7 Physical Signs You're Way More Stressed Than You Realize

Some of the the physical symptoms of stress may surprise you.

The human body is astonishing. Not only can it withstand a great deal of pain, heal itself, and produce millions of new cells each day, but it can also detect when a person is in danger. It can particularly detect when a person is in danger of getting too stressed out. However, the symptoms of stress can be challenging for some people to detect.

It's helpful to identify our distressing symptoms first, then look for ways to reduce stress overall. According to a 2021 Gallup poll, people are more stressed and unhappier than ever before. In the poll, 42 percent of respondents said they frequently encounter a lot of worry or stress. And all that stress manifests in both physical and emotional signs. Here are just a few of the ways your body may exhibit the physical signs of stress.

01 of 07

You Get A Lot of Headaches

Have throbbing pain in your head all day? It could be a stress-induced headache or migraine. "Stress can cause body pain in the form of muscle tension, leading to headaches and backaches," says Gail Saltz, M.D., a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and host of the "How Can I Help?" podcast from iHeartRadio. A headache can develop as your neck and scalp muscles become tense or contract when stressed. That's why stress is one of the most common triggers of tension-type headaches and migraines.

This advice can't completely cure your stress, but remember to stay well-hydrated daily. For one thing, drinking enough water is especially important during times of stress. And two, dehydration can trigger headaches too, so do yourself a favor and fill up that water bottle ASAP.

02 of 07

You're Having Digestion Issues

The belly may be one of the first places to experience the symptoms of stress or anxiety. During stressful periods, the body "ramps up the sympathetic nervous system," Dr. Saltz explains. "It also slows the gastrointestinal system, so you're not using [the usual amount of] blood [needed] to handle digestion."

Instead, your body redirects its energy to the muscles and the heart to generate a fight-or-flight response (the human stress response). A slower gastrointestinal system may cause digestive woes, such as increased stomach acids, which can lead to heartburn, nausea, and bloating.

03 of 07

Your Sleep Schedule Is Off

An astounding 43 percent of American adults report sleeping poorly due to stress, according to the American Psychological Association. Too much stress that doesn't let up can wreak havoc on your sleep quality and schedule, setting in motion an unhealthy sleep-stress cycle. Poor sleep can then lead to "mental and physical health issues, which can, in turn, cause stress in daily life, leading to poor sleep at night," according to the American Institute of Stress. The next thing you know, you're always feeling tired.

How do people get stuck in this chicken-or-egg cycle? The main reason is that the hormones responsible for stress are technically arousal hormones: They're biologically designed to keep you awake and get your nervous system operating in fight-or-flight mode.

If your nervous system isn't able to quiet down, and the body and mind can't return to a resting state, you'll likely have trouble falling and staying asleep. On top of that, daytime stress may also trigger odd or anxious dreams. One of the best things you can do is develop healthy sleep habits, especially around bedtime.

04 of 07

You're Sweating More Than Usual

It's normal and healthy to sweat, especially if you're under duress—but excessive stress sweat is another beast altogether. "When humans experience a situation as stressful, the adrenal medulla (an area in the brain) releases the hormone adrenaline, which prepares the body for a flight-or-fight response," says Ahron Friedberg, M.D., the author of Towards Happiness: A Psychoanalytic Approach to Finding Your Way. "This increases heart rate, sweating, blood pressure, and breathing rate."

As the body reacts to anxiety or stress, it releases sweat from the apocrine glands located in the armpit, groin, and on the scalp (versus the eccrine glands that produce heat sweat). This stress sweat is made up of fatty acids and proteins.

Luckily, this type of sweat is usually odorless, though it can still be uncomfortable. It's easier said than done, but the true solution is to get to the root of the issue (as in, the source of your stress) and find ways to bring your stress levels down, whether that's meditation or prayer, exercise, therapy, leisure activities, paring down your schedule, or taking a few days off.

05 of 07

You're Experiencing Hair Loss

If you're finding more strands of hair in the drain or your brush, it could be a telltale sign of stress. "When cortisol levels soar, they also inhibit other hormones in your body, such as thyroid and ovarian hormones," says Donielle Wilson, ND, CPM, CNS, who specializes in stress management. "When that happens, it affects your body's signal to grow hair."

While it's typical for humans to shed anywhere from 50 to 100 hairs a day, any hair loss beyond that could be due to hormones. "If you notice more-than-usual hair loss from your head, then it may indicate that you've been stressed," she adds.

Stress can also cause trichotillomania, a condition that causes a person to have an "irresistible" urge to pull hair from their scalp, eyebrows, or other areas of the body. Still, hair loss can also be due to disease or another health condition, so it's important to see a specialist if stress management techniques aren't reducing hair loss.

06 of 07

You've Noticed Some Chest Pain

Chest pain is always a serious symptom to address—and you're better off checking with a doctor, just in case—but sometimes it's not actually due to heart-related issues. Stress may be the real culprit, and thankfully, chest pain due to stress isn't life-threatening.

"One of the lesser-known symptoms of stress is chest pain," Dr. Purdy says. "It's actually fairly common for people to go to the emergency [room] with chest pain they think is related to their heart, but then find out that it's actually due to stress."

Chest pain and stress can also become a vicious cycle. While stress can lead to chest pain, the scariness of chest pain can increase stress in return. Therefore, managing stress is essential to avoid getting trapped in a stress-pain loop.

07 of 07

You Have General Feelings of Malaise

One of the many emotional symptoms of stress is a general feeling of malaise: restlessness, anhedonia, melancholy, and anxiety. If you're avoiding doing things you once loved—like working out, creating things, spending time with friends, or taking a walk—you might be not only stressed but dealing with depression as well.

"Chronically high noradrenaline and cortisol levels [due to stress] take a toll on the brain and body," Dr. Saltz says. "Brains bathed in high cortisol cause brain cell death over time, and constant stress and anxiety can lead to clinical depression or burnout."

Oftentimes depression is "precipitated by long-term, chronic exposure to stress," write researchers in a 2011 study. They found that experiencing high-stress situations causes the body to release stress hormones, which can inhibit a person's ability to experience joy in daily activities. This, in turn, can lead to the development of depression or an experience of languishing (that sort of "blah" headspace between flourishing and full-blown depression).

If you find yourself experiencing any of these symptoms, your best resource will be a mental health professional. That way, you have someone on your side to help you find ways to de-stress and get back to living your life your way.

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