Stress… That powerful word that describes so many of the struggles we face each day. We all know the feeling: elevated heart rate, anxiety, tension – and we all know that it can come from many, many different sources. We get stressed out about our jobs, our finances, the ever-growing to do list… And of course, our relationships.
In many ways, it’s just a part of reality. Things aren’t going to be easy all the time, and the adrenaline, flushed feelings, and racing heart are (in part) our bodies’ ways of helping us rise to the challenge of solving problems. Even with that slight “upside” of stress, it still doesn’t feel good – and when we face multiple challenges at once, the feelings can compound and become overwhelming, often preventing us from taking action or tackling the problems causing stress in the first place.
Now, there are all kinds of ways to manage “normal” amounts of stress, but how much stress is too much? Ongoing, unmanaged stress – typically called “chronic stress” – actually does damage to our physical and mental health, and nearly 77% of Americans say they experience the physical symptoms of too much stress.
These symptoms, which we will dig into below, are signs that you may be experiencing too much stress, and your body is suffering because of it. Be on the lookout for these signs that chronic stress is reaching unhealthy levels.
1. You Get Sick Often
Excessive stress actually reduces immune system function, making it harder for your body to fight against illness. When under stress, the body produces a stress hormone called cortisol, and over time (and too much cortisol), we start to become immune to its effects. Unfortunately, immunity to cortisol can lead to increased inflammation, and with it, higher risk of cold, flu, strep throat, and so on.
If you’re feeling under the weather regularly, it could be the product of too much stress! Make sure you’re paying attention to nutrition, and explore your options for reducing stress – or at least managing it more productively.
2. Itchy Skin
In something of a vicious cycle, stress can make us unconsciously scratch at our arms, wring our hands, touch our faces, etc. This, in turn, can irritate that skin – making us more likely to scratch and mess with it. When we’re under stress, some of these physical sensations of itchiness and discomfort worsen, which only leads to more scratching, more irritation, more reaction… And so the cycle continues.
Managing stress is the best way to resolve this problem, of course, but even making a point to be aware of your physical habits when stressed can help break the cycle. Try to avoid unconsciously scratching at your arms or face in stressful situations.
3. Aches and Pains
Stress can put the body into a state of “fight or flight” – with a raised pulse, adrenaline production, etc. in preparation for reacting to a challenge or threat (or just a perceived challenge/threat). This also triggers the sympathetic nervous system, which leads to increased muscle tension.
When you’re tense for long periods of time, that leads to stiffness and soreness – and the more ongoing and chronic your stress, the more tension you experience. Stretching and exercise will help, but tackling the root causes of the stress is the only real solution.
Because of the adrenaline and elevated heart rate that comes with stress, you’re also more likely to sweat. It’s different than sweating from physical activity, and is caused by glands triggered by your stress-induced adrenaline. If you find yourself perspiring without much physical activity, it’s likely the product of too much stress.
Related to the body aches mentioned above, too much stress leads to particularly severe tension in the neck and shoulders, as well as frequent jaw clenching. This can happen even while you sleep!
These subconscious actions compound into frequent headaches, which make you feel even more uncomfortable… Which can contribute to feeling even more stressed… Making the whole thing worse and worse over time.
Like the symptom of itchy skin, this can partly be combatted with conscious effort to relax your neck and shoulders, even when facing stress, and even going as far as finding devices that help you stop clenching your teeth in your sleep.
All of these symptoms show the kind of damage and discomfort that stress can cause – and these are only some of the problems! If these are familiar to you, you’re likely among the many people today who face too much stress. Because it’s so common, you may also be one of the millions of stress sufferers who just assume it’s normal!
We don’t have to be victims to stress, though, at least not in such a severe way. There are actions we can take to both reduce the stress we experience, and change the way we react to it when it happens.
Nutrition and exercise go a long way in bolstering your body against these symptoms, engaging in calming practices like yoga, meditation, or just moments of mindful relaxation can help us let go of stressors from the day, and perhaps most remarkably, even changing the way we think about stress can reduce the negative effects.
Instead of letting the problems pile up, allowing yourself to be overwhelmed, getting worked up about things you can’t control – or assume you can’t control – there’s tremendous value in changing your mindset. Look at your stressors as challenges to conquer, things to get excited about, and opportunities to improve your life.
Even just this mental shift will help you use adrenaline and your body’s physical response to your advantage. It takes practice, but it can help!
Additionally – and this will likely apply more to your work and relationship – it’s a good idea to evaluate what’s causing you the most stress, and take steps toward improving the situation. If it’s your workload, then seek ways to increase efficiency, talk to coworkers and managers to find the help you need, and try to improve your environment to make the work less stressful.
In your marriage, reducing stress is often about improving the relationship itself. That could mean developing a budget so you stop arguing about money, working on your sex life so you both feel more satisfied, learning to communicate more effectively so arguments happen less often, and so on. You likely know where your marital stress is coming from, so focus on those issues first.
Stress can take a serious toll on your health and happiness, but it doesn’t have to. Take steps to reduce the stress you face, recognize the symptoms of being overstressed, and change the way you think about challenges – you can beat stress if you try!