Everyone gets stressed. Whether it’s from financial troubles, relationships, health problems, or work, there’s pretty much an endless list of things that can rile you up and leave you feeling frazzled. For some people, though, the consequences of stress can show up more outwardly than it does in others.
“Stress does not have to be either very high or necessarily chronic to feel it fairly immediately,” Julie Pike, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and expert in the treatment of anxiety disorders, tells SELF. And by feel it, she means not just in the form of anxiety, overthinking, and worrying. “Stress is the body’s response to the mind’s perception that the environment is too demanding,” she explains. So naturally, this response shows up in many ways throughout your body—for some, it hits harder than others.
Stress activates your sympathetic nervous system. “It tells our body it’s in the presence of a predator, so we have to be on guard and either need to run or fight, which is why we get so nervous and so snappy,” Pike explains. This fight or flight response sends our bodies signals, which cause countless effects, thanks to the rush of hormones and brain chemicals involved.
Here are 11 of the most common physical signs your stress levels are too damn high.
1. Neck pain
Muscle tension is one of the first physical manifestations of stress, and it tends to be most pronounced at the base of the head. That’s why your masseuse may ask if you’ve been stressed lately when your neck and shoulders feel insanely tense.
Stress is the most common cause of tension headaches, according to the Mayo Clinic. It can also trigger other types of headaches, like migraines, or make an existing headache worse.
Whether a knot in your stomach or straight up nausea, stress can have a wide range of GI consequences. That’s because digestion is often disrupted and slowed down when your nervous system is trying to cope with stress. Pike adds that irritable bowel syndrome can also be linked to stress—the colon is partially controlled by the nervous system, and those with IBS tend to have colons that are more reactive to stress, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
4. Hair loss
“Hair loss is more likely to be the product of really long sustained periods of high levels of stress,” Pike says. Typically one isolated stressful situation isn’t going to make your hair start falling out. But experiencing a life-altering event, like a death of a loved one or a huge career change, can actually cause your hair to stop growing temporarily as your body dedicates its efforts to surviving said event. When it starts growing again, the hairs that were stalled in the middle of growing get shed all at once, so you may find yourself combing out what seems like handfuls at a time.
5. Weight gain
High stress means high levels of cortisol coursing through our veins. “Cortisol is a stress hormone that not only prompts you to eat, but also causes you to retain calories because it thinks you’re in an emergency situation,” Pike explains.
Cortisol surges can also lead to cystic acne—aka, red, painful zits that won’t go away no matter how much benzoyl peroxide you slather on.
7. Rapid heartbeat and chest pain
When we’re stressed, our bodies release cortisol plus other stress hormones—adrenaline and noradrenaline—to get us ready to fight. This causes a short-term increase in heart rate and blood pressure and even chest pain. Over time, stress really can take its toll on your heart. “Chronic stress leads to cardiovascular disease,” Pike says. Though the connection isn’t crystal clear, the American Heart Association suggests that stress can cause high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, plus encourage other habits that are linked to heart disease like smoking, physical inactivity, and overeating.
When you’re feeling super worried and having a tough time shutting down your mind, chances are you’ll also have some issues falling asleep at night.
9. Getting sick more often
Research shows that stress impacts the immune system and makes us more prone to getting sick. A meta analysis done in 2004 of 300 studies found that while a few minutes of stress (pretty unrealistic IRL) may actually boost immunity in one way, stress with any significant duration, like what we actually experience, has a negative impact on immunity. People who are older or already sick are more prone to decreased immunity from stress.
10. Irregular period
Too much cortisol can interfere with the sex hormones that regulate ovulation and make your period irregular. Extreme stress may stop your body from releasing an egg (it’s called anovulation), which means you won’t get your monthly visitor. This shouldn’t happen under normal levels of stress, though—this is typically only seen in instances of very heavy, chronic stress.
If you’re not sleeping well, you’re probably walking around all day exhausted. Plus, when your body feels overwhelmed and is working overtime to handle the stressors it registers, it takes a lot out of you. When you’re tired, you get more irritable and it’s harder to cope mentally with stress, creating a vicious cycle. Tried and true stress relievers like exercise, mediation, taking some time for yourself, and even massage or acupuncture, can help relieve tension and calm your mind and body.
Social image: Getty
- You’re tired in the morning but unable to fall asleep at night.
- You have a “nervous” stomach
- Your heart is in panic mode
- Building better wellbeing: Coping with stress and recognising the physical signs
- Stress overload: Causes and signs
- Signs of stress overload
- Tips to reduce or manage the stress in your life
- Related stories
- How Much Is Too Much Stress?
- 21 sneaky signs you’re stressed — even if you think you aren’t
- Stress and Your Body
- 8 signs that stress is affecting your health
- 1. You have trouble falling or staying asleep.
- 2. You have frequent upset stomach, constipation or diarrhea.
