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Amy Przeworski Ph.D.
Amy Przeworski Ph.D.

Listening To Your Body

Often ignored signs that you are under too much stress

Anxiety and stress-related disorders are among the most common psychological disorders and yet they often go for years without being treated. This may be, in part, because human beings often ignore the signs that their body is using to tell them that they are too stressed or do not recognize them until they are incapacitating. Below is a list of often ignored signs that you may be under too much stress or anxiety.

Frequent headaches: These may be caused by clenching one’s jaw, tension in muscles in the face, neck, and shoulders, or grinding your teeth.

Body aches or tension: When you are exposed to stress, activity increases in the sympathetic nervous system, the part of the nervous system related to fight or flight. This sends blood to major muscle groups in order to help you to flee or fight in the situation. You may also tense up your muscles in anticipation of fleeing or flighting. If you are under stress frequently, your muscles end up chronically tensed leading to body aches and soreness.

Gastrointestinal distress: The gut is very sensitive to stress and anxiety so for some people, their gut may be a stress-o-meter—when they are extremely stressed, they experience diarrhea, constipation, nausea, or upset stomach and when they are not stressed, their GI symptoms go away.

Acne, eczema, and other types of skin problems: Stress increases cortisol, a stress hormone. Increased cortisol can contribute to acne. Stress and anxiety increase inflammation of the skin, which can trigger or worsen eczema.

Increased sweating: We sweat when stressed due to stress hormones, such as adrenaline, which is involved in the fight or flight reaction. Stress sweat is different from sweating in response to being hot; however, in that stress sweat is composed of water and salt (components of heat sweat) as well as fatty substances and proteins which, when combined with bacteria living on the skin, causes body odor. It is not clear why we experience increased sweating in response to stress, but it may play an evolutionary role by increasing the alertness of others nearby, which may have helped the species to survive threatening situations.

Insomnia, nightmares, sleep walking, or disturbed sleep: Chronic stress increases rapid eye movement sleep and decreases slow wave sleep. Slow wave sleep helps with cell and body maintenance and repair so when slow wave sleep is decreased, our bodies do not repair as quickly.

Frequent illnesses: This point is related to the above point about how reduced slow-wave sleep means less body repair; however, stress reduces immune system response in another way as well. Stress leads to overproduction of catecholemines, hormones that regulate your immune system. This may reduce the functioning of your immune system. Additionally, stress impacts your ability to produce white blood cells, which fight infection. This means that you have less of an ability to fight off viruses and infections.

Decreased interest in sex, sexual arousal problems, reduced fertility: Stress inhibits the body’s main sex hormone, gonadotropin releasing hormone (GnRH). This occurs because stress leads to increased levels of a reproductive hormone in the brain and to increased levels of cortisol in the body, both of which inhibit GnRH. This can lead to reduced sperm count, ovulation, sexual activity.

Memory difficulties: Chronic stress leads to increased levels of cortisol, which may reduce the functioning of the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in short-term memory.

What to do if you have these symptoms

If you notice that you are experiencing many of these symptoms, you should talk with your doctor about the symptoms. These may be signs of a medical problem and this should be evaluated by a medical practitioner. If medical problems are rules out, it may be that the symptoms are related to stress or anxiety.

There are many things that you can do to reduce your stress level (and the accompanying physical and cognitive symptoms). Mind-body practices, such as mindfulness, meditation, and yoga have been found to reduce stress. Additionally, exercise can lead to significant reductions in stress. Relaxation techniques can also reduce stress. These include breathing exercises, muscle relaxation, and imaginal relaxation. If you notice that you are suffering from chronic stress or elevations in anxiety that interfere with your life, you may be suffering from an anxiety disorder and may benefit from the assistance of a trained therapist or psychiatrist.

For more of the latest research on stress, go to:…

For tips to manage your anxiety and stress, go to:

For information about how exercise can reduce anxiety and stress go to:…

Check out these related posts:

12 Tips to Reduce your Child’s Stress and Anxiety

When You Feel Like Giving Up

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About the Author
Amy Przeworski Ph.D.

Amy Przeworski, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University and specializes in anxiety disorders in children, adolescents, and adults.

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