Psychological Effects of Stress

Erin L. George, MFT
Erin L. George, MFT
Medical editor

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Stress is a physiological and psychological response to challenging situations or perceived threats. This response triggers the body's fight-or-flight mechanism. 


In everyday life, stress is a natural and adaptive response that helps you navigate challenges by motivating you to act and promoting survival. However, chronic or excessive stress can have detrimental effects on physical and mental well-being, contributing to health issues such as anxiety, depression, and cardiovascular problems. Managing stress is crucial for maintaining overall health and coping effectively with life's demands.[1]

This article explores the psychological effects of stress as well as how to manage it.

What are the Psychological Effects of Stress?

Stress is associated with heightened anxiety, increased symptoms of depression, elevated levels of irritability, and impairments in cognitive function. While short-term stress is natural and can be an adaptive response to challenges, chronic stress, which persists over time, can have detrimental effects on a person’s physical and mental well-being. For example, chronic stress can trigger celiac disease or dysthymic disorder.

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Researchers in the field of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) study ways the immune system and nervous system communicate with each other and impact people's mental and emotional health. Even though the field is relatively new, many studies have been designed to examine how the immune and nervous systems are impacted by stress.

PNI research suggests that chronic stress can lead to or exacerbate mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, bipolar disorder, cognitive (problems, personality changes, and problem behaviors such as impulsive gambling or substance misuse.

Immediate Effects

Acute stress, such as managing a busy day or studying for a test, causes the release of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. These stress hormones prepare you to respond to a perceived threat or challenge. This works through the activation of your sympathetic nervous system. This acute stress response leads to many physical changes, such as:[2],[4],[5]

  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Rapid breathing
  • Muscle tension
  • Heightened alertness
  • Increased mental activity
  • Increased muscle strength
  • Increased blood flow to major muscle groups
  • Sharpening of the senses

Furthermore, experiencing acute stress can cause emotional responses like heightened anxiety, fear, or frustration. Plus, the release of stress hormones like cortisol can affect emotional regulation, contributing to intense emotional reactions[6].

Long-Term Effects

Chronic stress refers to a prolonged and persistent state of stress that can result from ongoing challenges, adversity, or unrelenting demands. Chronic stress can lead to harmful effects on a person’s mental and physical health, including:[4],[7]

  • Increased risk for mood disorders and anxiety disorders
  • Increased risk of substance addiction
  • Immune dysfunction
  • Medical complications
  • Central nervous system damage
  • Reduced sperm production
  • Reduced sexual desire
  • Infertility
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Early death

Stress and Cognitive Functioning

The continuous presence of stress hormones in the body may alter the operation and structure of some aspects of the nervous system. 

More specifically, stress hormones may decrease the functioning of neurons in a region of the brain known as the hippocampus. This is a part of the brain that is important for laying down new long-term memories.

Stress may also impact neuron function in the frontal lobes, which is the part of the brain necessary for paying attention, filtering out irrelevant information, and using judgment to solve problems. As a result, people who are chronically stressed may experience confusion, difficulty concentrating, trouble learning new information, or problems with decision-making.

Erin L George, MA-MFT, says it can be even more complicated to unravel the impacts of long-term stress because many of the symptoms that come with it are also tied to conditions and diseases that develop because of chronic stress. 

"Someone who experiences long-term stress may develop a brain fog, which is also the symptom of many immune-related diseases," says George. "If a person's stress triggered a condition like celiac disease, for example, it would be difficult to know where that fog was coming from and how to treat it."

For many people, she explains, long-term stress triggers immune system dysregulation that leads to other conditions, and it's not uncommon to experience medical anxiety—anxiety also being a symptom of chronic stress. "Because stress is so closely tied to all the body's systems and psychosomatic responses are difficult to identify, chronic stress can be especially dangerous."

Stress and Personality Changes

The term personality is used to describe the consistent individual patterns of thoughts, emotions, and behavior that characterize each person. Each individual's personality is thought to be influenced by an inherited component and by interactions with the environment. Some people experience personality changes in response to stress hormones, which are part of their internal environment.

