The fight-or-flight response, also known as the stress response, is a built-in defense system that keeps us safe in the presence of any perceived threat or demand. If you are facing danger, or any sort of challenge, your nervous system will dispense stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. You can tell that your defense system has been activated because your heart rate will increase, your breath will quicken, and you may feel your muscles tightening up. The benefits of stress include increased focus, sharpened senses, and even extra physical strength.
While a stress response is meant to help us, too much stress or prolonged exposure to stress can have negative effects on your health over time. Physical stress caused by an imminent threat is often short-lived, but emotional stress can linger on for weeks, months, or years if you let it. When you constantly feel overwhelmed, anxious, or even physically ill due to stress, that is your body sending a message that it’s time to make a change or seek help.
Chronic stress can leave you with high blood pressure that could lead to a heart attack or stroke; stress can suppress your immune system, raising your risk of contracting illness. These are just a few ways that prolonged stress can adversely affect your health.
Here are nine signals that an over-stressed body may exhibit, which you should watch out for:
1. Headaches, Migraines, and Chronic Muscle Aches
Stress can cause pain or tension in the head, neck, and shoulders, resulting in headaches or migraines as well as general muscle soreness. A study surveyed 150 military headache patients, and it was found that 67 percent reported a stress trigger to their headaches. Stress is thought to be the second most common cause of headaches, behind dehydration.
Stress can cause changes to the skin at any age, but there is an especially strong link with teens and young adults who have acne. Acne is a chronic inflammatory skin condition that causes red spots and pimples. In an independent study, detailed in the Journal of The American Medical Association, a group of 22 students had their acne measured before and right after an important exam. There was a significant correlation between perceived exam difficulty and the degree to which the acne symptoms increased.
3. Digestive Problems
If you are experiencing problems with your digestive system such as pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or constipation, the cause might be stress-related. According to the Canadian Society of Intestinal Research, “stressful life events are associated with symptoms, or worsening of symptoms, in several digestive conditions, including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and peptic ulcer disease.”
Both short-term and long-term stress increases gut movement and fluid secretion. Every human body is different, so stress can both delay emptying stomach contents and speed up the movement of material through the gut.
4. Change in Appetite
Does the thought of public speaking make you physically nauseous? Have you ever experienced loss of appetite in reaction to receiving bad news? Your brain can send signals to your digestive system, which is why your mouth starts to water when you think about lunchtime. Stress can trigger both overeating and loss of appetite, depending on the way a person deals with stress.
Prolonged periods of stress and anxiety can lead to rapid weight gain or loss. In a study of 129 people, exposure to stress was associated with behaviors like eating without being hungry. On the other hand, loss of appetite can be due to the increase in the hormone cortisol, which is released by the nervous system. Cortisol can cause an excess of stomach acid, making you less likely to feel hungry and more likely to feel nauseated.
5. Raise in Blood Pressure
When you are stressed, your body produces a surge of hormones that temporarily increase your blood pressure by causing your heart to beat faster and your blood vessels to narrow. If this spike in blood pressure occurs repeatedly over time, it can lead to permanent damage and hypertension. An article produced by the American Institute Of Stress states that “there is little doubt that both physical and mental stress can cause significant elevations of blood pressure.”
6. Reproductive and Libido Issues
Infertility struggles and low libido can both be attributed, in part, to stress. Stress can cause changes to your sex drive, problems with irregular menstrual cycles in women, or impotence and lowered sperm count in men. You might also feel reduced sexual desire when you’re stressed or anxious.
7. Sleep Issues
Poor sleep quality can leave you feeling fatigued and irritable and make focusing difficult. Stress causes insomnia by making it harder to fall asleep and stay sleeping. Specifically, the body’s reaction to stress causes hyperarousal, which can upset the balance between sleep and wakefulness, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
8. Depression and Other Mental Disorders
In extreme cases, stress can even lead to depression, panic disorders, and other forms of mental illness. The connection between stress and depression can be explained through brain chemistry: chronic stress leads to elevated hormones such as cortisol and reduced serotonin (associated with happiness) and other neurotransmitters in the brain, including dopamine. A lack of dopamine in your brain chemistry can cause depression. Prolonged stress can also lead to poor health choices in diet and a decrease in exercise, both of which can also contribute to depression.
9. Frequent Sickness
Being in hyper-alert mode all the time can take a toll on your body. More specifically, it can suppress your immune system, making you more likely to catch communicable diseases. A six-month study in Australia revealed that a high-stress group of participants experienced significantly more episodes of respiratory illness. Not only did they get sick more often, they stayed sick longer and had worsened symptoms.
How to Relieve Stress
A person experiencing any one or more of the above warning signals from the body should consider taking steps to reduce stress through lifestyle changes, mindset, and professional help. If the symptoms are severe, contact your physician or a licensed therapist right away. Sometimes, a combination of medication and therapy is needed to treat chronic stress, especially if you have a comorbidity such as PTSD. For more manageable manifestations, you can ease stress through a variety of at-home methods. A few examples of stress-reducing activities are:
- Hot baths or showers
- Spending time with your support system (friends and family) doing stress-free activities
Reducing stress can help you sleep and eat better, lower your blood pressure, lessen your risk for heart attack and stroke, and improve your overall physical and mental health. Pay close attention to the signals your body sends out in order to keep your stress levels in check.
Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice.