Your Health A-Z

How do stress and insomnia affect your body?

Stress is a complex concept – here’s how to prevent it from overwhelming you – and how to ensure you get enough rest.

‘Stress-related conditions can progress gradually and are often unnoticed or merely dismissed,’ says Dr Jean-Louis du Plooy, a psychiatrist at Mediclinic Panorama. ‘This paves the way for escalating stress, which may become dysfunctional over time if it isn’t addressed.’

Your body’s key systems react in different ways to stress.

In what is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response, your nervous system triggers increased production and release of adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones make your heart beat faster and raise your blood pressure.

Your muscles also tense up when you’re under stress, leading to tension headaches and migraines. And you are also prone to rapid breathing – or hyperventilation – that can trigger a panic attack.

Repeated episodes of acute stress can also cause inflammation of your coronary arteries which can increase the risk of a heart attack. In addition, your endocrine system is affected. Under stress, your adrenal medulla produces adrenaline known as the ‘stress’ hormone. Along with cortisol, this causes your liver to release more glucose in an attempt to give you energy to ‘fight or flight’.

Stress can also affect your gastrointestinal system. You might find yourself eating more – or less – and drinking more alcohol, leading to acid reflux. You might also suffer from diarrhoea or constipation.

If you are under excessive stress, your body can misinterpret benign ‘threats’ as being dangerous. This state of hyperarousal can affect your ability to fall and remain asleep. Chronic insomnia can lead to reduced concentration and energy.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA) there are three different types of stress.

  1. Acute stress entails your response to certain situations, such as a difficult month-end at work, or an unexpected expense (or episodic acute stress).
  2. Chronic stress stems from ongoing work or home stressors, poverty, domestic violence and /or abuse. This type of relentless stress depletes your physical and mental resources and may require extended medical and behavioural treatment.

Stress varies in its presentation but generally impacts these areas:


Memory problems, poor judgement, inability to concentrate, ‘brain fog’, indecision, inefficiency and self-doubt.


Depression, moodiness, irritability, negative thinking, panic, cynicism, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed and frustration


Chest pain, rapid heartbeat, aches and pains, frequent colds, skin complaints, indigestion, high blood pressure


Increases intake of alcohol, cigarettes and caffeine to relax, isolating yourself from others, sleeping too little or too much, and loss of motivation and interest.

‘The key elements in long-term stress management are a balanced and healthy lifestyle, with careful planning and optimal management of time,’ Dr du Plooy explains. ‘In addition, early recognition of stress-related symptoms and functional decline is important for earlier interventions.’

Mindful participation in activities, such as a hobby (not just lazing in front of TV) can give you a sense of achievement and can help in reducing stress.

Get active. Exercise has been shown to improve mental health and reduce stress.

Make your sleep hygiene a priority and establish a routine.

  • Get enough sleep. The amount of sleep needed varies greatly between different people.
  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
  • Limit bedroom activities to sleep and sex. Don’t make the bed your worry centre, as this becomes habitual.
  • Limit sensory input close to bed-time. Avoid using a cellphone or tablet in bed as the screens bright light inhibits natural sleep-promoting processes.
  • Regular exercise aids better sleep.
  • Avoid large meals, excessive caffeine, alcohol or cigarettes too close to bed-time.
  • Aerate your bedroom, ensure it’s dark enough, quiet enough and as comfortable as possible.
  • Lastly, limit or cut out afternoon naps.

Most of these are relatively easy to implement and can go a long way in getting that welcome and stress-relieving good night’s rest.

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.