Maybe your body is trying to tell you something
Humans are adapted to react to stress, but while we once feared being eaten by predator animals, now we’re more likely to get wound up about work, finances or relationships.
“Stress can be positive in the short-term by making us more alert and ready to protect ourselves,” said primary care physician Christopher Wathier, DO. “The problem, especially in our modern society, is that we don’t always have the outlets for release we need. Instead of it being a short-lived thing, we’re kind of in this constant state of stress.”
You might be all too well aware that daily stress can lead to anxiety, high blood pressure and insomnia. But our bodies can react to stress in a lot of other ways – and to counter those reactions, it’s helpful to know that stress is the cause.
Here are seven unusual signs that stress is catching up with you, according to Dr. Wathier.
- General aches and pains – “That's a big one. When we’re under mental stress, our muscles get tightened up and it affects our body,” he said. “The other thing that happens when we’re under stress is that minor nuisances can feel bigger, because of how our biochemistry works with stress hormones. So something that would just be, ‘oh, my knee’s a little bit sore,’ when we’re under a great deal of stress can become a more significant source of pain.”
- Nausea – “Just about any stomach problems might be linked to stress,” said Dr. Wathier, who practices family medicine at Emerald Physicians in Falmouth. “Stress can mimic or cause anything. Constipation, diarrhea, nausea, increased heartburn – all of those things are definitely linked to stress.”
- Loss of sexual desire – “If you're under stress, for a lot of people, then it’s difficult to be in the mood. Even if you’re in a healthy relationship, that also can be a stress producer, so those things can feed off each other in a cycle,” he said.
- Feeling tired – “If you’re stressed out, you’re probably not sleeping well. Maybe you’re too busy, so you’re not getting the right amount of sleep. Other times you’re not getting the quality of sleep you need. If you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back to sleep, you’re not getting restorative sleep and you’re going to be tired during the day.
“The other part of it is that when your mind’s stressed, your body’s stressed. If you're body is releasing stress hormones, you feel like you’re in a constant state of fight or flight. That can fatigue your body. You never feel rested because you’re in a state of readiness all the time.”
- Hair loss – “It’s not the most common, but we can see that with stress. It’s more likely to happen because of physical stresses on your body, such as having a child or a significant illness, but it also can happen with mental stress,” said Dr. Wathier. “There will be a time-frame where your hair stops growing and then you lose your hair, but it eventually will grow back.”
- Memory loss – “It’s not that your brain’s not functioning as well, but when you’re in a constant state of being on edge, it’s hard to stay focused on something that’s right in front of you. If you’re worried about finances or childcare or other things, it’s very difficult to push that aside and say, ‘Now I'm focused on what I’m doing.’ If you’re not focused on what you’re doing or hearing, then it can’t link into your long-term memory and you’re not going to remember it.”
- Frequent colds – “Your immune system can take a hit from being in this constant state of readiness and never having some relaxed time,” he said. “If your immune system isn’t working as well, then any kind of illness or infectious diseases is more likely. Colds are most prevalent, but the flu, pneumonia and bronchitis can be brought on more frequently when the immune system is not working.”
How to Cope
We can’t always easily change the causes of stress, but we can find ways to deal with it, said Dr. Wathier, such as.
- Exercise - "We can't encourage this enough. It has so many benefits, including positive changes to our emotional, mental and physical health. In fact, several studies have shown that regular aerobic exercise is as effective as any medication for insomnia, and most likely improves our quality of sleep."
- Find time for other positive activities - “It could be watching a comedy show, spending time with friends or children, or finding some dedicated time to be by yourself away from the wear and tear of things that have to get done.”
- Meditation - “Just slowing down, taking deep breaths and taking time to be mindful of the good things in your life can be relaxing,” he added.
- Counseling – “If you have someone in your life you can talk to, whether it’s a spouse, a friend or a minister, then that’s great, but talking with a licensed therapist can give you some different ways to overcome stress or deal with it in a positive manner.”