Stress and Your Body

These eight signs may mean stress is affecting your health
Stress on the body

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 University Medical Center.

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 and abdominal health expert can help.

Cortisol tends to make both women and men — but especially menopausal women — deposit fat more in the belly area.

4. Your jaw hurts from temporomandibular joint (TMJ) pain.

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.

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, experts say.

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 inflammatory 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."

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