It’s true — stress can have physical effects as unpleasant as the emotional ones.
Stress is basically your body’s reaction to any change where you have to react or adjust. It’s a normal part of life, and small, short bouts can actually be a good thing. But when stress builds or stretches seemingly without end, it becomes a problem.
Emotionally, you might start to feel on edge, have trouble focusing or making decisions, have trouble sleeping, and have intense mood swings.
Physically, stress can leave you feeling lousy in a lot of ways. Here’s a look at the impact stress can have on your body, plus what you can do to cope and feel better.
Noticing any of these issues? If yes, stress could be to blame.
Back, neck, and shoulder pain
That achy feeling in your upper body that comes on when you’re totally overwhelmed? It’s a common, but definitely not fun, part of chronic stress.
Stress is a signal to your body that you’re in danger (even if in reality you’re perfectly safe). One of the ways your body responds is by tensing up your muscles, which can help protect them against injury.
The tension should ease up as you calm down. But if you’re constantly in a state of overwhelm, your muscles stay tight and never get a chance to relax. And that can lead to pain and aches in your back, shoulders, and neck.
Headaches on headaches
Tight, high-strung muscles don’t just affect your back, shoulders, and neck. They can also trigger tension headaches, which can feel like a band squeezing your head, usually in the front or back.
In fact, tension headaches are so closely related to stress that they’re sometimes called stress headaches.
Chronic stress can be a culprit behind migraine, too. This type of headache tends to be characterized by a pulsing or a throbbing, usually on one side. Migraine episodes are often accompanied by nausea or vomiting and sensitivity to light and sound — and they can last for hours or even days.
All that pent up tension can also cause you to grind or clench your teeth, both during the day and while you sleep. That can result in jaw pain or stiffness that radiates around your face, ears, or even up to your temples, where it can trigger a headache.
Jaw clenching doesn’t just cause discomfort — it can also do damage to your teeth. Over time, frequent grinding can wear away the enamel on teeth, making them more prone to chips and fractures.
Nausea, heartburn, indigestion, upset stomach, diarrhea!
Can stress make you nauseous? You bet — and that’s not all. It can also cause bloating, diarrhea, constipation, and even vomiting. Fun, right?
The stress hormones that activate your fight or flight response can cause muscle spasms in your GI tract, which can leave you feeling queasy or send you running to the bathroom. They can also slow the rate at which food is digested, which can cause uncomfortable gas to build up and make it harder to poop.
And while you’re dealing with your stressed-out bowels, it’s possible to also develop — dun, dun, dun — hemorrhoids. These painful bumps, also called piles, are caused by swollen veins in or near the anus and lower rectum.
Insomnia and fatigue
Stress can leave you tossing and turning at night and make it almost impossible to fall asleep. All those feelings of overwhelm create a state of hyperarousal, where your brain and body constantly feel like they’re on alert. That can make it much, much harder to doze off.
And sleep deprivation, especially if it happens night after night, can send your daytime energy levels plummeting. That physical exhaustion can make it harder to be active or even tackle basic everyday tasks. It can zap your sex drive, too.
Heart palpitations and trouble breathing
Stress can get your heart pounding, sometimes to the point where it becomes painful and legit scary.
Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline have a near-instant effect on your cardiovascular system. As a result, your heart rate spikes, your blood pressure goes up, and your breathing gets faster.
And it can sometimes lead to a vicious cycle. A rapid heartbeat and fast, shallow breathing can make you nervous or scared, which can cause your pulse and breathing rate to increase even more and actually make you feel breathless.
Dizziness or lightheadedness
Fast, shallow breathing can quickly make you feel like your head is spinning — or like it’s going to float away altogether.
Why? It comes down to how much CO2 you’re taking in. Rapid breathing causes you to exhale more carbon dioxide, which lowers the amount of CO2 in your blood. And that can leave you feeling dizzy or faint.
It can be harder to eat well during stressful periods. You might not have a lot of time or energy to make healthy food when things are stressful or chaotic (we’ve all been there).
But there’s more to it. Comfort foods can actually help lower stress levels in the moment, even when we’re not actually hungry. But day after day, eating to manage emotions can increase risk for obesity.
Stress hormones can actually mess with the part of your brain that regulates your menstrual cycle, research shows. That can throw off your periods and cause them to become irregular, as well as make them heavier or more painful.
Less-than-stellar immune system
You’re more likely to catch a cold or the flu when you’re under a ton of stress, and it might take you longer to feel better again.
Chronic stress suppresses your immune system, so it’s not as good at fighting off foreign invaders. That means that when you’re exposed to germs, you’re more likely to get sick from them. And the germs could hang around longer before your immune system is finally able to kick them to the curb.
Stress can leave you feeling physically crummy. But there are lots of effective ways to keep those negative feelings in check so they don’t run amok and wreak havoc on your body.
The key is finding a stress buster that fits in your lifestyle so you can make it a regular thing — and keep your stress from getting out of control in the first place.
Some helpful habits that are worth trying:
- Exercise regularly.
- Eat healthy foods that leave you feeling good.
- Make time to connect with the people you care about.
- Seek out things that make you laugh.
- Practice yoga or meditation.
- Try a relaxation technique.
- Write in a journal.
- Listen to music.
- Find a creative outlet, like drawing, painting, or cooking.
- Talk with a counselor.