Is your body reacting to stress without you realizing it? Find out. (Photo by Getty Images)
By Kristin Fawcett
Are you losing hair? Gaining weight? Sprouting a rash? There’s a good chance that the culprit behind these seemingly unrelated physical maladies is nothing more than good, old-fashioned stress. While stress is a normal part of everyday life, it can sometimes trigger a range of unpleasant symptoms that we’re quick to attribute to other ailments.
The brain-body relationship is complicated, and researchers say they haven’t quite pinpointed why people manifest stress in different ways – headaches for you, but nausea for your neighbor. They do, however, tie these reactions to the body’s fight-or-flight system, which releases stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol that cause the body to stay alert and ready to react to potentially dangerous situations.
“The stress response prepares the body to be at war,” says Amit Sood, author of “The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living” and professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine in Rochester, Minnesota. “The body shores up resources to enhance its survival. It increases blood glucose, increases blood flow to muscles, pushes the heart to work harder and predisposes [individuals] to inflammation.”
But some people have different stress thresholds and aren’t always attuned to their emotions, Sood says. So sometimes, they will only become aware they’re stressed when they begin experiencing physical symptoms.
Is your body reacting to stress without you realizing it? Here are key ways your body might be telling you to chill out:
Your hair falls out. If your shower drain seems more clogged than usual, it’s probably not your imagination. While the average person loses 100 to 200 strands of hair a day, heightened stress levels can cause your locks to shed in clumps for up to three months, says Richard Granstein, professor and chairman of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City and dermatologist-in-chief at New York-Presbyterian University Hospital of Columbia and Cornell. This phenomenon, called Telogen effluvium in medicalese, triggers multiple hair follicles to simultaneously enter a “resting phase” and suddenly fall out of the scalp, Granstein says. “Some people think that it’s a neuroendocrine effect, and that hormones released by stress cause it,” Granstein says. “But the truth is that nobody really knows why it happens.”
You stay sick longer. Can’t seem to get over that bug? Studies suggest that stress dampens immunity and causes inflammation levels to rise, which can prompt the body to react more violently to a virus than if stress is under control.
Your digestive system feels out-of-whack. Severe stress can wreak havoc on the digestive systemand send you running to the restroom. “The brain-gut relationship is really thought to exact itself through a variety of different mechanisms,” says Maged Rizk, a gastroenterologist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. For instance, strong emotions such as fear and anxiety impact the brain’s limbic system, which sends signals to the organs within the gastrointestinal tract. The result can be diarrhea, nausea and even vomiting, depending on which organ is roused.
Related: Inside a Nervous Breakdown
Your skin breaks out. Stress is known to instigate a variety of skin ailments, ranging from acne and hives to rashes, Granstein says. Acne is caused in part by the stress hormone cortisol, which sends the skin’s oil-producing glands into overdrive. Stress is also linked to hive outbreaks and skin conditions such as psoriasis and rosacea, though scientists don’t fully know why
You heal slowly. When we’re stressed, Granstein says, cuts and scratches tend to stick around longer than usual. That’s because the body draws moisture away from the skin’s outer layers during periods of stress, which hampers the healing process.
You have difficulty breathing. High stress levels are linked to asthma and other breathing difficulties, says Stephen Tilley, an associate professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill who specializes in pulmonary diseases. Patients hospitalized for asthma attacks often report feeling stress before the episode, Tilley says, and studies observing mice with allergen-induced asthma show that stressed mice have more airway inflammation and bronchial obstruction than unstressed mice.
Your vision changes. If your eyes feel parched or your vision is suddenly blurred, pause before blaming a change in your eyesight. Stress could be the offender, as it can hamper your body’s circulation, decreasing blood flow to areas including the skin, brain and eyes, says Cynthia Ackrill, a primary care physician turned stress management coach who practices in the Washington, D.C. area. Meanwhile, stress can also cause your pupils to dilate – your body’s way of preparing you to stare down a predator – which can result in hazy vision. Don’t be distressed, either, if one (or both) of your eyelids suddenly starts to twitch midway through a stressful study session or workweek. These involuntary eye movements, called myokemia, normally disappear on their own as your body calms down.
You gain weight. “In evolutionary times, one of the big risks was famine,” Ackrill says. “So the minute we’re under stress, our bodies tend to hold onto fat,” particularly in the abdomen. As abdominal fat increases, she says, it starts to create inflammation in the body, and also releases hormones that affect our ability to feel full. At the same time, stress hormones slow down our metabolism while making us crave fatty foods and sugar. “It’s this catch-22,” Ackrill says. “You’re stressed, so you eat more. You don’t get [full] because your body is stressed and thinks it’s time for the Great Famine. And then you have this abdominal fat that sits around and makes the situation worse.”
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