It goes without saying that chronic stress is difficult on the mind – but it can be taxing on the body too. Physical symptoms of stress can run the gamut from gastrointestinal upset to hair pulling.

Here, integrative medicine expert and author of Anxiety 101, Eudene Harry, M.D., explains the physical signs of stress to watch out for, plus what to do about it.


1. Gut Problems

According to Harry, one of the most common places stress manifests is in the gut. Through the fascinating gut-brain connection, microbes in our gut can affect our mood and vice versa. The gut can signal stress-induced distress through symptoms like bloating, nausea, and irregular bowel movements (including diarrhoea), Harry says.

2. Aches and Pains

From jaw aches to headaches, there’s no shortage of aches and pains that can result from stress. “Tension headaches are a big one,” Harry notes, and if you’re a jaw-clencher when you’re stressed, it can make headaches worse, along with bothering your jaw.

Any time we’re holding on to tension in the body, we’ll often feel it in our upper back and shoulders too because there’s a tendency to tighten and tense those areas when we can’t relax.

3. Anxious Habits

Some people may not feel much in the way of physical symptoms but instead notice stress and anxiety manifesting into some sort of nervous habit. Harry explains things like nail-biting, eyelash pulling, and hair-pulling aren’t uncommon. “It’s not something [people] consciously do,” she notes. “It’s like a nervous habit they develop as a response when they become anxious.”

4. Difficulty Sleeping

Stress disrupts sleep in so many ways. When we’re stressed, our mind races, our body can’t relax, our blood pressure might be elevated, and we’re left tossing and turning as we try to settle down. Harry adds that chronic stress can lead to an increased heart rate and essentially, a chronic state of adrenaline. It’s a recipe for a bad night’s sleep, which can then translate into so many other areas of our health.

5. The Exacerbation of Other Conditions

And lastly, if you have any other chronic conditions, such as skin conditions, or autoimmune conditions, stress has a way of exacerbating them. Some may have such a visceral reaction to stress they actually break out in a rash or hives. But Harry notes if you have any other health problems, stress will likely make things worse.


Thankfully, even though stress can manifest in a lot of ways, there are also a lot of things you can do to help manage it.

According to Harry, the first thing that’s important to focus on is identifying when you’re actually experiencing stress.

“When you start having a headache or your stomach starts hurting, you have to start asking yourself, Is this because I’m stressed?” she explains.

Once you’ve identified it, she says you can use the power of deep abdominal breathing to help guide your body into a more relaxed state.

“We walk around with such shallow breath all the time, and that tells the body we’re anxious,” she notes, adding that this doesn’t mean you have to meditate for an hour but rather start practising deep breathing as you go about your day.

From there, it’s about finding activities and practices that help you decompress.

Harry recommends things as simple as taking a walk, getting out into nature, sipping a soothing tea, or using calming essential oils. Other practices like EFT tapping have also shown success, she says.

And when in doubt, having a support system behind you is essential. Harry says, “We handle stress better when we have friends. When we’re able to share experiences, it becomes less stressful for us.”


Stress is (unfortunately) something universal that all have to deal with in one form or another, whether it’s an upset stomach or a nervous habit. When those physical symptoms strike, being able to recognise them, take a deep breath, and do something in the moment that helps you calm down will go a long way to improve your overall wellbeing.

Harry notes that if these physical stress symptoms persist or get worse over time, or if you suspect they could be caused by something other than stress, you should go see your doctor. At the very least, if it turns out your symptoms are solely stress-induced, your primary care provider should be able to direct you to a mental health professional who could help as well.