- 3. You have frequent headaches, back pain or other muscle pain.
- Cortisol tends to make both women and men — but especially menopausal women — deposit fat more in the belly area.
- 5. You eat more than you should, especially comfort food.
- 6. You feel sad and lose interest in activities you once enjoyed.
- 7. You lose your temper easily and get angry over little things.
- 8. You experience new or worsening skin problems.
- Take control of your stress
- 5 Warning Signs of Chronic Stress You Can’t Afford to Ignore
- Sleep Disturbances or Agitation:
- Health or Physical Problems:
- Emotional Symptoms or Changes in Mood:
- Increase in Addictive Behaviors:
- Trouble Thinking or Concentrating:
You’re tired in the morning but unable to fall asleep at night.
The cofounder and chief medical adviser of Nutrafol, Dr. Sophia Kogan, explains that when our adrenals are in overstimulation mode thanks to chronic, prolonged stress our cortisol levels become imbalanced. What does that mean? When you have a manageable schedule that includes enough sleep and mental breaks, you’ll feel energetic when you first wake up in the morning, and at nighttime those cortisol levels will be low, and you’ll be able to fall asleep easily. “Often the pattern is reversed with chronic stress, where are lowest in the morning and then rise at night. This can make us tired in the morning, wired during the day, and tired by night when you want to go to sleep, but can’t,” she explains. Often when this happens, our body craves all of those goodies that actually aren’t great for us–a Starbucks drive-by, “just one” cookie at the local bakery–in the middle of the afternoon. When you give in to this temptation, Kogan says you’ll feel burnt out and fatigued, and yet still unable to sleep.
To help get your internal rhythm back on track, Kogan suggests practicing smart, consistent sleep hygiene by going to bed at the same time every night and waking in the morning like clockwork, too. Though it will be difficult at first, ease yourself into an earlier bedtime in 15 minute increments to make it more digestible. She also recommends yoga or meditation to rebalance stress and cortisol levels, since it teaches you how to be in control of your mental processes.
You have a “nervous” stomach
That feeling that your stomach is in knots happens because when stress is highly emotional, bad bacteria will find it easier to fester than good bacteria, creating an unhealthy microbiome within your organs. Kogan adds that stress can threaten your gut’s permeability, creating a pathway for toxins to pass through, and thus, igniting inflammation. When this happens, you’ll see lots of physical transformations including digestion difficulties, inflamed pores and acne breakouts, irritable bowel syndrome symptoms, and more.
To recover from this, Kogan recommended dietary modifications as a smart place to start. Since we crave sugar and caffeine when we’re under pressure, we often have processed foods and other foods that don’t offer nutritional value. “Consumption of whole, nutrient dense foods will inevitably improve the microbiome. Extra support from good probiotics and digestive enzymes can ensure that the gut stays healthy and nutrients are properly digested for absorption–in the light of stress,” she adds.
Your heart is in panic mode
Or as you’ve often heard it: fight or flight mode. Georgia Witkin, author of The Female Stress Syndrome, says when our sense of choice, control or predictability goes down, our stress goes up. This makes everything from our muscles, brain, heart, and blood vessels to our liver, kidneys, sweat glands, and digestive system on high alert. “Fight-or-flight hormones are released to increase blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and respiration, all of which are meant for short-term emergencies,” she says. Then, as our adrenaline levels climb, our heart can spasm, miss beats or pound, and Witkin says we experience the three H’s: hyperventilation, hyperactivity, or hypervigilance.
So how do we calm down? She suggests activating the concept of a “pause.” This short period of zen should last 20 minutes a day, and can be broken up into two sessions, four, or however you want to slice it. You don’t have to sit mindlessly breathing during this time either–but rather, do something to disengage your mind and allow you to reconnect to joy. “Everything works: you can read, meditate, sing, pray, do yoga, be mindful, play cards or Words with Friends, read funny emails, watch a comedy, laugh, or get a back massage,” she continues. “The trick is to give yourself permission for a time out during a stressful situation.”
Building better wellbeing: Coping with stress and recognising the physical signs
Written by: Fit for Work team | Posted in: Blog Tuesday, February 21, 2017
The relationship between stress and physical health is complex: stress can cause physical symptoms and illness, and physical illness can heighten stress.
Stress is a major problem in modern society and is a leading cause of sickness absence in the UK. Some 11.7 million work days are lost to stress and stress accounts for 37 percent of all cases of work related ill health and 45 percent of all sick days. The cost to UK businesses has been estimated at some £6.5 billion.
What is stress?
Stress comes from feeling under unusual pressure that makes us feel uncomfortable, and the triggers can vary from heavy workload and looming deadlines to family upset or money worries. Our body responds to stress in a physical way. When we feel under threat our body releases the hormones adrenalin and cortisol which heighten our alertness and makes our heart beat faster to pump blood more quickly around the body. This is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response and is useful in emergencies, but can be a problem if someone is stressed over a long period of time.
