7 side effects of stress

Health Agenda
Mental Health

7 side effects of stress

Published July 2024 | 5 min read
Expert contributors Dr Madeleine Hinwood, public health researcher at the University of Newcastle; Dr Jeremy Cowden, psychologist at PSYCH2U
Words by Karen Burge

You can’t avoid stress but you can help limit its impact on your health. Here are seven good reasons to reduce your stress levels and how to achieve it.    

Life can throw all kinds of challenges our way and it’s normal to feel moments of stress when riding the ups and downs. But if tension becomes intense and ongoing, it may impact your health and wellbeing.

The Black Dog Institute describes stress as an emotional, physical or mental response to a change in our environment (a stressor), which can be positive (eustress) or negative (distress).

Research shows 59% of people experienced at least one personal stressor in a 12-month period. And females aged 16 to 34 were more likely to experience psychological distress than any other sex or age group (26% compared with 14% of men).

Stress is part of our ‘fight-or-flight response’, where the body’s nervous system activates and hormones are released, including cortisol and adrenaline, to allow for a swift reaction against what we perceive to be a threat.

University of Newcastle public health researcher Dr Madeleine Hinwood says this burst of energy increases blood pressure, respiration and heart rate, and tenses muscles in preparation for action. “At the same time, to support this response, resources are diverted away from other vital functions, including digestion and some immune functions.”

Managing short-term stress and reducing cortisol (the kind you experience for a brief period, like tough work meetings, giving a speech or bad traffic) is what the fight-or-flight response was designed for. But activating that stress response over a longer term (think: family conflict, managing the mental load of family life or ongoing work troubles) can become problematic, explains Dr Hinwood. This is when you may experience some of the side effects or ‘knock-on’ effects of stress.

Common side effects of stress

Here are some ways ongoing stress can impact your mental and physical health. You may experience some or all of these if you’re dealing with chronic stress.

Muscle aches

Adrenaline causes muscles to tense, and they relax after a stressful event passes. When stress is long term, the muscles might not get a chance to relax, leading to back, neck and shoulder pain, and headaches.

Digestive issues

PSYCH2U psychologist Dr Jeremy Cowden says body areas not involved in the fight-or-flight response get ‘turned down’ during stress. This can trigger stomach upsets, like diarrhoea, and changes in appetite. “In fight-or-flight, our body will decide that it’s either time to lose all excess weight to get away faster or that it isn’t time to stop and blocks you up,” he says.

Sleep trouble and fatigue

Stress is a common cause of inadequate sleep and can lead to poor function during the day. Dr Cowden says being in a heightened state of readiness can also take its toll on energy levels, causing fatigue.

Heart problems

Stress can cause high blood pressure and the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute points to a clear link between high blood pressure and an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. The elevated cortisol from long-term stress can also increase several risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as increased blood cholesterol, triglycerides and blood sugar. For tips on protecting your heart health, see the HCF video hub.


Excessive and prolonged stress can lead to burnout – emotional, physical and mental exhaustion, says Australian Psychological Society president, Dr Catriona Davis-McCabe. Stress often happens when you feel you have too many physically and/or mentally demanding pressures. However, stressed people generally feel that when they can get in control of these pressures they’ll feel better (ie. things will be OK). Feeling burnout is when you feel like you have nothing left, no motivation, and you’re physically and mentally exhausted when dealing with any pressures. Burnout can lead to disengagement and social isolation.

Anxiety and depression

A stress response can also include feelings of anxiousness (including racing heart rate, chest tightness, shaking, constant dread). Anxiousness and anxiety are often seen as the same thing, however the difference between anxious feelings and anxiety is the persistent feelings of anxiousness (for more than several weeks), sometimes without a clear cause, making it difficult to cope. Stress can also be a contributing factor for depression, characterised by experiencing a low mood and a loss of enjoyment of the things you like for two weeks or longer. This can include changes in appetite and sleeping habits.

Lowered immunity

Can stress make you sick? When you’re stressed, your immune system is stimulated to help heal wounds or injuries. During long periods of stress, your immune system becomes fatigued, making you more vulnerable to infection, illness and longer recovery.

How to reduce stress

Learning how to reduce stress hormones can help ease the pressure during stressful times. Along with the tools below, HCF members can access a range of mental health programs through their extras cover, including online evidence-based programs on stress, anxiety, and mindfulness via This Way Up*. Eligible members with hospital cover can also access a free annual HealthyMinds Check-in^ with a PSYCH2U psychologist who’ll conduct an initial assessment and guide you to appropriate further support.

Check your basic needs

  • Have I drunk enough water today? If not, make sure you prioritise hydration.
  • Do I need to eat? Try eating a healthy snack, such as apples with peanut butter.
  • Did I sleep enough last night? Try a rest or nap and aim to create better sleep habits.
  • Do I need to get away from my desk? Take a break and give your eyes a rest from the computer screen.

Get physical

Research suggests that exercise improves executive functions, enhances mood states, and decreases stress levels. “A good technique when we get overwhelmed is to do a short burst of exercise (30 to 90 seconds) that’s hard and fast – something that gets you a bit breathless, like running, punching or push-ups,” explains Dr Cowden.

Set boundaries

Overwhelm is a common cause of stress, says Dr Cowden, so learn to set boundaries and say no, for example, “‘my day is now full. I can’t take on anything more”. If it all gets too much, stop everything for five to 10 seconds and let your brain catch up.

Practise mindfulness

Mindfulness can help you deal with difficult situations and emotions, according to Healthdirect. It involves being present and focused, and observing your thoughts, feelings and sensations, so you don’t get caught up in stressful thoughts. For example, colouring-in can help relieve stress – remember to do it mindfully, bringing your awareness back to your colouring no matter what thoughts move through your mind.

How to know stress is a problem

If you’re unable to dial down stress with self-management, reach out to a GP, psychologist or support service, like Lifeline (13 11 14) and Beyond Blue (1300 224 636).

“You know yourself best. If you are experiencing some stress in your life and feeling overwhelmed, or like you aren’t handling it as well as you would like, reaching out for help can prevent the stress and overwhelm from turning into something worse,” says Dr Hinwood.

Mental health support that’s got you covered

Now more than ever, we’re committed to showing you a level of care that’s uncommon. That’s why we’ve gone above and beyond to provide quick and easy access to a range of mental health programs to suit your needs, and the freedom to choose what's right for you and your family.

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* This service is not affiliated or associated with HCF in any way. You should make your own enquiries to determine whether this service is suitable for you. If you decide to use this service, it’ll be on the basis that HCF won’t be responsible, and you won’t hold HCF responsible, for any liability that may arise from that use. 

^ 1 HealthyMinds Check-in available per member per calendar year. Service is available free to all members with hospital cover. Excludes extras only cover, Ambulance Only, Accident Only Basic and Overseas Visitors Health Cover. 

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