for 10 seconds, slowly working up your body, muscle group by muscle group, doing the same exercise: tense for 5, relax for 10 seconds.  Think about the way your muscles feel as you relax them from that tense phase.  Continue to do this until you have worked your way up to your shoulders and down your arms.  You may even be asleep by the time you get to your fingers!

Exercise: Taking regular exercise has great benefits for both our physical and mental health but it is also very relaxing and a great way to relieve stress and physical tension. It can reduce levels of the body’s stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol.  It also stimulates the production of serotonin and endorphins, our body’s natural feel-good hormones.

Hobbies: Anything we do that absorbs, calms and interests us can help reduce the physical effects of stress on our body.

Self care: There are so many ways in which to relax yourself – invest some time in yourself – you just need to find something that works for you.

Keeping a stress diary can be very helpful in raising your awareness and working out which sort of activities are best for lowering the stress in your body.

What if stress is work related?

Work related stress is increasingly common and is now the biggest reason for sickness absence in the UK. Sometimes work pressures and demands are too much for us to deal with on our own.  If you feel your stress is mostly work related, then it may be useful to seek support at work.  Your manager, human resources or occupational health should all be able to help. It may be that you perceive the demands of your job are unreasonable, or you may feel that you have very little control at work.  The Health and Safety Executive have identified stress as a potential risk at work and every employer is obliged to keep you safe at work.  The first step is to recognize you are stressed, and the next is to seek help. Work related stress is not just your issue, it is an issue for your employer too.

Remember, stress is not an illness, but if it goes on for a long time, it can lead to more serious health problems.  Stress affects our body, our mind and our behaviour.  Understanding more about the causes of stress and how it affects us can be helpful in learning ways to cope with stress.

Useful websites:

Gill Cooksey

Occupational Health Advisor