Symptoms of stress
In the short-term, increased heart rate and the sudden release of hormones can affect us physically:
- Sweating, quick breathing or hyperventilating.
- Nausea or dizziness.
- Panic attack.
But prolonged periods of stress can have more serious health effects such as:
- chest pain;
- skin conditions, such as psoriasis;
- diarrhoea and constipation;
- high blood pressure – leading to coronary heart disease;
- loss of sleep;
- loss of libido;
Stress experienced over a long period can lead people to make bad health choices. Smoking is commonly used as a quick stress buster but plays a major role in reducing the life expectancy of people suffering anxiety, depression and stress. People also turn to alcohol or comfort food to cope with stress, or they find the impact of stress reduces their motivation to do exercise. These choices all have bad long-term consequences for a person’s physical health.
Causes of stress
The causes of stress are, of course, many and various and depend on individual circumstances. But common among them is the feeling of having lost control or of facing insurmountable problems. Among the major triggers are:
- life events, family disagreement, crisis, bereavement or break-up;
- overwork, unreasonable deadlines, challenging tasks, long hours or unsupportive managers and colleagues;
- money worries, debt, inability to meet mortgage or bill payments;
- long-term physical illness causing lost mobility or worry.
Developing your coping skills
- Identify the causes of stress – Keep a diary and record what is making you stressed. List your roles and responsibilities and prioritise. Ask others to take over tasks at home and work if you find you have too much to cope with.
- Social support and relationships – Talk to friends and relatives about the stress you feel and reach out to them for help and support. Just talking things through could give you a different view on what is causing you stress.
- Count to 10 – In the face of a stressful situation, stop, count to 10, and take stock. Your calm response could take the heat out of a stressful situation.
- Wind down – Lack of sleep is a major problem for people encountering high levels of stress. Keep off alcohol and caffeine in the hours before bedtime and turn off electronic gadgets.
- Talk out your worries – Counselling could help you put life into perspective and enable you to cope with stress.
Protecting yourself against the physical symptoms of stress
Being subjected to stress over a long period can grind you down and diminish your resilience. Try these ideas for boosting your immunity to stress.
- Exercise (daily, if possible) – Regular exercise is well known for boosting energy and encouraging a sense of wellbeing. It’ll make you fitter and stronger too.
- Good diet – Healthy food, including lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, will complement exercise in making you look and feel great.
- Stop smoking – Smoking is a major cause of ill health in people suffering stress, anxiety and depression.
- Moderate your drinking – Alcohol is often turned to for short-term relief from stress but it is a depressant and can actually contribute to feelings of depression or anxiety and make stress harder to deal with.
- Take a break – Make sure you take a lunch break and try to leave work on time. Always take the holidays you are due and be good to yourself.
- Mindfulness – Take conscious steps to look after yourself and boost your wellbeing. Try yoga or mediation and make time for the things you enjoy doing.
People can develop skills to cope and do recover if they get the right support. Anyone who continues to feel overwhelmed to contact a health care professional for advice and support.
Fit for Work offers free, online work-related health advice and guidance to anyone looking for advice and support about an existing case of sickness absence, or about issues that may result in sickness absence. Visit the Fit for Work website or call the free telephone advice line on 0800 032 6235 (English) or 0800 032 6233 (Welsh). There is a separate service running in Scotland (0800 019 2211).
Stress overload: Causes and signs
Although just enough stress can be a good thing, feeling overwhelmed is a different story. Stress overload isn’t good for anyone.
For example, feeling a little nervous about a project or family event can motivate you to focus. But becoming exhausted can make it hard to concentrate on the tasks and determine what to do first.
Pressures that are too intense or last too long, or troubles that are shouldered alone, can cause people to feel stress overload. Here are some of the things that can overwhelm the body’s ability to cope if they continue for a long time:
- Being bullied or exposed to violence or injury
- Relationship stress, family conflicts or the heavy emotions that can accompany a broken heart or the death of a loved one
- Ongoing work overload, conflicts with colleagues or job dissatisfaction
- Crammed schedules, not having enough time to rest and relax, and always being on the go
Learn more: Dial down the stress
Some stressful situations can be extreme and may require special attention and care. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a strong stress reaction that can develop in people who have lived through a traumatic event, such as a serious car accident, a natural disaster or an assault.
Some people experience anxiety that can cause them to overreact to stress, making even small difficulties seem like crises. If a person frequently feels tense, upset or worried, it may be a sign of anxiety. Anxiety problems usually need attention, and many people turn to professional counselors for help in overcoming them.
