We all have some stress—and these days, it seems that everyone is experiencing a double load. While short bursts of stress are perfectly normal, ongoing, everyday tension can elicit the body’s stress response and become harmful over time. From causing headaches to gut issues to an increased risk of disease (largely a result of the bad habits stress causes such as eating junk food, not getting enough sleep, and not moving enough), long-term, chronic stress takes a toll on both your mind and body.
Here are a few red flag symptoms when it comes to chronic stress and some ideas on how to deal with them safely and holistically.
10 signs that it’s time to do something about your stress levels:
1. You constantly have back pain.
Barring any physical injury, if your back and shoulders always feel tight, it may be caused by chronic stress. That’s because according to the American Psychological Association (APA), chronic stress causes muscles to be in a constant state of guardedness, leading to tension and pain if there’s no conscious release or effort to relax the muscles.
2. You suffer frequent headaches.
Everything in the body is connected, and it’s this muscle constriction that can also lead to both tension headaches and migraines. If you carry your stress in your shoulders or neck as opposed to your back, you may be more prone to dealing with headaches. “Too many people sit at a desk all day peering at a tiny computer screen, talking on the phone, or doing some repetitive motion, and as a result suffer from headaches,” functional medicine doctor Robin Berzin, M.D., tells mbg.
3. You feel short of breath.
Stress and your respiratory system are directly linked to each other. This means that if you are otherwise healthy and having trouble breathing, it could be because you need to implement relaxation and breathing techniques in order to help your airflow move more freely.
4. Your asthma attacks are picking up.
Research published in Thorax found that chronic stress can cause more asthma attacks in those who deal with the condition. Stress can also make you more susceptible to upper respiratory illnesses like the common cold due to its ability to compromise your immune system.
5. You start breaking out…a lot.
In a study published in Clinical, Cosmetic, and Investigational Dermatology that looked at 144 sixth-year female med students, researchers discovered that severity of stress directly correlated with severity of acne. One of the driving factors behind this is that stress increases the hormone cortisol in your body. “When we’re stressed, our bodies produce more cortisol and testosterone, both of which can cause increased sebum production and breakouts,” natural skin care expert Sarah Villafranco, M.D., writes on mbg. Sebum is an oily substance secreted by the sebaceous glands, and too much of it can set the stage for acne.
6. You start to have tummy troubles.
When we experience stress, our salivary glands aren’t nearly as activated, meaning our digestive juices aren’t flowing as well. Stress also triggers the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for fight-or-flight. This overrides the parasympathetic nervous system, or relaxed state, and shuts down the body’s less important functions, like digestion. Over time, some doctors believe stress can also lead to intestinal permeability (called leaky gut), where toxins and bacteria seep into the bloodstream, causing systemic inflammation—and more gut troubles.
7. You frequently forget things.
Going through the day among a trail of Post-its to remember certain things isn’t just a sign you have a lot on your to-do list. Chronic stress can impair your memory by reducing the amount of dopamine that reaches the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is the part of the brain responsible for some memory as well as decision making and personality behaviors. Lack of dopamine can affect PFC functioning and thus make you more likely to be forgetful.
8. You hit the sheets to sleep (and only sleep).
“You may or may not be aware of how stress is being generated in the body,” integrative medicine doctor Sara Gottfried, M.D., writes on mbg, “and one of the earliest signs can be lower sexual interest or desire.” Yep, chronic stress can actually lower your libido. A study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found women dealing with chronic stress were facing a two-pronged issue: hormonal (the rise of the stress hormone cortisol led to less sexual arousal) and psychological (feeling more distracted and less connected).
9. You start gaining weight like crazy.
Yes, stress may cause you to nibble on junk you know you shouldn’t be eating, but even if you generally stick to a healthy diet, you may find the scale creeping up for no apparent reason. Researchers from Stanford discovered that chronic stress may speed up the rate fat cells are formed in the body by increasing glucocorticoid levels, a steroid-type of hormone. Too much glucocorticoids in the body for a prolonged period of time boosts fat-cell production at a higher rate than normal.
10. You can’t fall asleep.
The constant cortisol dump that happens in your body as a result of chronic stress can prevent you from getting enough sleep at night. This can put you on a bit of a sleep-stress hamster wheel, as the APA found stress increases when the quality and length of sleep decreases.
How to manage your chronic stress.
There are a number of tools you can utilize to help get your stress levels under control. For starters, a few minutes a day of meditation can help you de-stress and center yourself to cope with what the day throws your way. Stress-easing supplements can also help: Full-spectrum hemp oil is a good source of cannabidiol (CBD) as well as other beneficial cannabinoids and can help manage the physiological symptoms of stress.* Hemp oil has been shown to affect activity in the limbic section of the human brain, the part that is responsible for our “fight-or-flight” response.*
Eating certain stress-easing foods reduces your cortisol production while boosting your immune system, an important part in battling stress and its effects on your health.
Deep breathing can help train the body to return to a more relaxed state, while talk therapy or counseling can help pinpoint the cause of your chronic stress and teach you coping mechanisms like visualization to help deal with future situations that may spark stress.
Chronic stress isn’t something that should be ignored, so knowing the telltale signs that your stress is getting out of control can be beneficial for both your mental and overall health.
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