Our bodies are equipped to deal with temporary stressors by activating our “fight or flight response”, which causes our heart to beat more quickly, our blood pressure to increase, our breathing to quicken, and our muscles to tense.
In addition, our immune system responds to a perceived threat by amping up the production of disease-fighting white blood cells and dumping the stress hormone cortisol into our bloodstream. Once the crisis has been dealt with, in most cases our immune system settles back into our regular state of being, or homeostatis.
However, when stress lasts for a extended period of time, our bodies can begin to break down. Such a state of overstimulation is not viable and will lead to problems, which can include a variety of physical symptoms that you may not associate with stress. Examples include:
- Digestive problems, including an upset stomach, nausea, burping, heartburn, gas, diarrhea, and/or constipation. Stress often affects digestion by decreasing the production of stomach acids and altering how quickly food moves through your body. Also, since stress can cause increased muscle tension, this can put pressure on your stomach and the rest of your gastrointestinal tract, which can lead to your feeling sick. Although stress doesn’t cause ulcers (a bacterium called H. pylori is often the culprit, it can boost your risk for them and prompt existing ulcers to act up.
- Changes in appetite. The stress hormone cortisol is linked to cravings for sugar or fat, which can lead to overeating. Also, sleep quality is often compromised when we’re stressed, and insufficient sleep causes levels of ghrelin (a hormone that increases appetite) to amp up, while levels of leptin (a hormone linked to feelings of satiety) decrease. This being said, some people respond to stress by losing their appetite.
- Weight gain. In addition to the stress-related propensity for many of us to overeat, cortisol causes the body to retain body fat and increase the size of fat cells. Furthermore, elevated levels of cortisol are linked to increased abdominal fat.
- Headaches. Stress hormones like adrenalin and cortisol trigger vascular changes that can bring on a tension headache or migraine, either during the stressful period or the following “let-down’” period. In other words, you might develop a pounding headache in the midst of a tense business meeting, or the headache might hit once you’re kicking back on the weekend.
- Aches, pains, and tense muscles. Under stress, our muscles tense up. It’s our instinct to protect ourselves against injury. We are on guard. If stress persists, we can develop back aches, neck soreness, and other musculoskeletal pains.
- Low energy, tiredness, weakness, and fatigue. You may associate stress and anxiety with feeling sped up, racing thoughts, and nervous activities such as hand wringing or pacing the floor, and it’s true that any or all of these symptoms may occur. However, feeling exhausted is also a common symptom of long-term stress. When our brain experiences stress, it works overtime.
- Chest pain, rapid heart rate, and heart palpitations. Most of us realize that stress increases heart rate and blood pressure. However, significant tightness in the chest can also be a symptom of stress, due in part to muscle tension.
- Breathing and respiratory changes. When we’re anxious, our breathing can become shallow and rapid (hyperventilation). This response enables our lungs to take in more oxygen and distribute it quickly throughout around our body. This extra oxygen helps our body prepare to either fight or flee a threatening situation. However, hyperventilation can also make it feel as if we aren’t getting sufficient oxygen, so we may gasp for breath. This can exacerbate the hyperventilation syndrome and associated symptoms such as dizziness, light-headedness, feeling faint, weakness, and tingling.
- Insomnia and daytime sleepiness. It’s hard to relax enough to fall into restful slumber when stress hormones are coursing through our bloodstream. Consequently, we may spend a lot of time in bed, thinking we’re sleeping when actually our sleep is inadequate or of poor quality. However, our bodies do demand sleep, so we may find ourselves yawning a lot or struggling to keep our eyes open during the day.
- Frequent colds and infections. The phrase “You’ll worry yourself sick” contains a lot of truth. Long-term stress impairs our immunity, so we’re more suspectible to catching colds, flus, and other maladies. Also, it may take more time than usual for us to recover from infections.
- High blood sugar. When we ‘re under stress, our liver releases extra glucouse into our bloodstream, which can eventually put us at an elevated risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
- Decrease in sexual desire. The excessive amounts of cortisol associated with stress can impair functioning of our reproductive system. In men, chronic stress can lower testosterone and sperm production and cause impotence. In women, stress can cause periods to become irregular, extremely painful, or entirely absent, and can reduce libido.
- Hair loss. Losing up to 100 strands of hair a day is normal. However, chronic stress increases inflammation throughout our body, which can result in more hair loss than usual.
- Acne. Stress increases production of the hormone androgen, which can result in breakouts.
- Skin irritations. Continual stress can provoke and irritate nerve fibers, leading to numerous underlying skin conditions such as eczema, dermatitis, and psoriasis.
Strategies to manage stress vary according to the source of our anxiety. Some options include:
- regular physical exercise
- sufficient sleep
- healthy nutrition
- practicing relaxation techniques (meditation, yoga, deep breathing, tai chi, massage)
- time with family and friends
- maintaining a sense of humor
- therapy and/or support groups
- setting aside times for hobbies (book, music)
- identify triggers (i.e., not getting enough sleep)
- learning new coping strategies to deal with challenges
Since we differ in what we consider stressful., it’s important to determine your personal threshold for stress. What might provoke anxiety in someone else might not bother you, and vice versa.
Also, symptoms of stress can vary from person to person, and in many cases can be identical to symptoms produced by medical conditions stemming from other causes. So, do consult your medical doctor about your concerns.
Finally, whether or not you’re currently undergoing a stressful time, put aside some undisturbed time on a regular basis to check in with yourself and how you’re feeling. During meditation or just sitting quietly. Mentally scan your body for aches, pains, and other symptoms that may indicate the need for stress management. It’s quite common to plow ahead with our lives, discounting or ignoring important clues that we are overwhelmed at some level. However, removing the battery from a fire alarm doesn’t put out the fire. Your physical symptoms may offer valuable clues as to necessary lifestyle changes.