If you have a to-do list wordier than David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, you’re certainly not alone. Our incessant need to feel productive is only one petal on the flower we’ll use as a soft symbol for chronic stress. Then there’s a petal associated with the pressure to perform at work, another petal for coping with our relationships, one for bills, etc. Stress can feel unavoidable and perpetual.
The American Institute of Stress found that 73% of people experience stress that has an effect on their mental health and 77% of people have noticed stress presenting as physical symptoms in their bodies. You heard that right. Stress can have a very real effect on your physical health. If you’re a power-through-the-pain kind of person or so preoccupied that you don’t notice just how stressed you are, it might help to pay attention to some subtle ways your body could be asking you to slow down.
Muscling through stress
Have you ever noticed how the shoulder that bothers you always seems to get a little sorer when times are tough? According to the American Psychological Association (APA), our muscles tense up as a reflex reaction to stress because it’s the body’s way of guarding against injury or pain. When stress is brought on suddenly and then quickly over — like when you trip and brace yourself for a fall — the muscles tense up and then release as soon as the stressor is eliminated.
Chronic stress, however, leaves muscles in a near-constant state of guardedness leaving them tense for extended periods of time. This constant state of fight or flight can cause muscle tension, muscle fatigue, and muscle weakness which can lead to further injury (per Calm Clinic). According to the Mayo Clinic, muscle tension as a symptom of stress can cause feelings of restlessness which may be expressed behaviorally as angry outbursts.
If you’re experiencing muscle tension, then you might also be susceptible to tension headaches. Johns Hopkins Medicine defines tension headaches as a persistent ache on both sides of the head that is brought on by stress and tension in the shoulders, neck, and head. Tension headaches can make you feel an underlying anxiety that causes you to lose your appetite (per Mayo Clinic).
No rest for the stressed
What’s better for muscle pain and headaches than some good old-fashioned shut-eye? Well stress is out here trying to steal that from you, too! The APA explains that in times of stress, a part of the brain called the hypothalamus signals to the pituitary gland that it’s time to send out a hormone that initiates the adrenal gland’s release of cortisol, otherwise known as the stress hormone. Cortisol is designed to give you the sustained energy needed to fight off or flee from any perceived threats.
If you find yourself experiencing insomnia (as well as chronic fatigue as a result of insomnia) there’s a good chance stress and high levels of cortisol are to blame. According to the Mayo Clinic, chronic fatigue and sleep problems like insomnia could present in your mood as feeling overwhelmed which could cause an uptick in tobacco use.
Your tummy might be in trouble
Hippocrates, medicine daddy of ancient Greece, is widely attributed with the statement that “all disease begins in the gut.” According to the APA, stress actually can change the bacteria in the gut, and the gut’s microbiome has a direct effect on mood. To put it simply, the gut and the brain are in cahoots, and when you’re feeling stressed, your gastrointestinal system is very likely to suffer the consequences.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America suggests that stomach problems as a result of stress might look like bloating, pain, nausea, and in more severe cases of anxiety, vomiting. Appetite might also be affected, making it harder for some to eat and encouraging others with the proclivity for binging to overeat, which — instead of providing comfort — often only adds to mental distress.
The trouble doesn’t just stop at the tummy, either. An unhappy gut is likely to create an unhappy bowel too. The APA reports that stress can quite literally prevent your body from properly absorbing nutrients which can cause potty problems across the board. If you notice a change in your bathroom habits, like excessive diarrhea or chronic constipation, stress might be to blame. The Mayo Clinic states that an upset stomach from stress might cause mood changes like sadness and depression which often leads to the cessation of your daily exercise routine.
Stress, but make it sexy
When it comes to sex and reproduction, stress only begets more stress. The APA details how in both men and women, stress has the nefarious ability to lower libido and diminish reproduction. When men suffer from chronic stress it can lower the amount of testosterone they are able to produce, resulting in a lower sex drive and sometimes even erectile dysfunction and impotence. A study published in Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology found that semen quality is impaired by psychological stress, which could also make it harder for couples trying to conceive.
Women suffer similar consequences when enduring chronic stress. It wouldn’t be uncommon for a woman under constant strain to lose the desire to have sex, find irregularities or absences in their menstrual cycle, or struggle to get pregnant. For pregnant women under chronic duress, there could be implications for the fetus, and the chance of postpartum depression increases (per APA).
The Mayo Clinic says something to look out for if you have a lower sex drive due to stress is feelings of irritability that might cause social withdrawal.
How to better manage stress
Life is hard, and stress can take a toll on our bodies. The National Alliance on Mental Illness recommends taking care of yourself by, first and foremost, accepting whatever it is you need to feel at peace. Don’t judge yourself or hold yourself to other people’s standards. Listen to your body, identify your triggers, and avoid them when you can. When you can’t, exercise daily to blow off steam, eat healthy food that won’t leave your stomach a mess and your brain in a sea of fog, and try to get yourself on a regular sleep schedule.
It’s important also to make time for yourself. Find moments of relaxation through breathing, meditation, or a nice walk outside. Do things that bring you joy and center you, whether that be painting, reading, singing, or running. These things that are just for you are the things that really ground you.
And as always, if you’re not sure that stress is the cause of your bodily ailments, or you’ve taken steps to ease your stress and your health issues continue, make an appointment with your doctor.