A little stress can actually be a good thing. In small spurts, it's what motivates you to prep for a major test or work presentation, or makes your palms go sweaty in anticipation of a first date. Too much stress, on the other hand, can be overwhelming emotionally – and even detrimental to your physical health.
"Just like our feelings give us information about our needs, so do our bodies through physiological feedback," says Eliza Chamblin, a therapist in New York City who specializes in stress management. "If you are noticing any physical or somatic symptoms, consider it as valuable information telling you that something isn’t right."
Not sure what those physical signs might be? Here are 6 potential indications that stress is making you sick, plus what to do for each situation.
1. You’re having trouble thinking clearly
If you’ve been having a tough time concentrating on one task at a time, remembering things accurately, or just generally operating on a higher level, stress could be to blame. Stress makes it difficult for you to think clearly, as it clouds your thinking and makes it difficult to focus.
This mental fatigue sometimes happens when small stressors pile in at a volume with which we can’t keep up. Things like making multiple tough decisions at work, handling ongoing interruptions, and juggling social commitments – all of these can accumulate and start to weigh on you (not to mention if your phone keeps going off at every step!). If you don't have a chance to hit the pause button and reset, brain fog could set in. Focus is a finite resource and when stretched thin, it falters.
The unfortunate reality of this mental fatigue is that it can affect your physical energy levels, too. If you’ve spent the whole day feeling exhausted just doing the tasks you that you normally knock out in one afternoon, your body will feel tired. For some, this perpetuates the stress cycle; no energy for stress-busting outlets like meditation, creative endeavors, or exercise means nowhere to release that stress, and it remains a looming burden.
What to do if stress is making you mentally fatigued:
- Try to pare down the number of decisions you make per day. Research shows that the more choices we make, the less energy and self-control we have afterwards. Simple ways to cut down on your daily decision load could mean streamlining your meal and outfit choices (e.g., ordering the same lunch every Monday; planning your wardrobe out every week).
- Try moving decision-heavy work meetings to the morning, or whenever you’re at your freshest. The ideal time will change based on whether you’re a morning person or a night owl.
- Stop multitasking. Spreading your attention and energy across too many verticals can, ironically, make you less productive. Stay with one assignment at a time; and if you can help it, avoid letting small tasks interrupt any big projects you're working on.
- Avoiding checking phone and email notifications for the first hour or so of your day. This will help you set your own mood and intentions for the day without being sidelined by work responsibilities, friend FOMO, or other stressful jolts.
- Give yourself dedicated time to “zone out.” Just like athletes need a rest day before they have a big competition, our brains also need downtime to replenish and get ready for additional work. Let your mind wander every day, whether that means taking an extra long shower, doodling in a notebook, or going for a walk with your phone set to airplane mode.
- Try one of these 10 subtle ways to handle stress at work.
2. You’ve been getting more headaches than usual (or they’re getting worse)
If you’re not typically susceptible to headaches, but have been inundated with them lately, stress could be the culprit. Often called “tension headaches,” these pesky head-throbbers happen when your neck and scalp muscles contract as a response to stress.
Symptoms of a tension headache include:
- Pain, tightness, or pressure in the front, sides, and/or top of your head
- Slight sensitivity to light and noise
- A headache that starts late in the day
- Difficulty focusing
And if you do normally get headaches or migraines, stress can both trigger and make them worse.
What to do if you’re experiencing tension headaches:
- Apply a cold compress or a heating pad to your head. Either hot or cold temperatures can help alleviate symptoms.
- Rub your hairline and temples with peppermint essential oil or tiger balm. Both have been found to be comparable treatment to medications like aspirin.
- Consider working with a therapist who specializes in biofeedback and/or relaxation techniques. Both of these approaches have been found to reduce frequency and intensity of tension headaches. [5, 6] Therapists who specialize in the physical manifestations of mindset or chronic illnesses are trained to help clients listen more to their bodies, decipher their bodies’ signs, and prioritize comfort.
3. You’re having digestive issues – but your diet hasn’t changed
There’s a reason why stressful situations are called “gut-wrenching.” The brain and the gastrointestinal system are intimately connected – meaning the more stressed out your brain is, the unhappier your stomach will get.
Signs that your stomach isn’t handling extra stress well include:
- Stomach bloating
- Excessive gas
- Nausea or queasiness
What to do if you’re experiencing stress-related digestive issues:
- Avoid high-caffeine stimulants, especially coffee. That cup of java fuels nerves and bowels – worsening both stress and stomach issues.
