11 physical signs your stress is out of control
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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