Stress is a part of life, but unfortunately for many of us, stressful days have become more of the norm than the exception. We’ve become so accustomed to answering work emails 24/7, worrying about finances, and constantly seeing upsetting news stories that sometimes we don’t even realize we’re stressed.
To stop your stress-filled train from going at full speed, it’s important be mindful of the seven stress symptoms below. Take them as a gentle hint from your body that you may want to take a step back and implement some stress management techniques into your life.
What Is Stress?
Before we dive into the signs of stress, it’s important to understand what stress is. Stress is your body’s reaction to any demand — this could be physical activity, a major life change, or a traumatic event, like a car crash or your boss yelling at you. The effects of stress on the body can lead to health issues if it becomes chronic stress, so it’s important to learn how to recognize it and manage it.
Everyone experiences stress in their own way, and just as different things will stress out different people, different stress management techniques will also work for different individuals.
7 Common Stress Symptoms
The symptoms of stress and anxiety differ from person to person, but there’s science that suggests these seven common signs of stress might be an indicator that your stress levels are getting a bit too high. Be mindful of these possible physical signs of stress if you start to feel more overwhelmed than usual.
Pain that occurs almost all day, on nearly every day for at least three months may be a sign of stress. “From clinical and epidemiologic studies, lifelong exposure to stress — including stressful adverse experience in childhood — increases the risk of developing chronic pain,” says Leslie J. Crofford, M.D., professor of medicine and rheumatology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
“In patients who have chronic pain, stress increases pain intensity, the interference of pain with daily activities, and the capacity to cope with chronic pain. It is thought that these interactions are mediated through the stress response pathways, and that more chronic stress may cause dysfunction of these pathways that augments the pain experience.”
Research suggests that psychological stress may trigger headaches. “There’s a clear link between stress and both migraine and tension-type headaches,” says Peter Drummond, professor of psychology at Murdoch University. In a two-year study of 5,159 adults, for every 10 points that their stress increased on an intensity scale, their headache frequency increased six percent.
One theory for this association is that “hormones released during stress — such as adrenaline or cortisol — interfere with the body’s normal pain control processes or promote inflammatory reactions in vulnerable blood vessels or muscles in the head,” Drummond explains. “Neurological pathways for unpleasant emotions overlap with neurological pathways for pain, so it might be that activation of one pathway — emotion — increases activity in the second pathway — pain — particularly in well-used pain pathways like those responsible for headache.”
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Stress can show up in a number of places, including the bathroom. Diarrhea, constipation, gas, abdominal pain, and other digestive woes may be signs of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which is associated with stress.
Why are these things linked? The bowels become more sensitive and contract more under stress, and some experts believe stress changes brain-gut interactions, impacting functions of the gastrointestinal tract. If your bathroom visits start changing, it may be a sign of too much stress, not just too much greasy food at lunch.
Changes in Appetite
You may be aware that stress turns you into a glutton for carbs and sends you into bouts of stress eating, but it may also make your hunger vanish. The difference is the kind of stress you’re experiencing.
Research shows that during acute stress, the release of adrenaline to shift the body into fight-or-flight mode inhibits digestion and appetite. But with chronic stress, the body releases cortisol, which may increase appetite and the consumption of high-sugar, high-fat foods. Either way, drastic changes in your appetite might be an indicator that you’re stressed.
Stress and sleep go hand in hand, whether it’s the lack of sleep that causes stress, or the stress that causes a lack of sleep. A 2018 study found that the less a person slept, the greater their perceived stress levels were. And in the opposite direction, research from 2010 links perceived stress with fatigue.
Researchers say that stress activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which causes alertness — and clearly interferes with trying to get a restful night’s sleep, and may even lead to insomnia.
Changes in Sexual Pleasure
Stress isn’t exactly a turn-on. Chronic stress can decrease sexual satisfaction for men and women, and overall sexual activity in women, according to a study in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy. Internal daily stress (such as relationship conflict or worrying) may be worse than external stress (coming from something other than your relationship) and may lead to vaginismus (spasm of the muscles around the vagina) in women and premature ejaculation in men, Swiss researchers reported.
And in a study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, women with high levels of stress also had lower levels of genital arousal — the study authors believe increased cortisol and inhibited blood flow to the genitals may play a role.
Many people commonly blame their acne on stress, and science suggests there may be a link. Studies have found that a high number of people who reported psychological stress also experience acne.
A 2017 study linked higher levels of perceived stress with more severe acne. The researchers say stress increases levels of corticotropin-releasing hormone, which stimulates the production of facial oil as well as inflammation, and can in turn cause zits.
How to Manage the Effects of Stress
Stress should not be the norm. If you notice any of these potential signs of stress, take it as encouragement to learn ways to manage your stress such as meditation, exercise, yoga, talking to a friend or therapist, spending time in nature, and prioritizing sleep.