7 Signs Stress Is Making You Sick

Mental Health

Tammy George

 Middle-aged woman suffering from the physical signs of too much stress

There’s no doubt many people are experiencing more stress now, more than ever. We’re stressed about our health, financial pressures or even a change in the way we socialise. Whatever the cause, it’s all stress. And it’s making many of us physically sick. 

Here are 7 signs that indicate your illness is stressed related. 

Why Do We Get Stressed?

Stress is the body’s way of protecting itself. Whether the threat is real or imagined, the body goes into a fight-or-flight reaction or ‘stress response’.

Stress helps by keeping our mind focused and alert, ready to respond. It can save our life such as taking fast action to avoid an accident. But at a point the stress stops helping and starts hindering. Stress can take a toll on short- and long-term health, mood, relationships and enjoyment of life.

What Happens When We’re Stressed?

During the fight-or-flight response, our bodies concentrate on short-term survival. The nervous system releases big quantities of the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. These ready the body for action by making the heart beat faster, blood pressure rise, quick breaths and tightened muscles.

Previous generations needed these fight or flight responses to fight off attackers or run away from a predator regularly. While today’s generation doesn’t encounter life-threatening situations often, our bodies use the stress response when faced with psychological threats such as job loss or a high workload.

Signs of Stress

Stress can have an impact on most of our body, so there are plenty of signs to watch out for that indicate you’re under stress.

#1 Headaches

Many people assume tension-type headaches are caused by stress and tension, but the trigger is more likely muscle contraction such as jaw-clenching and frowning which can result from stress.

Tension headaches are the most common type of headache and last several hours or days. They can cause pain or discomfort in the head, scalp or neck. The pain is like a band squeezing the head. More women than men suffer from tension headaches and it can run in families.

Fewer people suffer from migraines but stress is one of the main causes. Throbbing or pulsating pain can last for days and is so severe that it prevents the sufferer from doing their usual activities.   

Young woman holding her head experiencing throbbing migraine pain

#2 Increased Illness

The immune system takes a beating when our bodies are subjected to constant stress. And when our immune system is down, it struggles to fight off the cold, flu and gastro bugs circulating in the community.

How Stress Affects the Immune System

Our immune system comprises billions of cells in the bloodstream. These cells fend off foreign bodies called antigens such as bacteria, viruses and cancerous cells. When we’re stressed the body doesn’t fight off the antigens as well as it could if it wasn’t under stress. Corticosteroid, the stress hormone, also suppresses the effectiveness of the immune system.

The Immune System and Vaccine Effectiveness

A research study found vaccines may not be as effective when given to someone who is suffering chronic stress. The study involved older Hong Kong residents being given the influenza vaccine and followed up six and 12 weeks later to find their level of immunity. The blood tests showed those suffering chronic stress had a weakened immune response to the vaccine leaving them more susceptible to being infected with the flu.

#3 Fatigue

It’s common to feel fatigued when you’re in a stressed state. You might feel as if you’ve run a marathon when you haven’t left your office for eight hours.

Stress can also play havoc with your sleep. You may struggle to ‘switch off’ and fall asleep at night because you have so many things going through your head. When you’re finally asleep, you may not achieve the deep restorative sleep that your body needs.

#4 Skin Conditions

It’s no surprise that the biggest organ in our body, the skin, is impacted by stress. There are various skin conditions that are caused or exacerbated by stress.

Cold Sores

For anyone who has the herpes simplex virus, they may have experienced a cold sore appear soon after a stressful time. The levels of zinc in the body often fall with stress and zinc is required for a strong immune system. It’s also needed to heal sores so a cold sore can take much longer to heal when zinc levels are low.


When large doses of cortisol are circulating in the body, it can increase inflammation. And skin inflammation can lead to a flare-up of eczema. The red, rash-like appearance causes constant itching and disturbed sleep. Once eczema flares it can be a vicious cycle of stress triggering eczema and the flare-up leading to more anxiety and stress.     

Back view of female in a singlet with severe eczema from too much stress


Stress can trigger psoriasis, a skin condition that causes itching, burning and stinging sensations caused by an abnormally fast skin cell growth rate. Psoriasis usually begins between the ages of 15 and 35 and often triggered by a particularly stressful time.

#5 Arthritis

Stress causes cytokine molecules to be released which causes inflammation in the body. Stress can also make people less able to cope with pain and find it overwhelming.

Many sufferers struggle with the stress-arthritis cycle where they’re frustrated by their reduced ability to do everyday tasks and reduced mobility. The pain can make them more emotional and increase stress levels which causes their arthritis to flare.

