Wellness·4 min read

The Effects of Stress Aren’t Just Mental — They’re Physical Too

A woman sitting on a couch with a blanket over her shoulders, reading a thermometer
Design: theSkimm | Photo: iStock
February 10, 2023

Stress: You know it...and you probably don't love it. Even though stress can be motivating at times, it can also be debilitating, impacting your mental and physical health. It can even make you more prone to getting sick. We turned to two experts to find out how and what you can do to take care of yourself. Meet Dr. Navya Mysore, a primary care physician at One Medical, and Dr. Eva Beaulieu, an internal medicine hospitalist and author of “Paging Doctor You: A Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming a Doctor.” 

Experts interviewed:

Dr. Eva Beaulieu

Dr. Eva Beaulieu - Dr. Eva Beaulieu is an internal medicine hospitalist and author of “Paging Doctor You: A Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming a Doctor.”

Dr. Navya Mysore

Dr. Navya Mysore - Dr. Navya Mysore is a primary care physician at One Medical, where she is also an office medical director and the national program medical director for sexual and reproductive health. 

How can stress make you sick? 

Let’s back up: Stress can’t directly make you sick, but it can weaken your immune system. That’s because during a stressful event, your body releases hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to help you navigate it. After the stress passes, your stress response stops and the adrenaline and cortisol levels drop. Depending on how stressed you felt and for how long, it may leave your immune system depleted and dampened, said Dr. Mysore.

When your immune system isn’t working like it should, you’re more likely to catch viruses like colds, the flu, COVID-19, or RSV (to name a few). Think back to periods of your life that were particularly stressful (college finals, the build-up to a big job interview, or the holidays). If you came down with a bad cold soon afterward, it’s possible stress contributed to it. 

Then there’s chronic stress, which is considered long-term. It can increase your risk for even more severe health issues, including physical symptoms and health conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Particularly if, while coping with stress, eating nutritious foods, sleeping, and exercising get put on the back burner, said Dr. Mysore. “When someone's very stressed, they're probably not taking care of themselves as well as they could be,” she said.

A silhouette of a woman's body with lines pointing to the head, chest, and stomach, where stress can affect the body.
Design: theSkimm

Stress may contribute to…

  • Headaches

  • Increased heart rate

  • Shortness of breath

  • Chest pain

  • Hives

  • Stomach issues

  • Stomach aches

  • Nausea

  • Constipation

  • Diarrhea

  • High blood pressure

  • Heart disease

  • Diabetes

Yikes. How can I manage stress and avoid getting sick?

Dr. Beaulieu noted that if you experience these symptoms, you should check with your doctor to rule out any other potential causes first. And Dr. Mysore’s tip is to take good care of yourself before, during, and after stressful times, in ways that will protect your immune system. So you make healthy habits part of your daily routine, which will make you less likely to ditch them when you’re stressed.

All of that’s to say, sometimes you just get sick — no matter how hard you try to avoid it. And it might not be stress-related. So don’t be afraid to talk to your primary care doctor about any symptoms or illnesses. Or a mental health professional if you’re dealing with stress of any kind. “A lot of times we think of sickness as just physical health,” said Dr. Beaulieu. "But mental health is also important because that can trickle down to your physical health.” 


As much as we'd like it to, stress isn't going anywhere. It's important to know how it can show up physically (as well as mentally). So you can take care of yourself before a stress-induced cold or illness gets the best of you — and be prepared for it when it does. 

This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It does not constitute a medical opinion, medical advice, or diagnosis or treatment of any particular condition. 

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