Signs of stress overload
People who are experiencing stress overload may notice some of the following signs:
- Anxiety or panic attacks
- A feeling of being constantly pressured, hassled and hurried
- Irritability and moodiness
- Physical symptoms, such as stomach problems, headaches, or even chest pain
- Allergic reactions, such as eczema or asthma
- Problems sleeping
- Drinking too much, smoking, overeating or doing drugs
- Sadness or depression
Everyone experiences stress a little differently. Some people become angry and act out their stress or take it out on others. Some people internalize it and develop eating disorders or substance abuse problems. And some people who have a chronic illness may find that the symptoms of their illness flare up under an overload of stress.
Tips to reduce or manage the stress in your life
- Eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly. A healthy, well-balanced diet and exercise can keep your body fit and able to fight disease. Exercise also is an excellent way to lift up your mood.
- Talk about your stressful situations with someone you trust. Sometimes just talking about your problems and concerns can help you put them into perspective. It can also give you insights into ways to deal with them.
- Stay organized to help manage your time more efficiently.
- Remember, no one can do it all alone. Ask for help.
- Use relaxation methods to calm your mind and body.
- Get professional help if you need it.
- Regulations, diet, time away from family all stress truckers
- Stress at work: How leaders make all the difference
- Good medicine: Easing stress with laughter
Posted In Behavioral Health, Health Information, Healthy Living
How Much Is Too Much Stress?
Is there such a thing as stress overload? And what are some of the signs that we are approaching the breaking point? Finding an answer to those questions is harder than you might think.
Stress can build up in all sorts of ways, whether through major life events—such as losing your job or ending a marriage—or simply through a buildup of daily hassles until you reach the point of no return. But not all stressful experiences will affect us in the same way. According to stress pioneer Hans Selye, feelings of stress occur when our sense of homeostasis is disrupted and our body needs to draw on inner resources to restore the balance.
Which is fine until the stress builds up to the point that our inner resources are exhausted and we lose the ability to cope. That is when we reach that physiological and psychological breaking point more commonly known as stress overload. It is also when we become particularly vulnerable to a wide range of physical and mental problems linked to too much stress.
But what are some of the signs that stress overload is imminent? While there are any number of symptoms commonly linked to stress, including fatigue, insomnia, headaches, etc., these can apply in any stressful situation, whether we are overloaded or not. While these symptoms may tell us that we need to relax, they generally don’t work as warning signs that we are on the verge of a health crisis.
A new study published in the International Journal of Stress Management takes a closer look at the kind of symptoms seen in people experiencing stress overload and how they are often overlooked until it is too late. Conducted by a team of researchers at California State University Long Beach, the study involved 440 adults recruited from the general community. The participants were almost evenly divided by gender (51 percent female) and well-represented across different age groups. In describing the study, lead researcher James H. Amirkhan and his co-authors focused on the stress symptoms experienced over the course of one week using questionnaires completed in two stages.
The first stage consisted of items from various stress inventories focused on the following categories:
- Event load (EL) items from the Stress Overload Scale (SOS). These measure perceived demands from stressful events experienced by participants, (e.g., “felt swamped by your responsibilities”)
- Personal vulnerability (PV) items from the SOS. These items focus on perceived inadequacy in dealing with stress, (e.g., “felt like you couldn’t cope”).
- A symptom checklist describing thirty-five somatic symptoms taken from stress inventories but which were carefully revised to prevent overlap with items from the SOS. Examples of symptoms include: appetite change, loss of sex drive, stomach pains, constipation/diarrhea, etc.
- A behaviour checklist describing thirty-five behaviour patterns often occurring due to stress. Again, they were carefully revised to prevent overlap with SOS items. Examples of behaviours include: cancelled appointments/dates, spending more money, using more alcohol/tobacco/drugs, lost temper, etc.
After completing the first assessment, participants were given an envelope marked with an identification code with instructions to complete the enclosed questionnaire at home and send it out a week later. The two-stage procedure was used to provide a greater time frame for detecting symptoms and behaviours linked to overload as well as to determine how stable the test scores would be over time. Only 161 participants (40 percent of the original sample) completed the questionnaires for the second phase.
Statistical analysis of the thirty somatic symptoms used in the study and how they related to different aspects of stress overload identified the following symptom clusters:
- Body complaints (BC) – symptoms reflecting physiological changes resulting from stress. Examples include: reduced sex drive, frequent urination, teeth grinding, fatigue/weakness, body aches, and itching, etc.
- Gastrointestinal disturbances (GD) – symptoms specifically linked to the gastrointestinal system. Examples include: stomach pains, complexion change, nausea, vomiting, skin sores/pimples, etc.
- Respiratory problems (RP) – stress-related symptoms focusing on the respiratory system and nasal tract. Examples are: stuffy/runny nose, earache, sore throat, temperature change, sneezing, etc.
For the thirty-five behaviours used in the study, statistical analysis identified the following clusters:
- Moodiness (M) – Behavioural symptoms linked to mood issues. Examples include: waking up tired, irritability, volatile emotions, impatience, increase in drug/alcohol use, nervous tics/twitches, losing ones temper, etc.
