7 Physical Signs You’re More Stressed Out Than You Realize
Keep an eye out for some of these physical symptoms of stress.
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.
Nearly 80 percent of Americans live with some level of stress, a 2017 Gallup poll showed. In the poll, 44 percent of respondents said they frequently encounter stress, another 35 percent said they sometimes encounter stress, and just 17 percent responded that they rarely feel stressed. A mere 4 percent were left over to say they never experience stress (how lucky for them).
All that stress manifests in both physical and emotional signs. Here are just a few of the ways your body may exhibit the symptoms of stress.
1. That headache just won’t go away.
Have throbbing pain in your head all day? It could be a stress-induced headache or migraine.
“Headaches are more likely to occur when you're stressed,” the Mayo Clinic explained. “Stress is a common trigger of tension-type headaches and migraine, and can trigger other types of headaches or make them worse.”
What can you do about them? Not much, according to the Mayo Clinic, other than live a less stressful life. But, if your headache is sudden, severe, accompanied by a fever or double vision, or is experienced after a head injury, head to the hospital immediately.
2. Your digestive system feels off.
A person’s belly may be one of the first places to experience the symptoms of stress or anxiety.
“The brain has a direct effect on the stomach and intestines,” Harvard Health explained. It noted that even when a person merely thinks about food, his or her stomach will release acids in preparation of a meal.
This brain-to-stomach connection is a two-way street that can cause a vicious cycle of stress-related effects. According to Harvard Health, “A troubled intestine can send signals to the brain, just as a troubled brain can send signals to the gut.” And, in return, stress can cause an increase in stomach acids, thus causing digestive issues like an ulcer. Symptoms of a stress—or peptic—ulcer include burning pain in the stomach, nausea, and bloating.
3. The thirst is real.
Feeling stressed out? The cure may be drinking a glass of water. Seriously, dehydration can cause your body to not function at its best, which can lead to stress.
“Studies have shown that being just half a liter dehydrated can increase your cortisol levels,” Amanda Carlson, RD, director of performance nutrition at Athletes’ Performance, told WebMD. “Cortisol is one of those stress hormones. Staying in a good hydrated status can keep your stress levels down. When you don’t give your body the fluids it needs, you’re putting stress on it, and it’s going to respond to that.”
And all those hormones, WebMD explained, could lead to adrenal fatigue, which again, will have you running toward the nearest water cooler thanks to an unwavering feeling of dehydration.
4. Your sleep schedule is wildly unpredictable (and you’re having weird dreams).
Stress can wreak havoc on your sleep schedule.
“Too much stress can cause you to have a bad sleep, leading to mental and physical health issues which can, in turn, cause stress in daily life, leading to poor sleep at night,” the American Institute of Stress explained.
Remember those stress hormones mentioned above? Those same hormones can cause your body to stay awake as it thinks it’s now in fight or flight mode. And because your body can never quiet down, neither can your mind. On top of that, your daytime stress could be causing some odd dreams as well.
"When people had these really frustrating, upsetting experiences in their everyday [lives], they had dreams where they felt stressed, sad or frustrated," Netta Weinstein, a senior lecturer in social and environmental psychology at Cardiff University, and lead author of a study on stress and dreams, told Live Science. As she noted, stress can even cause very specific dream scenarios.
"The link between the experiences and the content of the dreams was less robust," Weinstein explained. "But we found some evidence that [that dreams about] falling, being attacked by someone, being locked up or trying repeatedly to do something and failing at it could be linked to a frustrating experience during the day.”
5. You’re sweating—a lot.
It’s normal to sweat a little, especially if you’re under duress. But, stress sweat is another beast altogether.
“When the body is reacting to an emotion, like anxiety, stress or excitement, sweat is released from the apocrine glands,” Piedmont Health explained. Those apocrine glands then produce a “milkier sweat” made up of fatty acids and proteins. These glands are located in the armpit, the groin, and on the scalp.
There’s one piece of good news: This type of sweat is initially odorless, according to Piedmont Health. But, it can develop an odor if it sits on the skin for too long.
So, what can you do about stress sweat? Relax more, according to Kathirae Severson, D.O., a Piedmont internal medicine physician.
“If you’re a stress sweater, it’s important to get to the root of the problem,” Dr. Severson said. “Exercise, meditation, and therapy are all viable options to help minimize the stress in your life.”
6. Hair loss has become a real problem.
If you’re finding more strands of hair in the drain or in your brush it could be a telltale sign of stress. According to the Mayo Clinic, there are three types of hair loss associated with stress: telogen effluvium, alopecia areata, and trichotillomania.
The first, telogen effluvium, can occur after significant stress pushes large numbers of hair follicles into what is known as “resting phase.” That means the hair is pushed out before completing its growth cycle. When this happens, affected hairs might fall out suddenly when you're combing or washing your hair.
Meanwhile, alopecia areata can be caused by a variety of things, the Mayo Clinic explained, including severe stress. When alopecia areata occurs, the body's immune system attacks the hair follicles, which causes hair loss.
And the last is Trichotillomania, which occurs when a person has “an irresistible urge to pull out hair from your scalp, eyebrows or other areas of your body,” the Mayo Clinic said.
Importantly, the Mayo Clinic noted, hair loss doesn’t need to be permanent. Again, using stress mitigation techniques like meditation can help restore your head of hair in no time.
7. You’re simply not enjoying the things you used to.
One of the many emotional symptoms of stress is a general feeling of malaise. If you’re dreading doing things you once loved—like working out, spending time with friends, or simply talking a walk—not only you could you be stressed, but you could also be suffering from depression.
“Depression is precipitated by long-term, chronic exposure to stress,” researchers published in the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health wrote in a 2012 study. As the researchers noted, while experiencing high-stress situations, the body may again release stress hormones and that could inhibit a person’s ability to experience joy in daily activities.
If you find yourself experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s time to talk to a 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.