10 Illnesses Caused By Stress and Ways to Cope With

Stress affects almost every part of our body and significantly contributes to several chronic health conditions, including your heart.

This article explores ten health conditions linked to stress, offering insights and practical tips on handling them. Whether stress affects you emotionally or physically, understanding how it impacts your health is crucial for regaining control and finding peace.

How can prolonged stress affect you?

Understanding how stress reshapes your existence is the first step toward reclaiming control. It influences everything from the feelings that define your daily experiences to the physical symptoms that can endanger your overall well-being. 


When stress becomes a constant companion, it significantly influences your daily emotions. Understanding these emotional signs of stress is crucial because they are often early indicators that the existing issues are not just typical daily frustrations (1):

  • Feeling overwhelmed and helpless
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Feelings of isolation
  • Always feeling “keyed up” 
  • Unable to enjoy yourself


The impact of prolonged stress isn’t just emotional; it manifests physically in various ways that can significantly affect your daily life and overall health. Common physical manifestations of stress include (2, 3):

  • Headaches and muscle tension
  • Fatigue
  • Sweating
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Digestive problems
  • Heart disease
  • Erectile dysfunction and hormonal imbalance 
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Chronic stress is a serious health issue that can lead to various illnesses. These stress-related conditions can significantly reduce the quality of life and even be life-threatening. In this part, we will look into ten critical stress-related conditions you should know about. Understanding how chronic stress causes and further worsens illness can help us get back on track toward a vibrant and healthy life. 

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1. Cardiovascular diseases

Cardiovascular diseases are significant illnesses that may stem from stress or worsen due to various stress-related factors.

Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol can increase heart rate and tighten blood vessels, straining the heart over time and causing long-term damage (4, 5).

A study published in The Lancet demonstrated that stress-related activity in the amygdala is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular events through its influence on bone marrow and arterial inflammation (6).

Stress can lead to unhealthy behaviors like overeating, excessive drinking, or smoking, which in turn contribute to heart disease by negatively affecting cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and body weight (7).

2. Gastrointestinal diseases

Emotional and psychological stress can significantly disrupt the normal functioning of the digestive system, leading to various health issues.

The brain-gut axis explains the link between stress and gastrointestinal problems (8). It illustrates the direct communication between the brain and the gut and vice versa, with the gut influencing the brain. Stress can affect gut motility, digestion, microbiome balance, secretion, and overall health.

Stress can interfere with how food moves through your digestive system, raising the risk of conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) (9). These conditions often result in symptoms like cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation.

Data from Harvard indicates that up to 70 percent of people might experience gastrointestinal disorders at some point, with stress significantly impacting these occurrences (8). Such conditions are more common in women and can greatly affect their quality of life. 

3. Potentially promote cancer

The connection between stress and cancer is complex and not yet fully understood. While chronic stress causes numerous health issues, its direct relationship with cancer is still being studied, with varying results (9).

Chronic stress is known to activate stress pathways in the body, potentially promoting cancer progression by causing DNA damage, increasing inflammation, and suppressing the immune system (10, 11). Notably, inflammation prompts several chronic health conditions, including cancer. 

However, research has shown mixed results. Some studies indicate that high levels of workplace stress might increase the risk of developing certain cancers like prostate cancer (12), while others find no such link (13).

4. Autoimmune illnesses

Autoimmune diseases are a group of complex illnesses where the body’s immune system attacks its tissues. Research indicates a strong correlation between stress and the development or intensification of autoimmune disorders.

Chronic stress triggers the body’s stress response systems, such as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic nervous system (14). This activation disrupts normal immune function and increases cytokine production, contributing to inflammation—a common characteristic of autoimmune diseases.

A Swedish study published in JAMA found that people with stress disorders are more likely to develop an autoimmune disease (15). This highlights the significant impact of stress on immune function and its contribution to autoimmune diseases.

5. Insomnia

Insomnia is a prevalent stress-induced illness that affects sleep quality and overall daily functioning. People suffering from insomnia often endure excessive daytime sleepiness, fatigue, irritability, and other impairments during waking hours.

Stress significantly impacts the structure and quality of sleep. Research shows that high-stress levels can disrupt sleep patterns, shortening the duration of deep sleep phases and interrupting REM sleep (16). This disruption not only lowers the quality of sleep but also reduces its regenerative effects, resulting in daytime dysfunction.

A 2013 informal APA survey highlighted the cyclical nature of stress and insomnia: 43 percent of respondents reported that stress had caused them to lie awake at night in the past month. Additionally, 45 percent of people with increased levels of stress noted that it occurs after some nights of insufficient sleep (17).

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6. Depression and mental health

While it is largely unknown why some individuals develop depression and anxiety while others don’t, it’s evident that stress plays a vital role in this process. 

Chronic stress sets off a prolonged hormonal response in the body, releasing cortisol, serotonin, and dopamine, which disrupts emotional balance and leads to depression (18). This continual state of stress also causes inflammation in the body, which can further worsen mental health issues. 

