Most of us expect to have some stress in life and consider that normal. Issues like work challenges, relationship issues, health issues and just everyday life can all cause some anxiety. Now, our body knows how to deal with stress and activates our fight or flight response, which then in our defense, causes a variety of bodily changes so we are stronger to escape the possible threat: increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, breathing becomes faster and more shallow and our muscles tense.
Our immune system also gets in on the change and responds to a perceived threat by increasing white blood cells while dumping the stress hormone, cortisol, into our bloodstream. Once the crisis has passed, our system should settle back into homeostasis. This reaction to stress was never meant to be long term. Just short, ON and OFF. As you can imagine it is hard on the body to last for too long.
When stress lasts for an extended period of time or becomes a constant part of our lives, our bodies have difficulty maintaining regular bodily functions. Caused by constant stress, health issues can begin to emerge. Some of which include a variety of physical symptoms that you may not even associate with stress for instance:
1. Digestive problems: upset stomach, nausea, burping, heartburn, gas, diarrhea, and/or constipation. Stress often affects digestion by decreasing the production of stomach acids and changing how food moves through your body. Additionally stress causes muscle tension which may lead to feeling sick. Although we cannot blame stress for causing ulcers (a bacterium called H. pylori is often the culprit) it can increase the risk of ulcers or cause existing ulcers to become active.
2. Changes in appetite. Cravings for sugar and fat have been linked to the stress hormone cortisol. Sleep often suffers when we are stressed. Both quantity and quality can be affected in a negative way. When we don’t sleep enough, the hormone that increases appetite ramps up. While others may lose their appetite completely.
3. Weight gain. Stress can cause us to overeat. Cortisol causes the body to increase the size of fat cells and retain body fat. Additionally, high levels of cortisol are linked to increased abdominal fat.
4. Headaches. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol can trigger vascular changes that cause tension headaches or migraines. 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.
5. 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.
6. Low energy, tiredness, weakness, and fatigue. You may associate stress and anxiety with racing thoughts, nervous activities such as hand wringing or pacing the floor and any or all of these symptoms may occur. Feeling exhausted is a common symptom of long-term stress. When our brain experiences stress, it works overtime.
7. Chest pain, rapid heart rate, and heart palpitations. We know that stress can increase heart rate and blood pressure. Additionally tightness in the chest can be a symptom of stress, due in part to muscle tension.
8. 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 the 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 and we may gasp for breath. All this can make worse the hyperventilation syndrome- dizziness, light-headedness, feeling faint, weakness, and tingling.
9. Insomnia and daytime sleepiness. It’s difficult to relax and 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 need sleep. Thus we may yawn a lot or struggle to stay awake the next day.
10. 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 susceptible to colds, flus, and other illnesses. Also, it may take more time than usual for us to recover from infections.
11. High blood sugar. When we‘re under stress, our liver releases extra glucose into our bloodstream. If this continues we could have a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
12. Decrease in sexual desire. Excessive cortisol is associated with stress and 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.
13. Hair loss. Although it is normal to lose 100 strands of hair a day, chronic stress increases inflammation throughout our body, which can cause more hair loss than usual.
14. Acne. Increase in the hormone androgen caused by stress, can result in breakouts.
15. Skin irritations. Eczema, dermatitis, and psoriasis can be the result of irritated nerve fibers caused by stress.
Ways to Reduce Stress
1. Physical exercise
2. Sufficient sleep
3. Healthy nutrition
4. Practicing relaxation techniques (meditation, yoga, deep breathing, tai chi, massage)
5. Spending time with family and friends
6. Maintaining a sense of humor
7. Therapy and/or support groups
8. Setting aside times for hobbies or fun (book, music)
9. Identify triggers (i.e., not getting enough sleep)
10. Learning new coping strategies to deal with challenges
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, consult your medical doctor about your concerns.
This article was posted on Psych Central