Sleepless nights, overeating, a weakened immune system — the more common symptoms of stress are probably familiar to you. But stress can also trigger lesser-known side effects (both mental and physical) that you might not expect.
Here, Rosalind Dorlen shares some of the more surprising ways stress may manifest in your body:
If you’re feeling foggy or having a tough time focusing, stress may be the culprit, Dorlen says. Indeed, stress and anxiety can hinder your attention and your ability to retrieve memories (or even make new ones), according to Harvard Health Publishing. In fact, a study demonstrated that adults with higher levels of cortisol (the “stress hormone”) exhibited impaired memory and lower brain volumes.
2. Skin Issues
“Skin reactions like hives, viral exanthem (an eruptive skin rash), acne, and cold sores seem to be an unfortunate example of collateral damage people experience under periods of extreme stress,” Dorlen says. Here’s why: “Stress causes our bodies to make hormones like cortisol and epinephrine, which activate skin glands to produce oiliness, which can be a factor in acne and other skin-related conditions,” she says.
What’s more, during stressful times, we tend to neglect our usual self-care regimens (think: reduced sleep, skipping your face wash routine at bedtime, etc.) which can create or exacerbate existing skin vulnerabilities, Dorlen explains.
3. Tight Muscles
Have you suddenly noticed tension in your neck, back, or shoulders? Stress may be the culprit. Our bodies deal with stress by going into fight-or-flight mode, Dorlen explains, which means releasing hormones that ready our muscles to respond to whatever is threatening us. This can be helpful in the short term (think: running from a bear) but can cause issues if we’re consistently under stress.
“Muscles tense up to protect themselves from injury during stressful conditions, so they may not get a chance to relax if the stress is continual,” Dorlen says. And to make matters worse, stress and anxiety can intensify your perception of muscular pain and decrease your ability to cope with it.
Feeling on edge? Irritability is a common symptom of chronic and prolonged stress, Dorlen says. This may have something to do with your body’s chemical reaction to stress. When your body releases chemicals in response to a perceived threat, your heart and breathing skyrocket to help you spring into action. This may have helped you flee a hungry predator back in the day, but today it might just leave you feeling tense, moody, and even angry.
A study in the American Heart Journal found that high levels of anger appeared to be linked to mental distress and increased cardiovascular risk, while another paper in The Journals of Gerontology: Series B discovered an association between anger and stressors in caregivers.
5. Gut Problems
Anyone who’s ever experienced a “nervous stomach” knows that stress can go straight to your gut. Chronic stress can cause a whole range of GI complications, including stomachaches, constipation, and diarrhea, according to Dorlen. That’s because your gut and central nervous system are in constant communication. In fact, they’re so intimately connected that your gut is often referred to as your “second brain.”
From spilling coffee on your shirt to losing your keys and sitting in gridlock, everyday annoyances can be a headache — literally. It goes back to that fight-or-flight response. When your body enters this state and produces hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, it causes vascular changes that prepping your muscles to deal with the danger. But this chain of events can also give you a migraine or headache, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
What’s more, during periods of high stress, many people experience tightness in their neck, jaw, and shoulders — dubbed the “tension triangle” — which only worsens tension headaches.
4 Stress-Reducing Strategies
Though it’s impossible to completely eliminate stress from your life, you can learn to better manage daily stressors and, in doing so, improve your overall wellbeing. Here are some ways to help you cope:
1. Deep Breathing
Breathing exercises (like the 4-7-8 method) can calm your body’s fight-or-flight instincts and elicit a relaxation response.
Practicing meditation, which includes deep belly breathing, can help you let go of negative emotions that may be causing you mental and physical stress.
3. Physical Activity
Getting your body moving with regular exercise and gentle movements like yoga, tai chi, and stretching exercises can be good for reducing muscle tension and beneficial for busting stress.
Spending a few minutes each day practicing gratitude (think: writing down something you’re grateful for) can help you feel happier, more positive, and less stressed.