A review of various studies shows that job-related stress—particularly from high-demand, low-reward environments—increases the risk of developing depression by 80 percent compared to those with lower stress (19). Therefore, environmental stressors have a potent influence on mental health.

7. Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s disease is increasingly recognized as a stress-related disease, with emerging evidence suggesting that constant stress may not only exacerbate the condition but could also contribute to its development.

Recent studies have highlighted a vicious cycle where stress aggravates the symptoms and progression of Alzheimer’s. At the same time, the disease disrupts the neural circuits that mitigate stress, further intensifying stress responses (20). Likewise, the inflammation resulting from prolonged stress can lead to neuroinflammation, a key factor in neurodegenerative diseases. 

Another cohort study involving over 1.3 million people from the Stockholm region revealed that patients with chronic stress or depression had a significantly higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s and mild cognitive impairment compared to those without these conditions (21). 

8. Diabetes

Stress can raise the risk of diabetes in two primary ways: by encouraging poor lifestyle choices and by directly influencing glucose levels in the blood, particularly in people with type 2 diabetes.

Under stress, individuals may adopt unhealthy behaviors such as poor eating habits and excessive alcohol consumption. These behaviors disrupt glucose metabolism and increase the risk of diabetes.

Chronic mental stress tends to raise blood glucose levels in people with type 2 diabetes. People with type 1 diabetes might experience more varied responses, including either a decrease or increase in blood glucose levels.

A review study highlighted the relationship between chronic stress and the development of type 2 diabetes (22). 

Chronic stress leads to elevated production of stress hormones such as glucocorticoids and catecholamines, which impair the body’s ability to manage blood sugar effectively. This disruption causes persistent high blood sugar and insulin resistance and an increased chance of inflammation.

9. Obesity

Obesity is a major illness often worsened by chronic stress, as the body’s response to stress disrupts many homeostatic functions.

A review article highlights the perpetuating cycle where stress and obesity often fuel each other (23). Stress makes it difficult to control eating habits, leading to more snacking on high-calorie comfort foods. Chronic stress also induces changes in homeostatic functions in the body, including the HPA axis, microbiome, and inflammatory and immune responses. These changes further contribute to the cycle of weight gain. 

10. Headaches

Stress is a well-known trigger for various types of headaches, including tension headaches and migraines. 

Tension headaches—the most prevalent form—often manifest during stressful periods, impacting both sides of the head with a steady, pressing pain (24). 

Unlike migraines, tension headaches typically do not cause nausea or sensitivity to light. Instead, they are characterized by a dull, aching discomfort that can become chronic. During stressful events, the body’s response can increase muscle tension and alter blood flow, leading to headaches (25, 26).

Stress is a rather powerful force that can lead to serious health problems when chronic. This section covered ten major health issues partly caused by chronic stress, including cardiovascular and gastrointestinal disorders, cancer, autoimmune diseases, and insomnia. The section underscored how stress significantly affects our health. Managing these conditions by implementing lifestyle changes or therapeutic strategies is crucial for improving overall health and preventing damage caused by stress.

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Serious illness caused by stress

Chronic stress is a notable health concern resulting from enduring high-stress situations like persistent financial difficulties, challenging relationships, or prolonged exposure to a hostile work environment. 

Acute stress is temporary and often resolved quickly once the stressor is removed. On the other hand, chronic stress is continuous and arises from pressures that seem endless and unavoidable (27). 

This constant stress puts the body and mind in a continuous state of tension, potentially leading to serious stress-related diseases and disorders that originate from chronic stress.

Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in your body. It can (28):

  • Suppress your immune system, increasing susceptibility to infections and illnesses.
  • Increase the risk of heart-related problems, including high blood pressure and heart disease, due to constant cardiovascular strain.
  • Imbalance sugar levels and heighten the risk of type 2 diabetes due to increased glucose levels that stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline can cause.
  • Exacerbate respiratory issues and lead to complications in respiratory health.
  • Interrupt normal sleep patterns, which results in insufficient sleep, affecting overall health and well-being.
  • Impact mental health, leading to disorders such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

How to cope with stress

Managing stress naturally can transform your daily life and boost your overall well-being. Small changes, such as adjusting your diet and practicing proper breathing techniques, can make a significant difference. This part will provide effective methods to reduce stress, promote relaxation, and enhance mental health. 

The best way to treat stress naturally

Effective stress management is a crucial aspect of living a healthy lifestyle. Implementing daily practice and natural remedies into your daily routine can substantially aid your ability to cope with stress. Below are some effective methods to encourage relaxation and positive mental health.

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Nutrition & hydration:

A balanced diet is crucial for regulating your body’s stress responses. Nutritional strategies can include:

  • Eating a balanced diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables, protein, slow-digesting carbohydrates, and omega-3 fatty acids from fish and flaxseeds can improve microbiome and immune health, regulate cortisol levels, and reduce stress (29). These foods also have anti-inflammatory properties, which further help mitigate stress. 
  • Mindful eating and hydration without distraction allow you to discern natural hunger, thirst, and fullness, reducing the likelihood of stress eating. This also ensures adequately attending to your body and mind, minimizing stress. 


