Your body is like a stress barometer that raises a red flag when stress is out of control.

Stress is part of life and, in some cases, stress is beneficial. For example, the stress of a deadline or a competition can increase performance. But unmanaged or prolonged stress can wreak havoc in the body, resulting in aches, pains and other symptoms, sometimes serious.

“Stress doesn’t necessarily cause certain conditions, but it can make the symptoms of those conditions worse,” says Richard Lang, MD, MPH, Chairman of Preventive Medicine and Vice Chairman of the Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. “When physical symptoms worsen, they may in turn increase a person’s level of stress, which then results in a vicious circle. We can treat the symptoms, but the real key is to find and treat the cause of the problem.”

Everyone’s body serves as a stress barometer. When stress is high, for example, your muscles, immune system or gut will raise a red flag. Use the chart below to gauge how stress might be affecting your body. By recognizing the role stress plays in your health and well-being, you will more likely seek stress relief or medical care when you need it.


Try these tips for reducing everyday stress:

  • Learn how to say no to people; you can’t do it all.
  • Simplify: Declutter your home, hold a yard sale and treat yourself to an evening at the theater with the money you make.
  • Choose decaf over regular coffee, or try herbal teas.
  • Take a break from the action: Declare an entire weekend as yours alone, where you do only and exactly what you want to do.
  • Go for physical activity. Brisk walking and therapeutic yoga benefit both the mind and body.
  • Try breathing exercises, get a massage, listen to relaxation tapes or music, or engage in reflection.
  • Consider asking for help. Try individual psychotherapy, support group therapy or biofeedback. Relaxation training also is useful.

The effects of stress can be alienating, so be sure to seek support, even if it’s a book group or yoga class.


Two-minute Relaxation

Concentrate your thoughts on yourself and your breathing. Take a few deep breaths, exhaling slowly. Mentally scan your body. Notice areas that feel tense or cramped. Quickly loosen up these areas. Let go of as much tension as you can. Rotate your head in a smooth, circular motion once or twice. (Stop any movements that cause pain.) Roll your shoulders forward and backward several times. Let all your muscles completely relax. Recall a pleasant thought for a few seconds. Then take another deep breath and exhale slowly.


What stress affects

What it looks and feels like

What it may contribute to or worsen

What else you need to know

Muscles and joints
  • Pain or tightness in muscles and chest
  • Soreness in muscles and joints
  • Knots or spasms of pain
  • Rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia
  • Accidental injury such as a muscle sprain or strain



Stress lowers your threshold for pain. Small aches that you ordinarily may not notice feel more painful when you’re highly stressed


Skin and hair
  • Hives, itching
  • Excessive sweating
  • Hair loss (telogen effluvium and alopecia areata)
  • Skin conditions such as eczema, rosacea, psoriasis

When you’re under stress, it usually is more difficult to refrain from scratching skin that’s irritated

Stress-induced hair loss may take months to resolve

Tension triangle: shoulders, head and jaw

  • Tension headaches
  • Severe headaches with nausea and disturbed vision
  • Tightness in scalp and jaw, stiff/painful neck
  • Knots and spasms of pain in neck and shoulders
  • Migraines, temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder

Most headaches are not caused by serious disease.

However, report your symptoms to your doctor, who should take a “headache history” that includes information such as how your pain feels, where it’s located, how often you get headaches and what other symptoms are present


  • Abdominal pain, cramping
  • Gas, diarrhea or constipation
  • Heartburn, indigestion
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS, nervous stomach, irritable colon or spastic colon), poor digestion, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), peptic ulcers
Though IBS can be frustrating, having it does not increase the chances of other intestinal disorders or cancer


  • Pain or tightness in chest, lightheadedness, inability to breathe
  • Heart palpitations: skipped heartbeats or periodic racing of the heart
  • Heart disease and stroke
  • High blood pressure
  • Asthma
  • Arrhythmias

People who are continually stressed secrete a hormone called cortisol, which raises blood pressure and causes the body to retain fluids, placing more stress on the heart

High stress levels are linked to higher levels of inflammation, which 
is implicated in heart disease, among other conditions
Immune system
  • Low motivation, loss of interest and pleasure in activities including sex
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Being easily upset or short-tempered
  • Nervous tension, low energy
  • Feelings of helplessness and being overwhelmed
  • Heart disease
  • Sleep problems
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Unhealthy lifestyle habits, such as too much alcohol, smoking and overeating

Feeling down and tense because of stress isn’t a personal failing. It happens to most people

Short-term treatment is usually effective, and it’s OK to seek help


This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. For additional health information, please go to the Cleveland Health Information Center.


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* Results may vary from person to person