#6 Muscle Pain

People who suffer from ongoing stress are more likely to experience more muscular pain. Stress causes muscles to tense and pain can occur when muscles don’t get the chance to relax. Researchers have linked increased stress with greater incidences of lower back pain.  

Without even realising it, many people will clench their jaw or grind their teeth when under stress. Over time this can cause muscles to tighten and temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder to occur. The joint and surrounding muscles that connect the lower jaw and skull can become swollen and sore resulting in limited movement and pain that radiates to the head and neck.

#7 Gastrointestinal Problems

For many people a gastrointestinal problem alerts them to their increased stress levels. The gut is controlled by the central nervous system while we know the lining of the gastrointestinal system as the intrinsic nervous system. The ‘two nervous systems’ regulate the digestive processes including:

  • Swallowing
  • Release of enzymes to break down food
  • Categorisation of food as nutrients or waste products

When the nervous system is impacted by stress, it can show up as an upset stomach, nausea, diarrhoea or constipation. In serious cases, stress can decrease the blood flow and oxygen to the stomach and exacerbate gastrointestinal disorders such as:

  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
  • Peptic ulcers and
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

Strategies for Reducing Stress

Combatting stress is tricky. There’s no stress relieving method that works for everyone. Sometimes it’s a matter of trial and error. Try a few different strategies to find one that fits your lifestyle and works for you.


There’s nothing like getting out to stretch the legs and forget about your worries. While you’re exercising, your brain is releasing endorphins which make you feel happy and act as natural painkillers. Getting enough exercise can promote quality sleep which reduces stress. If physical activity is not possible due to injury or poor mobility, try meditation or massage which also produces endorphins.

Catch up with Family & Friends

It’s easy to let relationships with friends and family lapse when we’re strained. The stress can cause us to lose interest in life and our relationships. But it’s important to keep connected with others.

Go out and have a good time to forget your troubles or discuss your problem with a friend or family member. You could also meet new people by joining a group, taking up a hobby to do with others or volunteer. Find something you enjoy that gets you out of the house.  

Group shot of a family laughing over dinner having fun with their grandmother

Live in the Moment

Stress can build up because you’re worried or thinking about something longer than needed. If work is the key cause of your stress, make a point to not think about work when you’re not working. Instead, try to be fully present in whatever it is you’re doing.

Try to Fix the Problem

Determine what are your main triggers of stress and seek help to fix them. For many people, their procrastination causes much of their stress. They leave things until the last moment and then have to rush or they’re late which causes them stress and anxiety.

If your relationship with a person is causing stress, determine how you can improve the relationship. Perhaps you need to sit down and discuss it or seek professional help from a counsellor or psychologist. If you’re being bullied or overwhelmed at work, find a trusted superior to talk to about it. Even just taking steps towards improving your situation can help reduce your stress levels.

Improve your Diet

Try to incorporate foods in your diet rich in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals that reduce anxiety, stress and inflammation.

Tryptophan is a chemical that regulates hunger and feelings of happiness and well-being. We can convert tryptophan into a molecule used to make serotonin and melatonin which assist in sleep. You can get a good dose in turkey breast, nuts, seeds, fish oats and eggs.

Folate produces dopamine, a pleasure-inducing brain chemical that helps you stay calm. Folate is important for the nervous system at all ages but research has found it affects mood and cognitive function in older people. Folate rich foods include green leafy vegetables, fruits, nuts, eggs and dairy products.

Flat lay of a well-balanced diet, including eggs, nuts and folate rich foods

The antioxidants found in blueberries can help improve your body’s response to stress. Some research has found foods high in vitamin C such as citrus and strawberries can reduce stress levels. Even indulging in a little dark chocolate can regulate stress hormones including cortisol.

Magnesium-rich foods including nuts, fish and seeds have been found to alleviate depression, fatigue and irritability.

Don’t Use Alcohol or Nicotine to Cope

Many people turn to drinking alcohol or smoking as a way of dealing with their stress. However, what most don’t realise is those vices may actually increase their stress levels.  Nicotine causes the heart rate and blood pressure to spike meaning the heart has to work harder so it’s difficult to relax.

Alcohol slows down the brain and central nervous system but heavy drinking interferes with the neurotransmitters in the brain needed for good mental health. Researchers have found that alcohol takes a psychological and physiological toll on the body that may compound the effects of stress.

Remember, if you’re struggling to cope with stress, speak to your GP. 

Tammy George

Please note: Tammy's blog is general advice only. For further information on this topic please consult your healthcare professional.

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