Physical activity is a powerful stress reliever. It not only increases the production of your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters, endorphins, but also boosts self-confidence, helps you relax, and lessens the symptoms of mild depression and anxiety (30).

Yoga combines physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation to reduce stress and improve physical and mental health. 

Studies have shown that yoga enhances muscular strength, flexibility, and respiratory and cardiovascular function while also reducing anxiety, depression, and chronic pain (31). Yoga also helps maintain a healthy blood flow and alleviates tension or stagnation caused by stress. Research highlights that we often hold onto stress in the body, such as fascia or muscle connective tissue (32). 

You can also practice Falun Gong. This spiritual and holistic practice combines meditation, exercises, and a focus on moral philosophy to improve mental and physical health. Practitioners often note a profound reduction in stress and an increase in peace and mental clarity (33).

Relaxation techniques:

If you want a quick method for relieving stress, techniques like the 4-7-8 breathing method can greatly help on the spot. This technique entails breathing in for 4 seconds, holding your breath for 7 seconds, and exhaling for 8 seconds. It’s worth noting that prolonged exhalation encourages dominance of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which helps mitigate the stress response. 

Sleep & circadian rhythm:

Consistent quality sleep is essential for modulating stress. Sleep supports the healing process of the body and mind, keeping stress at bay (34). Maintaining a balanced circadian rhythm is crucial for managing stress. This can be achieved by minimizing electronic use, especially at night, exposing yourself to sunlight in the morning, and sticking to a regular sleep schedule. 

Can stress be a good thing?

We often only hear about the negative effects of stress, which can lead to the misconception that all stress is harmful. However, it’s important to recognize that not all stress is the same. 

Eustress is a type of positive stress resulting from exciting challenges, which adds anticipation to life (35). It’s different from harmful stress because it enhances your experience and capabilities in several ways (36):

  • Enhances motivation: Eustress can serve as a motivator. For example, utilizing the feeling of pressure when faced with a deadline to sharpen focus and improve efficiency.
  • Improves cognitive function: It can temporarily improve brain function, helping memory and focus. This can prove especially helpful during tasks like exams or presentations (37).
  • Boosts short-term immunity: It temporarily enhances your immune system, helping your body during events such as surgeries or vaccinations (38).
  • Increases resilience: Regular exposure to manageable stress improves your resilience, equipping you with the skills required to tackle larger challenges in the future.
  • Promotes growth: Eustress pushes you out of your comfort zone, leading to personal growth and increased self-confidence.

Stress can be a double-edged sword. Recognizing situations when stress is beneficial can turn a threat into an opportunity for personal growth.

What happens when chronic stress ends?

Once chronic stress subsides, you might anticipate immediate relief, but the body may respond differently. This reaction is termed the let-down effect. After being exposed to prolonged stress, the immune system can temporarily weaken, increasing susceptibility to illnesses like cold or the flu.

During this period, it is vital to prioritize self-care: rest, hydrate, eat properly, and gradually resume normal activities.

Is it possible to not be aware of stress?

Yes, it is quite possible to be unaware of stress. Often, individuals might not recognize the physical and emotional cues their bodies are giving them. Symptoms like irritability, fatigue, breathing problems, and minor aches can be subtle and easily attributed to other causes.

Lack of awareness can sometimes prevent people from addressing stress-related issues until they manifest in more severe health issues. That is why it is crucial to acknowledge even minor changes in well-being.

What does extreme stress feel like?

Extreme stress can feel overwhelming and all-consuming, affecting the mind and body. Physically, you might experience symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension, or rapid heartbeat. Emotionally, extreme stress can lead to feelings of despair, panic, or a sense of being out of control.

Cognitive effects may include difficulty concentrating, memory problems, and constant worrying.

Can stress cause nosebleeds?

Stress isn’t usually a direct cause of nosebleeds, but it can lead to them indirectly. Increased stress levels can raise blood pressure, increasing the likelihood of a nosebleed. Additionally, stress can result in behaviors like nose-picking or forceful nose-blowing, which are more direct triggers for nosebleeds.

Can you get an anxiety attack from stress?

Stress is a common trigger for anxiety attacks. Stress triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response, which can make some people experience an anxiety attack. These attacks can come as intense episodes of fear or discomfort, often accompanied by physical symptoms like palpitations, shortness of breath, or dizziness.


In this article, we’ve explored how stress impacts our health, covering both stress-related illnesses and conditions worsened by chronic stress. We’ve examined how stress manifests emotionally and physically, potentially contributing to or making conditions like depression, Alzheimer’s Disease, and obesity much more severe. However, understanding these stress-related illnesses and adopting effective mind-body coping mechanisms can help mitigate their effects.

How Do You Feel About This Article?


Medical reviewed by Lauren Ann Teeter, CNS, LCSW

Functional & Integrative Approach To Mental Health, Functional Nutrition, Functional & Integrative Medicine, Psychotherapy, Mental Health


Medical reviewed by Lauren Ann Teeter, CNS, LCSW

Functional & Integrative Approach To Mental Health, Functional Nutrition, Functional & Integrative Medicine, Psychotherapy, Mental Health

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