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It’s not just in your head. Stress has real effects on your physical health too.

August 04, 2021 | Behavioral Health Services | Patterson, Kevin R., MD


You know the feeling. Your heart begins to race. Your breath shortens. You feel nauseous. You start to tremble. 

The fact that stress and anxiety can cause physical symptoms is no surprise. But once the stress goes away, the physical effects go away too, right? Not exactly. 

“The physical symptoms we associate with stress, such as rapid heart rate and tensing of muscles, is an evolutionary response that prepares us to react quickly to a threatening situation,” said Dr.  Kevin Patterson, a Physician Psychiatrist at Penn Highlands Behavioral Health, “But when the body experiences repeated stress responses, it can cause long-term problems to your overall health.”

Stress affects every system in your body, including: your musculoskeletal system, respiratory system, cardiovascular system, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous, and reproductive system. Let’s take a closer look at how stress affects some of the major systems and what steps you can take to reduce your stress and improve your health.

Musculoskeletal System
Tensed muscles are a classic symptom of stress, and when chronic stress causes your muscles to be tensed for a prolonged period, it can lead to tension headaches and pain in the lower back and upper extremities. You can reduce the tension in your muscles by sitting in a quiet space and tensing various muscle groups for a few seconds before slowly relaxing.

Respiratory System
The respiratory system is the network of organs and tissues that help you breathe. When individuals already dealing with respiratory conditions, like COPD or asthma, experience stress, it can exacerbate breathing problems, even triggering an asthma attack or panic attack. You can relax your breathing by lengthening your exhale. Push all the air out of your lungs. Then, simply let yourself naturally inhale. Next, try spending a little longer exhaling than inhaling. Try inhaling for four seconds and exhaling for six seconds. Repeat this for several minutes.

Cardiovascular System
In addition to increased heart rate and hormone levels, stress also dilates the blood vessels that pump blood to your heart and muscles, thus raising your blood pressure. When chronic stress causes consistently elevated blood pressure, hormones, and heart rate, it can contribute to cardiovascular problems and increase the risk for hypertension, heart attack, or stroke. You can improve your cardiovascular health by reducing your overall stress, whether it’s acute episodes or chronic stress. Techniques like yoga, meditation and breathing exercises are all great things to explore.

Endocrine System
Throughout the day, your body controls energy levels in part by producing cortisol. During a stressful situation, your body increases cortisol production to give you energy to deal with the situation. Chronic stress disrupts this normal process of cortisol production, and when cortisol levels are too high for too long, it can contribute to chronic fatigue, diabetes, obesity, depression, and immune disorders. Deep breathing can reduce anxiety and lower cortisol levels. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. Slowly breathe in through your nose, moving your stomach out but keeping your chest still. Breathe out slowly through your mouth, letting your stomach come back in. Repeat this process for several minutes.

“While stress has real effects on your physical health, we don’t want people stressing about stress,” said Dr.  Kevin Patterson. “By continuing to do the things that we already know are good for our health, like regular physical exercise, getting an adequate amount of sleep and maintaining a healthy social network, you will also reduce your stress levels and improve your overall well-being.”

Penn Highlands Healthcare offers comprehensive inpatient and outpatient behavioral and mental health services at locations throughout the region. To learn more, please visit www.phhealthcare.org/bhs.


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Patterson, Kevin R., MD

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Psychiatry - Adult

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Behavioral Health Services