The stereotypical modern lifestyle is a stressful one, and it can all get pretty exhausting. There’s a lot of pressure to be the best and to prove that you have an amazing life—both at work and at home—so it’s no wonder that many people begin to burn out. Sometimes, you’ll realize you need to take a break when stress starts to cause reductions in mental health (such as low mood and irritability). However, at other times you might find that you repress your awareness of stress, leading it to manifest physically. When our bodies are in a state of stress or anxiety for extended periods of time, it can have very real physical effects.
Here are eight key signs that your body knows you’re reaching the limit of tolerable stress. If you notice several of these, think of some ways you can be kinder to yourself in the coming weeks or days or talk to a professional like the team at Open Change to identify and address the sources of your issues.
- Tight muscles
Do you feel like your whole body is stiff and aching, even though you’ve been reassured that there’s no significant medical reason for this pain? Stress floods the body with stress hormones that puts you on high alert, leaving your muscles tense. You may feel this especially noticeably in your jaw, shoulders and neck, but it can appear anywhere. While it’s important to look for a long-term solution, you can find some temporary relief by doing progressive muscle relaxation. Starting at the top of your head and slowly working your way down to your toes, clench each part of the body for five seconds, then release the tension and relax that body part.
- Weight gain
Psychologists note that the impact of stress on appetite changes over time. When your stress levels first start to rise, your appetite is more likely to be suppressed, and so weight loss is a possibility. However, chronic stress is closely linked to an increased appetite through the stress hormone: cortisol. This leads to a higher likelihood of weight gain. Stress hormones were originally designed to tell us when we were in physical danger, and so they make us think we need to replenish our food supply (to give us energy for running and fighting). So, even when your stressful experiences are more mentally or emotionally taxing, you can still find yourself yearning for cake and pizza.
- Stomach aches
Although frequent bathroom visits might just mean you’ve got a stomach flu or a touch of food poisoning, it’s worth thinking about whether stress could be playing a role. When you’re worried (even at a subconscious level), this can interfere with your digestive processes. As these processes speed up, you may experience diarrhea and stomach cramps. However, other people suffer from bloating and constipation instead—signs the body has actually slowed down digestion. Try regularly sipping from ginger tea while you work out ways to better manage your stress.
- Sexual issues
Both men and women can experience a lack of libido in response to chronic stress. Further, women may be anxious about irregular menstrual bleeding prompted by stress, and men sometimes report episodes of apparent erectile dysfunction. This often creates a vicious cycle of increased stress and reduced sexual enjoyment. If you’re generally happy in your relationship and there isn’t an obvious medical cause of your low libido, it could be that your your bedroom troubles stem from ignoring just how stressful your everyday life has become.
- Increased blood pressure
Many factors can be responsible for high blood pressure. Along with your diet and lifestyle one factor medical professionals will always consider in their diagnosis is how you manage and process stress. Stress can be so impactful on your blood pressure that there is a condition referred to as “white coat hypertension”, that is an anxiety-induced response to being in medical settings. This can influence the results of a blood pressure test in an otherwise healthy individual.
Not sure why you toss and turn all night? Underlying stress could be the culprit, especially if you can’t seem to switch off your mind when you get into bed. If you’re constantly considering your schedule, thinking about deadlines or trying to figure out if you have everything organized for the coming week, you might benefit from committing to at least an hour of stress-free activity before bed each night. In particular, studies show that using technology close to bedtime suppressed the production of melatonin—one of the key hormones that promote sleep. Try snuggling up with a good book or taking a hot bath instead.
- Panic attacks
Even if you don’t have a history of suffering from anxiety, major stress can manifest in unexpected panic attacks. You might suddenly begin hyperventilating and feel like you can’t breathe as your heart races. If this starts to happen to you, try to get to a quiet, calm place as quickly as possible. Gently put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach, then take deep breathes in through your nose and out through your nose. Try to focus solely on your breathing, as you would when doing a mindfulness exercise (and if you’ve never tried mindfulness, note that it might be a good idea to start soon!).
Finally, given that stress can cause tight, sore muscles, it’s unsurprising that it’s also a common cause of tension headaches. These headaches feel like a band sitting around the temples and sometimes around the eyes. While you should always have any new head pain investigated by your healthcare team, you may find that you gain some relief by practicing relaxation techniques, taking up yoga or getting massage therapy that focuses on the neck and shoulders.