How does stress affect the body? And what can we do about it?

A frayed wire being pulled apart.

Have you ever prepared for vacation with a frenzied dash to wrap up work projects, then got a cold as soon as you reached the beach? Have you felt tense during a week at the in-laws’ and were ill by the time you returned home?

That could be because even common stressors, such as academic exams, work projects and irritating relatives, can weaken your ability to fight infections.

Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD, has spent decades performing studies at The Ohio State University’s Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research, unearthing a seemingly endless list of stress’s imprints on the body.

“People often talk about ‘good stress,’” Kiecolt-Glaser says.

“I don’t really quite believe in such a thing.”

And full schedules, community involvement and being active don’t equate to “stress.” Stress isn’t simply the opposite of relaxation.

“The characteristics of stress are feeling overloaded, feeling out of control, feeling like there’s so much that you’re unable to cope,” Kiecolt-Glaser says. “Those kinds of feelings mean there’s trouble.”


Stress accelerates inflammation changes that are linked to some cancers, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, arthritis, Type 2 diabetes and overall decline of physical functions.


In a recent study, Kiecolt-Glaser found that stress and depression affect how well the body metabolizes high-fat meals – a high stress level could make you gain weight more easily than if you’d eaten the same meal when you were less stressed.

Your ability to develop protective responses to vaccines, too, likely will be slowed. When college students were given a hepatitis B vaccine in one study, the students with more stress and anxiety were much slower to develop the antibody response that the vaccine was meant to create.

Common stressors can even slow our ability to heal. In several studies, Kiecolt-Glaser and other researchers placed pencil eraser-sized wounds on participants’ arms. Participants took significantly more time – as much as 40 percent longer – to heal the wounds during stressful periods, such as during final exams in college.

How to avoid or reduce stress

Getting regular exercise, eating healthfully and getting plenty of sleep are important to preventing overwhelming stress.

If it seems unmanageable on your own, talk with your doctor about what you’re feeling and how it affects you; therapy or medication may be necessary to treat your stress and related emotional problems.

Research has shown that yoga and mindfulness meditation also are effective, natural methods to reduce stress’s effects. Ohio State Integrative Medicine even offers free MP3 recordings that can help introduce you to mindfulness meditation and guide you in practice.

How breathing exercises can calm anxiety effectively

Also important, Kiecolt-Glaser says, is avoiding isolation. This is especially true for women.

“One of the things that’s most strongly linked to immune function is close personal relationships,” she says.

Don’t have a spouse, nearby family or a tight social circle? Make an effort to create new connections.

“I’ve gotten into the habit of inviting people to lunch that I don’t know well at all, but the worst they can say is no,” she says.

“Take some risks, and reach out to people who look interesting.”

Help for mental health conditions

Ohio State offers personalized, compassionate care for your mental health concerns.

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