Most of us are familiar with the emotional impact of stress, including anxiety, panic attacks, irritability and sometimes sadness and depression.
More difficult to identify, largely because of their similarities to signs of other forms of illness, are the physical symptoms.
When we are in the midst of stressful events our bodies release such hormones as adrenaline and cortisol that heighten energy and awareness and often are helpful in dealing with the situation right in front of you.
But if it’s happening all the time, or if you find yourself slipping into fight-or-flight mode when it’s not helpful, these hormones cause inflammation and other problems that can reach your brain and every other organ within your body.
Stress overload can lead to pain in your chest or elsewhere, digestive issues, headaches, high blood pressure, sexual dysfunction and weakened immunity — but these can all signify several other problems as well.
How can you know the difference?
The first thing you need to do is be in touch with your brain, as well as your body, and be aware when you are experiencing stress whether it’s short-term or chronic.
It may be a situation that just seems like part of life, and it is, but if it’s consuming much of your physical or emotional energy it is stress. Also observe anything in your body that feels “off” and whether or not it might be related to a previously diagnosed ailment.
Experiencing stress can lead to:
- Muscle tension or tightness, which can lead to headaches when it’s in the jaw.
- Digestive symptoms including acid reflux, constipation, diarrhea or general stomachaches.
- Higher blood pressure or heart rate.
- Worsening of such chronic conditions as heart disease or diabetes.
- Excessive sweating.
- Dry mouth and/or trouble swallowing.
- Heart palpitations.
- More susceptibility to infection.
- Skin rashes.
While it’s important to check with your doctor to ensure these symptoms are not caused by some physical malady, there are things you can start doing immediately to lessen stress’ toll on the body and mind, which is important even if they’re not manifesting physical symptoms:
- Get active — Even if you have only one or two 10- or 15-minute chunks available during the day, try to take a brisk walk around the house or lift light weights. Physical activity is known to reduce stress and elevate mood while reducing its physical impacts.
- Journal — Keep a diary dedicated to writing about stress and the way it affects you, emotionally and physically. This will help you identify what triggers stress and which symptoms may be tied to it.
- Say no — Learn how to turn down new responsibilities when you don’t have time or energy to devote to them.
- Connect and disconnect — Make time to be with your family and your social circle for the invaluable support they provide, but don’t forget to carve out some alone time for relaxation and meditation.
- Prioritize sleep — Many of the above tips can help you sleep easier but you can work on your sleep hygiene too by maintaining a consistent bedtime and avoiding electronics or heavy food for at least the last hour beforehand.