The following changes in personality and behavior are not uncommon to observe in people who are stressed:

  • Irritability
  • Hostility
  • Frustration
  • Anger
  • Aggressive feelings and behavior
  • Decreased interest in appearance
  • Decreased concern with punctuality
  • Obsessive/compulsive behavior, such as counting, checking, and washing
  • Reduced work efficiency or productivity
  • Lying or making excuses to cover up poor work
  • Excessive defensiveness or suspiciousness
  • Problems in communication
  • Social withdrawal and isolation
  • Impulsivity, such as impulse buying, gambling, or sexual behavior

When long-term stress causes these behaviors to persist, a person may be misdiagnosed with a personality disorder. However, the real issue is chronic stress.

Stress and Mental Health Conditions

Stress and Depression

Byproducts of stress hormones can act as sedatives—chemical substances that cause you to become calm or fatigued. When such hormone byproducts occur in large amounts, which can happen under conditions of chronic stress, they may contribute to a sustained feeling of low energy or depression. 

Habitual patterns of thought that increase the likelihood that a person will experience stress as negative can also increase the chance that a person will become depressed.

It's normal to experience a range of moods, both high and low, in everyday life. However, when depressing feelings persist and start interfering with your ability to complete daily activities, hold a job, and enjoy successful interpersonal relationships, something outside of normal ups and downs occurs. The term Major Depression is used to describe such periods of extended, unremitting, and profound depression. 

Symptoms of Major Depression may include:

  • Sleep problems
  • Fatigue
  • Appetite changes
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Self-hate
  • Guilt
  • Inability to concentrate or make decisions
  • Agitation
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Withdrawal from typical pleasurable activities
  • Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. 

Depression is also associated with an increase in suicidal thinking and suicidal actions and may make a person more vulnerable to developing other mental disorders. For more information about Major Depression, please see our Major Depression topic center. Additional information about Suicide can be found in our Suicide Topic Center.

Stress and Bipolar Disorder

Chronic or severe stress can also negatively affect people with Bipolar Disorder. This illness, also known as manic depression or bipolar affective disorder, involves dramatic shifts in mood, energy level, and behavior. Individuals with this disorder may move from the highs of mania to the lows of Major Depression.

Mania is characterized by a euphoric mood, hyper-activity, a positive, expansive outlook on life, an inflated sense of self-esteem, and a sense that most anything is possible. When in a manic state, individuals with bipolar disorder tend to experience a decreased need for sleep, racing thoughts, rapid speech, and heightened distractibility. Manic individuals typically show poor judgment and impulsivity and are prone to engaging in risky or dangerous behaviors and activities.

Individuals with Bipolar Disorder who are in a depressed state often lose interest in things that used to give them pleasure, develop sleep problems, and constantly feel tired and fatigued. They may have distressed, negative, and unhappy moods and demonstrate irritability, a short temper, or agitation. In addition, they may experience anger, guilt, failure, and hopelessness.

People with Bipolar Disorder cycle between manic and depressed mood states over days, weeks, or months. This mood cycle disrupts everyday functioning, affecting energy, activity levels, judgment, and behavior. Stress can trigger either a depressive or manic mood state in someone with a genetic vulnerability to Bipolar Disorder. Stress can also worsen a Bipolar mood episode once it has begun, increasing its intensity or extending its duration. For more information about Bipolar Disorder, please see our related topic center.

Stress and Anxiety Disorders

Some people who are stressed may show relatively mild outward signs of anxiety, such as fidgeting, biting their fingernails, or tapping their feet. In other people, chronic activation of stress hormones can contribute to severe feelings of anxiety and result in symptoms such as racing heartbeat, nausea, sweaty palms, feelings of helplessness, and a sense of impending doom. Thought patterns that lead to stress can also leave people vulnerable to intense anxiety feelings. 

Anxiety or dread feelings that persist for an extended time and cause you to worry excessively about upcoming situations, avoid certain situations, or experience difficulty coping with everyday situations can be a sign of an Anxiety Disorder. 

Anxiety Disorders, such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or Panic Disorder, are one of the most commonly diagnosed mental disorders today. 

George says, "The symptoms of long-term stress can also lead to medical anxiety as a person mistakes these symptoms for a physical condition and has trouble getting a diagnosis for what they are experiencing."

You can read more about Anxiety Disorders by visiting our Anxiety Disorders Topic Center

Positive Effects of Stress

Although there are many negative effects of stress, stress can be beneficial as long as it remains moderate and manageable.

For example, moderate stress can enhance motivation and performance by activating the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine. This heightened arousal state can lead to improved focus, alertness, and cognitive function, facilitating better adaptation to challenging situations.[3] This can be helpful in situations like studying for an exam or meeting a deadline at work.

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