- Nervous habits (NH) – Behaviours suggestive of nervousness or compulsiveness. Examples include pacing back and forth, neglecting personal grooming, making mistakes, shaking or trembling, chewing nails/pencils/twitching, etc.
- Cognitive disruption (CD) – Signs of reduced cognitive functioning. Examples include losing focus, difficulty making decisions, memory problems, forgetting appointments, etc.
Though all of the different clusters identified in the study appear to predict stress overload to some extent, there were specific behaviour and symptom clusters that are especially strong predictors.
For example, gastrointestinal disturbances such as stomach pains, nausea, vomiting, etc. appear to be much more consistent indicators than either body complaints or respiratory problems. When looking at behavioural signs of stress overload, cognitive disturbances appear much more likely to occur in people dealing with stress overload than moodiness or nervous habits.
Perhaps more importantly, the link between cognitive problems and stress overload remains strong over time and shows no sign of subsiding like many other symptoms do. That suggests that behaviour symptoms, particularly cognitive disruption, tend to be more useful as overload warning signs than somatic symptoms even though most stress literature tends not to make a distinction.
While some researchers have long suggested that stress overload should be made into a formal diagnosis, finding clear diagnostic markers has been difficult up to now. With further research studies such as this one, it may become possible to identify key symptom markers that can alert health care workers that patients are at risk and provide treatment in time to prevent stress-related medical problems.
Considering the impact that stress overload can have on all of us, an ounce of prevention may well be worth a pound of cure.
21 sneaky signs you’re stressed — even if you think you aren’t
Read more: Crying once a week can reduce stress, according to a Japanese professor who calls himself a ‘tears teacher’
9. Making decisions big and small is a challenge.
Whether you’re deciding what to have for lunch or whether to make a life-altering change, like applying for a new job, being under extreme stress can cause your brain to act in weird — but subtle — ways. You might think nothing of your inability to make small decisions throughout your day, but a 2012 article published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, showed that stress changes how people make decisions … and it might not be in the way you’d think.
Stress may make you focus on more positive outcomes, according to the researchers. They found that people might try to block out any negative outcomes when they’re already feeling stressed, which sounds great until you take a new job offer without thoughtfully considering the impact on your daily commute, or something similar.
The researchers discovered that “stress seems to help people learn from positive feedback and impairs their learning from negative feedback,” which might be your brain’s way of protecting you from stress overload.
10. Your head is constantly throbbing.
We already told you that carrying around too much stress leads to tense muscles, and that radiates from head to toe … literally. Tension headaches and migraines are a common, yet painful, side effect of stress, but sufferers may not even realize that they’re linked, especially if they’re predisposed to headaches already.
If you’re battling more headaches or migraines than is normal for you, or you’re experiencing new headaches altogether, it might be that your body is sending a subtle message that you’re too stressed… which is not good.
Your head is constantly throbbing. Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
11. You’re experiencing appetite or weight changes.
When we’re stressed, it often shows most clearly in our appetites. And over time, this can lead to weight changes in either direction.
According to Reader’s Digest, “Two-thirds of people eat more under stress, while the rest eat less. The stress hormone glucocorticoid stimulates appetite, and it can take hours to clear the bloodstream, prompting emotionally charged overeating when we’re stressed.”
You may not even realize that you’re suddenly finding less time to eat, or conversely, that you’re “stress eating,” but as mentioned earlier, our digestive systems are so closely linked with our mental health, that it’s no surprise how our appetite can be inextricably linked to our stress levels.
12. You’re feeling edgy and irritable.
Let’s face it: Too much stress is downright unpleasant, so it’s not a secret why you might feel extra edgy or snippy. It’s all thanks to our wiring and evolution, so when our bodies are under stress, our brains react by going into “survival mode,” according to Reader’s Digest, who notes that “stress is closely related to fear.” Being in that “fight or flight mode” too often can make our emotions, especially negative ones, heightened.
Thanks to evolution, being ready and able to fight off predators helped us survive. But according to the magazine, “This is quite true if you’re faced with a grizzly bear,” but given that most of us don’t face the threat of attack from wild animals these days, “Our plunge into an edgy emotional state is one of the signs you’re stressed over an imagined threat that doesn’t exist.” Yikes.
13. You’re finding less enjoyment in the fun things.
If suddenly you’re finding less enjoyment, or even downright dreading, things that normally make you happy (say, a dinner out with friends or your favorite physical activity), it might be a sign that you’ve got too much on your plate. This is because stress seriously messes with your hormones.
According to Reader’s Digest, “During high-stress situations, interactions between a stress hormone called adrenal glucocorticoid and serotonin receptors in the brain interfere with our ability to experience pleasure and remain motivated. Serotonin levels that are consistently off-balance produce the brain chemistry that leads to depression.”
