6 Signs Stress is Making You Sick (And What to do About it)

A little stress can actually be a good thing. In small spurts, it's what motivates you to prep for a major test or work presentation, or makes your palms go sweaty in anticipation of a first date.

Too much stress, on the other hand, can be overwhelming – and even detrimental to your physical health.

"Just like our feelings give us information about our needs, so do our bodies through physiological feedback," says Eliza Chamblin, a therapist in New York City who specializes in stress management. "If you are noticing any physical or somatic symptoms, consider it as valuable information telling you that something isn’t right."

Not sure what those physical signs might be? Here are six potential indications that stress is making you sick, plus what to do for each situation.

1. You’re having trouble thinking clearly

If you’ve been having a tough time concentrating on one task at a time, remembering things accurately, or just generally operating on a higher level, stress could be to blame.

This mental fatigue sometimes happens when small stressors pile in at a volume we can’t keep up with. Things like making multiple tough decisions at work, handling ongoing interruptions, and juggling social commitments – all these can accumulate and start to weigh on you. If you don't have a chance to hit the pause button and reset, brain fog could set in.

The unfortunate reality of this mental fatigue is that it can affect your physical energy levels, too. If you’ve spent the whole day feeling exhausted just doing the tasks you normally knock out in one afternoon, your body will feel tuckered out as well. For some, this perpetuates the stress cycle; no energy for stress-busting outlets like meditation, creative endeavors, or exercise means nowhere to release that stress, and it remains a looming burden.

What to do if stress is making you mentally fatigued:

2. You’ve been getting more (or worse) headaches than usual

If you’re not typically susceptible to headaches, but have been inundated with them lately, stress could be the culprit. Often called “tension headaches,” these pesky head-throbbers happen when your neck and scalp muscles contract as a response to stress. [2]

Symptoms of a tension headache include:

And if you do normally get headaches or migraines, stress can both trigger and make them worse.

What to do if you’re experiencing tension headaches:

3. You’re having digestive issues – but your diet hasn’t changed

There’s a reason why stressful situations are called “gut-wrenching.” The brain and the gastrointestinal system are intimately connected – meaning the more stressed out your brain is, the unhappier your stomach will get.

Signs that your stomach isn’t handling extra stress well include:

4. Your skin has been extra sensitive lately

When stress takes the wheel, it’s not uncommon for our bodies to go into overdrive. All this hype throws the nervous system, including nerve endings on your skin, off-balance.

Signs that stress has gotten under your skin include:

5. You’re getting back-to-back colds

One of the cruelest ironies of our physical systems is that when we’re at our most stressed, we’re also the most susceptible to catching a cold.

Why? When you’re at overall healthy stress levels, cortisol (the “stress hormone”) is able to do its regular thing of regulating your body’s suitable response to viruses and bacteria.

But when you’re chronically stressed, your body is pumping excess cortisol, and your immune system grows less sensitive to the stuff. In turn, your body is less able to regulate an inflammatory response, and therefore, more likely to succumb when exposed to a virus.

6. Your sex drive is down

In periods of chronic stress, the excess cortisol that's produced can suppress sex hormones. And fewer sex hormones = a lower libido.

And then there's the mental aspect of it, too. The distracting nature of stress (thinking about your massive to-do list, for example, or anxiety about paying off bills) may prevent you from being present in the moment for sex, or wanting to engage in it at all.

What to do if stress is killing your sex drive:


If you're struggling to determine your triggers and manage your reactions, consider working with a therapist to help you find ways to better understand and handle your stress. Stress may be inevitable, but it doesn't have to damage your physical health.

Sources and references:
1: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2008-04567-010
2: https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000797.htm
3: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27106030
4: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8839380
5: https://www.crd.york.ac.uk/CRDWeb/ShowRecord.asp?AccessionNumber=12009102838
6: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1013702514000244
7: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5384166/
8: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK507250/
9: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=30682333