Sky-high stress levels can tax your body in a number of subtle ways.
You might treat stress as something you can just “muscle through” with a little grit and determination. When life feels overwhelming, you can’t say no, so you attempt to squeeze in your favorite gym class, volunteer to organize that community event, and offer to babysit your nieces—all while allowing your stress levels to sneakily creep up. When work piles on, maybe you clench your teeth, mentally curse your manager, and work an extra few hours on the weekend to stay on top of things.
All that time you spend showing “grit,” you’re actually sending your body into the battlefield. You might categorize stress as just a psychological concern, but in reality, it can take a toll physically on your entire body.
“When the body is stressed, the nervous system signals the ‘fight or flight’ response in which all of the energy is directed toward either fighting off or avoiding the threat,” says Katie Davis, PysD, clinical neuropsychologist in New York City. This means the toll of dealing with acute stress can compromise some of your body’s other functions.
In a 2014 study by the American Psychological Association, 77 percent of Americans admitted that they “regularly experience physical symptoms of stress.”
“When we are stressed, the brain produces stimulating hormones, which signal to the adrenal glands to make cortisol, the stress hormone,” says Kelly Wood, MD, a board-certified physician in diabetes, endocrinology, and metabolism who practices in Atlanta.
If you notice any (especially many) of these changes in your body, it could be a sign you’re under too much stress and not managing it as well as you need to.
1. Your weight keeps changing
In both human and animal studies, levels of cortisol in the body can predict body mass index (BMI), according to a 2015 article in the journal Stress. When stressed, some people will up their calorie intake and hunt out “comfort foods,” while others may lose their appetite altogether. Over time, this can cause weight changes. Here are other mistakes you make when stressed that lead to weight gain.
2. You’re not in the mood for sex (like, ever)
Experts have identified four main stages for sex: desire, arousal, orgasm, and resolution. (Sounds less sexy when it’s written out, right?) As anyone who’s had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day at work can attest, stress can disrupt any one of those steps—or even all four. Who can be in the mood, after all, when you’ve been bouncing between non-stop meetings, soothing demanding clients, or worked a 12-hour day and still have piles of work waiting for you in the morning?
It’s no wonder that research consistently finds a correlation between sexual dysfunction and anxiety disorders, according to an article in Behavior Research and Therapy. Stress and anxiety may specifically be linked to worries about sex itself, or it may distract you from noticing or appreciating the things that would normally get you, well, in the mood. Here are more habits that lower your libido.
3. Your gut is finicky and upset
Nausea before a big speech, “butterflies” in your stomach, or loss of appetite when you’re nervous are all well-known examples of the “second brain” in your stomach. No, really: Your digestive system is lined with millions of nerve cells (the kind also found in your brain) that make up the enteric nervous system, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Your “two brains” communicate back and forth constantly, which doctors call the gut-brain connection. Stress in the brain may result in uncomfortable symptoms in your gut, including abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, or constipation.
This may help explain why 50 to 90 percent of patients with irritable bowel syndrome also have a psychiatric disorder, according to Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
4. Your body aches (all over)
During moments of acute stress—like the last two minutes of that crazy-close Super Bowl—you feel your muscles in your hips and shoulders tighten. Now imagine holding that tension for a period of an afternoon, a full week, or even months at a time.
The body’s initial reaction to stressors is known as the sympathetic response. This includes increased pulse, blood pressure, and breathing, according to an article in the journal Physical Therapy. Later, the parasympathetic response steps up to calm you down and bring the body back to normal.
This acute stress is more or less harmless, but chronic stress leads to constant elevated cortisol levels, which can promote inflammation in the body. This is likely why stress can worsen pain-related disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, and osteoporosis, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
5. You’re tired all the time
It’s not just the late hours you’re working at the office: Managing all that cortisol is seriously taxing on your body.
“Stress results in what I often call ‘battlefield sleep.’ This is the vigilant type of sleep you would get if you were on a battlefield,” says Alex Dimitriu, MD, double board-certified psychiatrist and sleep medicine specialist. “It would be hard to fall asleep, you would wake up often and easily, and have trouble returning back to sleep.”
When stress is high and sleep quantity is low, your whole health pays a price. Sleep deprivation compromises the function of T-cells, the cells in the immune system to help fight off diseases, according to Dr. Dimitriu. Lack of sleep is also linked to “increased inflammatory markers, which can make us more susceptible to cold or flu.”
The sleep-stress cycle refers to the idea that stress makes sleep difficult, and not getting enough sleep increases your stress levels. About 43 percent of American adults report lying awake at night due to stress in the past month, and 21 percent say lack of sleep makes them feel more stressed, according to the American Psychological Association.
6. You’re getting migraines
In addition to other body aches, people who are chronically stressed are also prone to frequent migraine headaches. Just as with sleep, migraines and stress can perpetuate each other: Stress triggers a migraine, and getting migraines can further stress you out.
Migraines are a severe type of recurring headache, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. In addition to throbbing pain on one side of the head, migraines also may cause nausea, weakness, or sensitivity to light and noise.
Migraines affect about 12 percent of the U.S. population, but they are more common among people with a history of stressors, such as trauma, abuse, or financial difficulty, according to a 2012 article in the journal Headache. They are also more common among those with anxiety, depression, or other psychiatric disorders.
7. Your period is MIA
The sexual and reproductive hormones responsible for menstruation can get inhibited when cortisol is running the show in your body. Various studies have found that having a high-stress job or lifestyle is linked to irregular cycles, more severe premenstrual symptoms, worsened period pain, and dysmenorrhoea (when your period goes absent for months at a time). Learn more reasons you might be skipping your period.
8. Your skin is acting up
Your skin is yet another organ that responds to stress signals from the brain. The change in hormones can lead to visible symptoms like bumps, zits, rashes, and even hair loss. Inflammatory conditions like psoriasis, eczema, acne, and alopecia are all known to flare up under stressful conditions, according to a 2014 article in Inflammation & Allergy Drug Targets.
Need to get that stress under control?
- Here are yoga moves to soothe stress.
- Find out how two minutes a day of meditation can change your life.
- Learn more relaxation strategies besides meditation.