If you find yourself withdrawing socially, or avoiding activities or, really, anything that once gave you joy, you should speak with your doctor or a licensed counselor or therapist that you trust.
14. Your sweat glands are on overdrive.
There’s a reason why we sweat when we’re stressed and it’s actually not the same than why we perspire when we’re hot or physically exerting ourselves.
According to The Wall Street Journal, “Stress sweat is triggered by the same hormones , mainly adrenaline, that prompt us to react quickly when faced with a threatening situation.”
“It’s highly tied to the fight or flight response,” George Preti, a faculty member at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, a scientific research institution in Philadelphia, told the Journal. So if your body is regularly feeling those spikes in adrenaline, it might respond by way of overactive sweat glands, which can be localized to particular points, like the armpits, hands, or feet, or all-over perspiration.
If excess perspiration (known as hyperhidrosis) is bothering you, you can visit a dermatologist or your doctor to explore treatment options, including prescription antiperspirants, Botox injections, or medication options to help slow your sweat glands down.
You’re taking up risky vices. Dennis Crowley/flickr
15. You’re taking up risky vices.
Lots of us have a cocktail at the end of a long week, or a glass of wine at night to unwind, but when you find yourself relying on alcohol, drugs, or other substances to relieve pressure, you could be heading into potentially dangerous territory.
Substances should never be your go-to way of handling stress, so you should find healthy techniques to help you cope with stress, such as listening to music or podcasts, reading, or meditating.
16. Easy tasks suddenly feel impossible.
When you’re chronically stressed, even simple things like routine household tasks or phone calls can feel like you’re climbing a mountain. You can blame those stress hormones kicking into overdrive, according to Reader’s Digest.
“Stress hormones spike the brain chemical dopamine, which can create a decline in cognitive performance. One of the signs you’re stressed is that even easy tasks (say, juggling the laundry, emptying the dishwasher, and signing kids’ permission slips) feel difficult to manage,” according to the magazine.
And when your brain is on overload as is, your brain resorts to old behaviors, which may not be productive for your current-day self.
17. You’re finding new problems in an otherwise happy relationship.
If stress is making you extra snippy, it’s no surprise why you might find yourself being short with your significant other, as those closest to us often bear the emotional burden when we’re not doing so well.
Stress can have many detrimental impacts to your relationship, and they’re often subtle, so you might not even realize that they’re happening. If you find yourself picking fights for no reason, glazing over when they tell you a story, looking at your phone instead of connecting with them, or even distancing yourself from your partner, you might just be burnt out in general.
You’re feeling edgy and irritable. Alex Livesey/Getty Images
18. You’re finding excess hair in your drain or brush.
We all shed hair every single day — it’s a totally normal part of the hair growth process. But what if you start losing more hair than you’re used to, finding more strands in your brush, down the drain, or all over your clothes?
Stress and hair loss are linked in three ways: one, called Telogen effluvium, is when the hair follicle is pushed out prematurely before completing a full growth cycle, resulting in excess shedding. Alopecia areata is systematic hair loss in which your immune system is actually attacking your hair follicles, causing them to fall out.
Trichotillomania is a disorder in which someone pulls or picks out their own hair, which is often exacerbated by high levels of stress or anxiety. It’s a body-focused repetitive disorder closely linked to obsessive compulsive disorder.
19. You’re breaking out into hives.
One surefire way to know if you’re constantly too frazzled is if you develop a “stress rash,” which can be hives or welts that tend to be itchy or painful, but aren’t always.
If your skin is suddenly freaking out, and you’re noticing red spots or patches, your body might be dealing with stress by giving you hives or a rash, which can be made worse for people who have skin conditions like psoriasis or rosacea.
20. Your sex drive has taken a dip.
When we’re under a lot of stress, one of the first things to go is sex, even though sex is a proven stress reducer.
If you find yourself wanting sex less often than is normal for you, it could be due to a spike in cortisol, that pesky stress hormone. A low sex drive is often a result of stress, so if your sex drive is lagging, you’ll want to check in with yourself and your partner about how you can reduce your stress levels.
21. You can’t ward off colds as easily.
Stress does a number on our immune systems, making you more likely to get sick. And then once you are sick, you’ll have a harder time fighting off the infection.
As Jan Kiecolt-Glaser, a psychologist at the Ohio State University College of Medicine, told The Washington Post in 2014, “hormones biologically express our emotions,” so “if stress is chronic every day, pumping out hormones without any escaping or fighting, then it’s not good for your immune system.”
When those hormones are released into our bodies, our immune systems become suppressed, making us more susceptible to illness. If you’re battling colds more often, it could be your body’s way of telling you that something’s up.
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Stress and Your Body
8 signs that stress is affecting your health
Whether it’s the morning traffic crunch on the Dan Ryan or that laundry list of appointments, everyone has stress.
