You know that stress isn’t good for you. But do you know the specific ways stress can negatively impact your health? April is National Stress Awareness Month, which makes it an ideal time to take a step back and look out for the sneaky ways it’s affecting various aspects of your health. Here are seven warning signs that stress is getting the better of you and what you should do about it.
01. Tense Muscles or Headaches
When you’re stressed, your muscles tense up—it’s your body’s way of preparing for the fight, flight, or freeze stress response. Usually, when the stress subsides, your muscles return to their relaxed state. But when you experience chronic stress, the tension in your muscles never fully eases up. The American Psychological Association identifies stress as a common source for tension headaches as well as pain in the shoulders and neck area. Relaxation exercises such as progressive muscle relaxation can help manage muscle tension caused by stress.
02. Chest Pain or Troubling Breathing
Chronic stress can increase your risk for hypertension, heart attack, or stroke, according to the APA. People who experience anxiety can also suffer from panic attacks, which can present as chest pain or trouble breathing. You can minimize the effects of stress by avoiding triggers such as rushing or drinking caffeine too late in the day.
03. Cycle Irregularities
Stress can affect your period by making PMS symptoms such as water retention, bloating, and negative moods worse. It can also contribute to changes in the length of your cycle, painful cramps, or irregular periods. If you’ve noticed these changes in your cycle, try to identify the likely sources of stress (e.g., work has been overwhelming, you recently moved, you experienced a significant life event). Then create a plan to de-stress by practicing self-care, whether that means engaging in a creative side project, doing a digital detox, or getting lost in a good book.
04. Upset Stomach
Beyond butterflies invading your stomach from nervousness or worry, stress can increase stomach pain, ulcers, heartburn, and acid reflux. Nausea and vomiting are other warning signs of excessive stress. Simple mindfulness techniques such as daily deep breathing can help settle your stomach while relieving your stress. Then reestablish balance in your gut microflora by avoiding a high-fat, high-sugar diet and eating more fiber and cultured foods such as yogurt instead.
05. Lowered Immune System
The University of Maryland reports that chronic stress can lower white blood cell count and make you more vulnerable to developing a cold. If you’ve been under a lot of pressure lately and can’t seem to shake the sickness that has seemed to linger for weeks, stress may be to blame. Incorporate immune-boosting foods such as ginger and green tea into your diet to help your body fight against viruses and bacteria.
06. Forgetfulness or Foggy Brain
Chronic stress lowers your ability to concentrate and learn new information, according to the University of Maryland. If you’ve been feeling forgetful or foggy lately, combat the effects of stress by improving your diet, hydrating, avoiding multitasking, and practicing good sleep hygiene.
07. Insomnia and Tiredness
Stress has been linked to insomnia, reports the University of Maryland, and is thought to cause physiological arousal during non–rapid eye movement sleep. In other words, you aren’t fully resting during sleep, which leaves you tired and groggy the next day. Establish a relaxing bedtime routine to help you unwind, fall asleep more quickly, and get better quality sleep.
If you have concerns about your health, whether mental or physical, it’s important to consult a doctor. But it’s also vital that you’re aware of when your body is telling you that something isn’t right. Pinpoint the sources of anxiety so that you can implement the best stress management techniques above. Stress is silent, but it leaves you vulnerable. Don’t let it hold you back from living a full and healthy life.
Photo Credit: Jess Hunter