You’re logging eight hours of sleep a night but waking up exhausted. Or, you’re tossing and turning for hours though you typically sleep like a log. You get nagging headaches and your belly aches, even though you’ve been under-eating. What gives? Your body may be sending you a loud and clear message: You’ve got major stress.
Yes, it’s true: Stress can negatively affect your both your mind and body. But if you can recognize common stress symptoms, you can learn to manage them.
First things first: Why does stress manifest as physical symptoms? “Everything’s about balance in our bodies, so when things are off-kilter, your body alerts you physically when there’s a problem,” says Dr. Terry Strazzullo, DPT, of South New Jersey-based CORON Physical Therapy. “When you’re stressed, you make subtle physical changes your body notices: You clench your jaw, hike your shoulders up, tense your neck muscles, or don’t drink enough water or eat as well.”
Unchecked stress can contribute to chronic health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes, according to the Mayo Clinic.
So what are the most common symptoms of stress—and is there anything outside of chilling out (because, let’s be honest, that’s easier said than done) you can do to ease them?
The Nagging Headache
You know the drill: Your alarm didn’t go off. You can’t find your keys. You didn’t prep for your morning meeting. Now you’ve got a headache.
Stress is the most common cause of tension-type headaches, according to the Mayo Clinic. However, you may be surprised that major life events (the birth of a child, death of a loved one, a move, a career change, or a divorce) usually aren’t the culprits behind stress-triggering headaches. Instead, it’s the daily grind (i.e. sitting in traffic or dealing with an annoying coworker) that triggers random tension headaches. Responding to these stressors by tensing your muscles or stiffening your shoulders may make tension headaches worse.
Tension-headache symptoms include soreness in your temples, a band-like sensation around your head, and the contracting of your head and neck muscles. “Tension headaches are a secondary symptom of holding stress in our necks, a habit many women have,” Strazzullo says. “It creates trigger points in the muscles, radiating pain into our necks and heads, becoming a headache.”
At-home treatments include over-the-counter or prescription medications like NSAIDS, as well as relaxation or meditation exercises, according to the National Headache Foundation.
To help promote a better responses to stress, you can reach for adaptogens, which are compounds that help the body respond and adapt to stress. According to the journal Pharmaceuticals, adaptogens help to keep our hormones and immune system working at their best, reducing the potential for stress to run amok in our bodies.
Interested in trying this all-natural approach to reducing stress? Look for ginseng, holy basil, ashwagandha, rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea),schisandra (Schisandra chinensis), eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus), and astragalus root. Read more about these health-boosting powerhouses here.
Too Much Or Not Enough Sleep
Stress is a major contributor to disrupted sleep, whether you’re snoozing too long and waking up exhausted or suffering from nightly insomnia. More than 35 percent of adults report, according to the Mayo Clinic, getting less than seven hours a sleep a night.
Adults need seven to nine hours of sleep every night to feel our best. If we don’t get enough sleep we could be at risk for chronic problems like obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Sleep disruptions can also contribute to fatigue and low energy during the day.
If you’re looking for sleep support, you do have a few options. Melatonin, which is naturally released by our pineal glands, modulates our sleep and wake cycles. During the day, the pineal gland is inactive, but when darkness hits, melatonin floods the body—leading to sleepiness. Fortunately, you can take melatonin supplements for occasional sleeplessness.
You can also try drinking tart cherry juice (which contains melatonin), get a solid workout in, and quit looking at your phone before bed, as a cell phone’s blue light slows melatonin production. (Check out more ways to promote a better night’s sleep.)
Our brains have a direct effect on our stomachs, according to Harvard Medical School. For example, if you think about eating, your stomach releases gastric juices before the food gets there. Conversely, if your gut is irritated, it signals your brain. That means your stomach distress can be either the cause or result of stress. If you experience gastrointestinal issues with no obvious diagnosed cause, be sure to examine your stress levels.
To promote digestive health, there are a few things you can do. For one, try taking probiotic supplements on a daily basis. It’s also important to avoid refined carbs, sugars, alcohol, and processed foods, and increase fiber and water intake.
STOP THE CYCLE
“Any time you have experienced distressing symptoms, there’s no harm in seeing your doctor, especially as you get older,” says Strazzullo. “It’s never a good idea to self-diagnose. Your primary care doctor is there to rule out any physiological issues and also funnel you to the correct specialist. If it’s stress, he or she can refer you to a mental health professional.”
Stress can mess with your mood, causing you to feel anxious, restless, unmotivated, overwhelmed, irritable, sad, or depressed. Your friends might also notice you’re behaving differently when you’re stressed: over- or under-eating, having angry outbursts, turning to alcohol, withdrawing from your social life, or exercising way less. No good.
The great news: While you can’t completely avoid everyday triggers, you can work to keep your stress under control so you stay on top of your game. Here are some suggestions from the Mayo Clinic:
- Set aside 10 minutes a day for relaxation. Practice meditation, yoga, Tai chi or deep breathing. You can also try a one-minute meditation when you get home from a long day at work. Or, experiment with essential oils, which work by stimulating smell receptors that, in turn, send messages to the brain’s limbic system, helping us control our emotions. Lavender oil, for example, is known to provide a calming, soothing effect.
- Exercise regularly. Working out can help you take a break from everyday stress, prevent headaches, and get more sleep. Exercise also releases feel-good hormones that can help keep your mood in check. And the confidence boost that comes with regular fitness is helpful, too.
- Eat smart. Eat fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to give you more energy. Fresh, clean foods supply you with nutrients, vitamins, and minerals—all of which help keep you physically and mentally healthy.