Stress isn’t always bad — it can motivate you to meet deadlines or respond to challenges. But all too often stress causes physical or emotional fallout — from upset stomachs to sleepless nights.
How harmful stress is to you depends on the level of stress, how you cope with it and your body’s physical response to it. Here are eight signs that stress is affecting your health:
1. You have trouble falling or staying asleep.
“Many factors can cause and prolong sleep problems, and stress is among the most common,” says James K. Wyatt, PhD, of the Sleep Disorders Service and Research Center at Rush.
For example, stress can trigger or worsen insomnia. It can be hard to take your mind off your worries, and stress also prompts physical changes, such as increased heart rate, which may make sleep difficult.
In addition, people who are under a great deal of stress often experience shallow sleep, or brief awakenings they can’t recall.
Furthermore, Wyatt says, sleeping less can increase stress and weaken our immune system’s response. Though there’s no “stress meter” to measure whether you’re too stressed, how you feel during the day can help indicate how well you’re sleeping at night, Wyatt says.
For instance, if you’re having difficulty concentrating, or feeling fatigued or overly irritable, stress may be affecting your sleep. If it is, a sleep-promoting medicine may help you through an extremely difficult time.
“If stress is prolonged, medication is no longer the appropriate way to improve your sleep,” Wyatt says. “That’s when we look at lifestyle changes.”
That can mean taking a hard look at the stress in your life and taking steps to address it. As Wyatt notes, the greater the stress and the longer it lasts, the greater the toll throughout the body.
2. You have frequent upset stomach, constipation or diarrhea.
Stress can affect intestinal function in several ways:
- It can speed up or slow down the normal movement of intestinal contents, resulting in diarrhea or constipation.
- It can delay emptying of the stomach contents, causing nausea or fullness.
- It may heighten your perception of activity in the digestive tract that normally isn’t noticed, so you feel discomfort, pain or bloating.
And if you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) — a chronic condition that includes abdominal pain, bloating, and bouts of diarrhea or constipation — stress can make your symptoms worse, says Ece Mutlu, MD, a gastroenterologist at Rush.
Also, research at Rush has demonstrated that stress may trigger inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) — which causes swelling in the intestines and symptoms such as pain and diarrhea — in people who are prone to the condition, possibly due to genetics.
If you’re having persistent physical symptoms from stress, that level of stress is not good for you. And when you’re already dealing with a chronic illness such as IBD, your coping mechanisms for dealing with stress deteriorate, Mutlu says. “The help of a psychologist is very valuable to help you learn skills to deal with stress,” she says.
3. You have frequent headaches, back pain or other muscle pain.
Stress causes muscle tension, which can lead to headaches and other pain. Because of this muscle tension, stress can make existing back pain worse or help trigger pain if you’re predisposed to back problems.
Furthermore, research suggests that stress alone may provoke chronic back pain, possibly due to stress-related biochemical changes that cause the brain to interpret pain differently.
If you have neck pain or back pain that lasts for several weeks, it’s a good idea to see your primary care doctor. Seek help sooner if you also have loss of bladder or bowel control or trouble walking.
The effects of stress can be felt in the pelvic region as well. Stress-related tightening of the pelvic muscles in women can contribute to pelvic pain, painful intercourse and urination difficulties. A pelvic floor physical therapist can help.
Cortisol tends to make both women and men — but especially menopausal women — deposit fat more in the belly area.
Stress has been linked to problems with the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), where the lower jaw meets the skull. TMJ problems can include pain around the jaw, earaches, headaches, uneven wear of the teeth, clicking or popping with opening of the mouth, locking of the joints, or pain when chewing.
Stress can lead to increased muscle tension, and certain people will manifest that stress by grinding or clenching their teeth, especially while asleep.
5. You eat more than you should, especially comfort food.
Stress can go to your waistline, says cardiologist Annabelle Volgman, MD, director of the Rush Heart Center for Women.
“Cortisol (released by your body during stress) tends to make both women and men — but especially menopausal women — deposit fat more in the belly area, which can lead to belly fat,” she says. Excess fat stored around the middle is linked to increased risk for cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes.
Stress can also cause you to overeat. And eating too much can lead to weight gain, especially when you reach for fatty, sugary comfort foods in stressed-out moments. That’s why it’s important to find ways to cope that don’t involve large amounts of ice cream or potato chips.
Instead of opening the fridge, try taking a walk or going for a bike ride, reading a good book, or playing with your pet.
6. You feel sad and lose interest in activities you once enjoyed.
Feeling sad and losing interest in activities you previously enjoyed are two signs of depression. Stress can exacerbate existing depression and actually cause depression in some people, notes psychiatrist John Zajecka, MD, clinical director of the Depression Treatment and Research Center at Rush.