- Try gentle yoga movements, like legs-up-the-wall pose or restorative child's pose.
- See your medical doctor, so you can rule out any underlying physical conditions, like food allergies or side effects from medications.
- Try out therapy types like cognitive behavioral therapy or relaxation therapy. Both of these may help you manage your reactions to perceived stressors.
4. Your skin has been extra sensitive lately
When stress takes the wheel, it’s not uncommon for our bodies to go into overdrive. All this hype throws the nervous system, including nerve endings on your skin, off-balance.
Signs that stress has gotten under your skin include:
- Acne: Since acne is an inflammatory disease, stress doesn’t directly cause it – but the hormones that stress releases do increase inflammation, thereby exacerbating it.
- Rashes: An overwhelm of stress can spur a rash, often in the form of raised, red-colored spots known as hives.
- Eczema and psoriasis: If you already have a chronic skin condition, stress can be an emotional trigger that makes it worse.
What to do if you’re experiencing stress-related skin issues:
- For acne, try applying ice cubes made from green tea. The polyphenols in it have been found to be beneficial in the treatment of acne.
- For hives, apply a cool compress to the affected area. Not only does this feel relieving, but it also helps with the inflammation.
- If you find yourself perpetuating the skin issues, try habit reversal training: Skin conditions such as eczema can be self-perpetuating; you might scratch the affected area when you're stressed, for example. You might also find yourself picking at your skin. If that's the case, develop your own methodology of habit-reversal training. First, try to raise internal awareness of the habit, since you may be doing it without even realizing it. Then, intercept the impulse by clenching your fist or occupying your hands by writing something down with a pen and paper.
5. You’re getting back-to-back colds
One of the cruelest ironies of our physical systems is that when we’re at our most stressed, we’re also the most susceptible to catching a cold.
Why? When you’re at overall healthy stress levels, cortisol (the “stress hormone”) is able to do its regular thing of regulating your body’s suitable response to viruses and bacteria.
But when you’re chronically stressed, your body is pumping excess cortisol, and your immune system grows less sensitive to the stuff. In turn, your body is less able to regulate an inflammatory response, and therefore, more likely to succumb when exposed to a virus.
What to do if you’re getting stress-related colds:
- Take a hot bath with Epsom salts. Not only are hot baths soothing for a cold, but studies have also shown that magnesium (found in Epsom salts) help stabilize moods and relieve stress.
- Get seven to eight hours of sleep every night to boost your immune system. This will give your brain time to rest (no notifications when you’re asleep!) and recharge, while also allowing your body to reset its chemical balance.
- Drink your vitamin beet: One study found that a few glasses of beet juice can help keep colds at bay. The red juice is high in dietary nitrate, which increases the body’s production of nitric oxide. That, in turn, can help protect your body against respiratory infections.
6. Your sex drive is down
In periods of chronic stress, the excess cortisol that's produced can suppress sex hormones. And fewer sex hormones = a lower libido.
And then there's the mental aspect of it, too. The distracting nature of stress (thinking about your massive to-do list, for example, or anxiety about paying off bills) may prevent you from being present in the moment for sex, or wanting to engage in it at all. Talk about a downer!
What to do if stress is killing your sex drive:
- Spend intimate time with your partner – even if it’s not sex time. Doing so can produce the same feelings you might get from sex, like closeness and overall calm, which are natural defenses against stress.
- Consider seeing a sex therapist. If your brain is running on constant overdrive due to stress, it can be hard to switch gears and be present in the bedroom. A sex therapist can help you unpack what’s going through your mind, how it’s affecting your sex life, and provide counsel on what steps you can take to get back to being intimate. You can find sex therapists near you by filters Zencare’s therapist directory by Specialties.
Consider working with a therapist!
If you're struggling to determine your triggers and manage your reactions, consider working with a therapist to help you find ways to better understand and handle your stress. Stress may be inevitable, but it doesn't have to damage your physical health. Many therapists specialize in helping clients unwind from their stress -- which can look many different ways! Some therapists teach clients how to recognize stressors and change their behaviors. Other therapists take a holistic approach to finding balance. This diversity in approach means that you can find a therapist that fits perfectly with your personality and preferences to help you with your stress. Finding a high-quality therapist will not be another stressful item on your to-do list when you use Zencare.