2017 has been a rough year for pretty much everyone. And while chances are you're aware you're stressed — maybe a little too aware you're stressed — you may not realize just how many physical symptoms of stress you can feel. Sure, stress has noticeable effects on our mental health, but it can also deeply impact our bodies, and we shouldn't ignore the physical symptoms when they show up.
One of the most common physical symptoms of stress is probably also the most well-known: headaches. According to the Mayo Clinic, stress headaches are mostly caused by "everyday irritants [like] searching for lost papers, sitting in traffic, [and] tolerating petty annoyances at work." Getting stressed out causes you to carry tension in your body, and when you're uber-stressed by situations, you tend to also do things like "tensing your muscles, grinding your teeth [and] stiffening your shoulders," you can make headaches even worse, the Mayo Clinic reported.
For people like me who suffer from migraines, we have a tendency to get more migraines when we're stressed out. Considering migraines can come with life-interrupting side effects like sensitivity to light, smells, and sounds, as well as auras that can cause virtual blindness, getting one can pile on even more stress, since we have to withdraw from our daily schedule to recover.
But headaches are only the start of the physical symptoms stress can cause.
In fact, there's a laundry list of ways we can suffer physically from stress. After headaches, the most common are muscle tension, chest pain, fatigue, changes in sex drive, stomach upset, and sleep problems, according to the Mayo Clinic. Of course, the tough thing about the majority of these symptoms is that they can be caused by a lot of things — including, in some cases, by very serious illnesses.
While issues like chest pain and chronic fatigue should be checked by your doctor to rule out any underlying medical causes, you also shouldn't ignore them if they're "simply" caused by stress. Everyone experiences occasional stress (and stress can even be positive), but if stress is an everyday thing for you and you're noticing some of the above symptoms, you shouldn't push yourself to keep soldiering on through it.
Experiencing significant, ongoing stress for a long period of time means you've got chronic stress, and chronic stress, according to the American Psychological Association (APA), "causes the muscles in the body to be in a more or less constant state of guardedness."
When you're stressed, it triggers your sympathetic nervous system, which then triggers your "fight or flight" reflex, the APA says. Fight or flight is supposed to be a there-then-gone response, not something that is repeatedly triggered over and over. But with chronic stress, that's exactly what happens. "As the SNS continues to trigger physical reactions, it causes a wear-and-tear on the body," the APA says, and that can result "a long-term drain" on your body and your self.
If that sounds bad, well... it is. Also at particular risk from chronic stress is your cardiovascular system. "Chronic stress [...] can contribute to long-term problems for heart and blood vessels," the APA reports. "The consistent and ongoing increase in heart rate, and the elevated levels of stress hormones and of blood pressure, can take a toll on the body. This long-term ongoing stress can increase the risk for hypertension, heart attack or stroke."
The APA also asserts that chronic stress can also cause heart disease, especially in postmenopausal people whose estrogen levels have decreased. Prior to menopause, people assigned female at birth tend to have more protection against heart disease because of estrogen's aid in helping blood vessels respond well to stress, but that protection vanishes after menopause.
Reading this list may well have added to your overall stress (sorry). As someone with health anxiety, I know it's certainly made my chest a little tight. And it's not easy to say "just reduce the stress in your life," because we've all got constant stressors we have to deal with. But reducing your stress, and thus reducing the potential for dangerous symptoms, can be done in small ways.
Harvard Health suggests five fairly simple solutions for stress: stay positive, meditate, exercise, unplug, and self-care. These all begin with you taking some time to yourself. If you find your mood taking a nosedive, do something you love or get outside and take a walk in the sun. If you can feel a tension headache welling, sit down for five minutes with a meditation app. If you're experiencing a lot of negative emotions because of things you're seeing on social media, disconnect for a few days or try an extension like Sadblock.
As we head into the winter holidays, which nearly three-quarters of people say are the most stressful time of the year, remember these relatively non-time-consuming ways to destress. Save yourself more troubling side effects in the future by being willing to be gentle to yourself now.