Studies show that elevated cortisol levels can lead to physiological changes in the brain, including the degeneration of cells that help regulate memory and mood, Zajecka says.
Major life changes, grief and isolation can increase your risk for depression but so can being constantly bombarded by everyday stresses at work or at home. Add a family history of depression to the mix, and your risk is even higher.
7. You lose your temper easily and get angry over little things.
If you find yourself losing your temper or snapping at loved ones or coworkers more often than you like — or that you used to — it could be a sign that stress is taking a toll on your emotional as well as your physical health.
Further, suppressing your anger can actually cause physical issues that are similar to those caused by stress itself, such as increased muscle tension or digestive issues.
“If people tell you they are concerned about you or afraid of you, that’s a sure sign you aren’t in control of your anger,” says John Burns, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Rush. Finding appropriate ways to manage your anger can help.
8. You experience new or worsening skin problems.
Although problems such as eczema and psoriasis have genetic causes, stress appears to worsen them, according to Michael Tharp, MD, a dermatologist at Rush.
Similarly, stress may also aggravate hives. One explanation involves the nerve network that extends from the skin to the brain, where we perceive sensations such as hot or cold. Under stress, this “electrical hookup” could work in reverse, so that the brain signals the release of chemicals in the skin, triggering an infl-ammatory response.
Take control of your stress
“Because stress can take such a toll on your health, it’s important to watch for early signs of stress overload, which include headaches, fatigue, troubled sleep, increased irritability or anxiety, irrational anger, or getting sick more often than usual,” says Zajecka. “People have to listen to their bodies.”
Stress can affect so many different aspects of your health that it’s important to take steps to reduce it or improve your ability to cope with it.
A variety of approaches can help you cope, including exercise and relaxation techniques. Start by by doing some gentle stretches in the morning. Then, later in the day, find a quiet place to close your eyes, breathe deeply and just be calm in that moment.
Zajecka also recommends carving out some time each day — even if it’s only a few minutes — for things you enjoy, such as listening to music, knitting or watching a funny video.
And don’t be afraid to ask for help if you’re feeling overwhelmed or don’t know where to start. “Whether you need assistance with daily duties, a doctor’s advice or just someone to lend an ear, speak up,” Zajecka says. “Doing so is not a sign of weakness — taking care of yourself is a sign of strength.”
5 Warning Signs of Chronic Stress You Can’t Afford to Ignore
Chronic stressors can be obvious–traumatic events, worrisome thoughts, long-term illness–but stress might also sneak up on you in subtle, more indirect ways. Imagine someone holding a water balloon over your head as you try to fall asleep. Can you relax or get comfortable? Of course not! What if the balloon were held over your head every night for a whole week? You might never get to sleep–even when the balloon is removed it could take days before you are able to let the go of the fear of being soaked. Although the threat is gone, your body responds as if the threat is still impending–that’s the nature of chronic stress.
Continual cell phone interruptions, inconsolable babies crying, anger-infused environments, lingering financial woes, challenging interpersonal relationships, background noise–you name it–if it’s regularly bothering you, there is a good chance it’s causing you some degree of chronic stress. Living on high alert? It’s time to pay attention to the warning signs. Here are five general ways stress-related symptoms can manifest, and some examples of each:
Sleep Disturbances or Agitation:
- Insomnia or not sleeping well
- Can’t get comfortable
- Tossing and turning
- Disturbing dreams
- Trouble falling asleep
- Frequent waking
- Chronic fatigue
- Over-agitation during the day
Health or Physical Problems:
- Getting sick frequently
- Unable to shake the cold or flu
- Compromised immune system
- Chronic symptoms or illness flare up
- Unexplained headache, stomachache or chest pains
- Tight muscles
- Muscle soreness or cramping
- Diminished sex drive
Emotional Symptoms or Changes in Mood:
- Lack of energy
- Getting overwhelmed
- Pessimism or hopelessness
- Feeling isolated or detached
- Easily upset or crying uncontrollably
- Loss of enjoyment
- Unwarranted anger and irritability
- Depression or feelings of worthlessness
Increase in Addictive Behaviors:
- Poor judgment
- Increase in alcohol, tobacco, or drug use
- Grinding teeth
- Biting nails
Trouble Thinking or Concentrating:
- Obsessive thoughts
- Concentration issues
- Debilitating anxiety
- Avoidance behaviors
- Feeling like you are losing control
The more symptoms you are having, the higher your chronic stress level might be. Check-in to see what stressors are troubling you at home or work; assess any health, financial, emotional or spiritual concerns, too. If the “low gas” warning light illuminates while you’re cruising down the highway, don’t keep going! It’s an important signal–stop and fill up the tank before you run out of gas. Similarly, if the “chronic stress” warning signs are flashing–get off the stress highway–see a doctor, consult with a therapist, learn relaxation techniques or talk to a friend. Get your stress response system back online; it’s too important to ignore.