How stress affects your health: What stress is doing to your body

For the last seven years I have been learning about the topic of stress.

You have probably also heard that if you are under constant high levels of stress it is detrimental for your health, as it weakens your immune system and because of this you can become seriously ill.

I knew this too, but I only truly realised how seriously damaging stress could be when I became seriously ill.

by Elia Strange

I've have been working in a high-flying career as a senior researcher and part-time Psychology lecturer, whilst completing my PhD at the same time. As part of my job I would be attending conferences where I would be presenting my findings and also preparing for workshops and lectures. This was incredibly exciting but would often take me to the point where I would be shaking with anxiety. But as time passed and the workload increased and I was experiencing these symptoms on a nearly daily basis.

I enjoyed the buzz of rising to these challenges, nearly every day I had felt 'driven' by the demands of my exciting career, but the pleasure faded and more and more often I would simply feel stressed and then I felt 'exhausted'.

This cycle of elation followed by anxiety lasted for many months, even years.


Then I became ill, seriously ill.

I had developed a condition called Ulcerative Colitis and it flared up really aggressively.

For those of you who don't know what Ulcerative Colitis is, I'll just say that it is a disease that belongs to a group of Inflammatory Bowel Diseases (IBD). When you are ill with form of IBD your life becomes a nightmare as you cannot digest your 'normal' meals anymore (I have always been known as an extremely 'healthy eater' and a ‘gym bunny’ amongst my friends!), and you literally become 'chained' to the loo as what you have eaten doesn't stay in your body and feels like razor wire is being pulled through you.

My energy levels became extremely low and my body weight dropped so much that I looked really old and pale, so much so that I looked like a zombie. And every time that I tried to eat or drink it would instantly cause me extreme agony and pass through my body in minutes (this is not for the squeamish), causing me to lose a lot of blood from my bottom (sorry for such details).

Basically, it's not fun.

In December 2012 I was rushed into accident & emergency.

The doctors immediately admitted me and I was put on a drip and a heavy-duty course of anti-inflammatory drugs and steroids. After four days on this drug therapy my condition was showing no sign of improving and I ended up having life-saving, complex surgery on my bowels.

It took me until this point where my own health had reached crisis to make me seriously look into my own life style.

Here I sadly realised that as human beings we are not that robust. We might think we can do everything we want: looking after our family, doing interesting (though demanding) careers, pursue our hobbies. And our life might seem to be really exciting although to the point of being 'boiling hot' at times.

But here is the truth - Our energy and health reserves are limited.

Limited in a sense that when you get up in the morning you only have so much in your ‘energy bank’. If you deplete it by lunchtime by doing many tasks, getting really excited or angry about something, then by the evening you will feel absolutely exhausted.

If this repeats daily, then your reserves may become so low, that you become ill with a bug, or even some more serious disease. I was mentioning this in my other article, where I was saying that your health depends on the stage of stress you might be in.

You might have heard about people who gave up their flying-careers and settled for something that is paid less but more is satisfying, relaxing, and less stressful. Usually these people had a serious knock on their health. May be they suffered a heart attack, stroke or a total breakdown at some point of their life.


When you get stressed and then ill, this means that your body simply cannot take it anymore. After giving you many of its signals and pre-warning moments (like little ‘colds’, ‘flu’, ‘allergies’, etc), where you should've stopped and made serious adjustments to your life (e.g. sleep more, play more, relax more, change the job, etc), eventually it goes into a crisis moment and stops you completely.


Well, if you are lucky, it will just stop you for several weeks or a couple of months, but it can also stop you for years or for ever. As some doctors say ‘the first sign of a heart trouble may be your last’ as in when you get a heart attack.

So, where is the proof that stress is that bad to your health? 

1) In the year of 2004, 293 (!) scientific studies were combined into 1 meta-analysis so to reveal what stress can do to our immune system.

They found that long-term stress affect a large number of conditions: anxiety and depression, sleeping problems, hypertenstion, heart disease, stroke, cancer, ulcers, colds and flu, rheumatoid arthritis, obesity and even the rate of ageing.

Stress depresses our immune system so it cannot deal with any health problems properly. And this all means that if we don't reduce stress in our lives, we become ill and are unable to enjoy our lives.

However, the studies also show, that if we do everything we can to reduce stress, then we recover faster from any illness and disease.

2) In 2001, the study on stress and HIV patient’s recovery revealed that antiretroviral drugs that are prescribed to HIV patients do not work well for those who are generally stressed.

The scientists measured the patients' blood pressure, skin moisture and heart rates at rest before the antiretroviral drugs were given. And over the next 3 to 11 months, their viral load and CD4 cell count were measured.

The results were dramatic.

The higher the patient's stress level, the less they responded to the antiretroviral drugs.
The average reduction in viral load was more than 40 times for men with low stress, but less than ten times for men with high stress.

So basically, the drugs worked four times better for the patients who were calm than for those who was most stressed.

  So what can you do to lower your stress levels?

1) Let it out - whether it is on the paper or to someone else.

In 1995, one scientific study showed how important it is to vent out what is bothering you. In the study, medical students asked to write about their past traumatic experiences for 4 days, whereas other medical students were asked to write only about their daily (non-traumatic) experiences.

After several days of writing, they were given a vaccination for hepatitis B.

When blood samples were taken after four and six months, the group who had written about their traumatic experiences had much higher antibody levels against hepatitis B than the group who just wrote about their daily experiences.

2) Relax.

Studies show that those who meditate or use any relaxation techniques on a regular (daily) basis, have significant improvement in mood, reduced anxiety and stress levels, and even experience better health based on their genetic blood analysis.

The relaxation techniques that are proven to be effective, are for example: meditation and Mindfulness, yoga, repetitive prayer, tai chi, qi gong, breathing exercises and guided imagery. There is no limit on how much you can do, but the studies show that the more you do it, the better.

And doing them on regular basis is more effective than doing then occasionally.

3) Also, read my other articles for more tips on how to reduce your stress. For example, Learn how to reduce your stress instantly in 3 easy steps.

4) Learn what to do when you are stressed out on a daily basis.

5) Know your signs and symptoms of stress.

6) Learn to manage your stress at work.

I hope you enjoyed this article and maybe now you realise that stress is a more serious thing than we ever thought.

I hope you will look into your own life and make the needed adjustments. Please take care of your own health and do it in time.


You are welcome to add your own tips on reducing stress to the Facebook comments box below for others to see.

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