Your body is trying to tell you something

Think of them as warning signs. Something is not right.

Maybe you're not sleeping well or you're getting more headaches than usual. You have no appetite and bouts of nausea, too.

Stress isn't just a state of mind. It's something that can create chaos in your body. Experts say poor physical health can often signal poor mental health.

"A lot of times our body is trying to communicate to us when we're not in a good spot," said Vaile Wright, senior director of health care innovation at the American Psychological Association.

The American Psychological Association's 2020 Stress in America survey found Americans have been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic while also coping with other persistent stressors – such as political polarization and racial discrimination.

The survey found 80% of U.S. adults say the coronavirus pandemic is a significant source of stress in their life and 60% said the number of issues America faces is overwhelming.

'A culmination of crises': America is in turmoil, and a mental health crisis looms next

Hope: Why it's so important

"We would be automatons if we didn't have some emotional reaction or physical reaction to stress," said Vanessa Kennedy, director of psychology at Driftwood Recovery, an addiction and mental health rehabilitation center in Texas. "But we can certainly mitigate the response ... by making sure that we check in with ourselves each day and make a conscious effort to really pay attention to our bodies."

Inflammation, brain changes: What stress does to a body

When someone experiences an increased level of stress, the body releases stress hormones – cortisol and adrenaline are among the most well-known. This prepares the body for fight or flight, our evolutionary response to a threat.

The problem, Kennedy said, is when stress becomes chronic. Prolonged release of stress hormones increases the overall level of inflammation in the body and can lead to longer term health effects.

Research shows stress effects the nervous system and can even cause structural changes in the brain, which can change how we think and alter our memory. Stress can weaken our immune system, making us more susceptible to illness. Prolonged stress can also exacerbate pre-existing health conditions, like cardiovascular disease or respiratory problems.

Nearly 1 in 5 Americans say their mental health is worse now than it was at this time last year, according to an October report from the APA.

"Maintaining a level of hyper arousal isn't really sustainable," Wright said. "It's too much. It just wears you down."

How to scan your body for stress

Kennedy said sometimes it's easier for someone to focus on physical symptoms than it is for them to identify what they're feeling emotionally. It's why she advises her patients to perform a daily body scan.

"We're not going to be aware day to day as we're just trying to put one foot in front of the other about how we're feeling or how we're starting to have a little more muscle tension," Kennedy said.

To check in, you need to slow down. For 15 minutes, she said, be still, present and pay attention to all your five senses.

"Check in with each muscle group, from your feet to your head," she said. "You can notice things like, 'Oh, I'm feeling this lump in my throat, or 'I'm having a mild headache come on,' or 'maybe I'm having some fatigue.'"

You can also ask yourself:

  • Am I sleeping poorly?

  • Am I eating well?

  • Am I craving unhealthy foods?

  • Am I grinding my teeth?

  • Do I feel body aches?

If you're answering yes to these questions, then "your body is trying to give you the signal that something either needs to change in the environment, or you need to change your reaction to what's happening in the environment," Kennedy said.

Kennedy said while stress may not feel good, our body's responses to it are productive, and likely ultimately a good thing if we can use those cues to change what's in our control. She also notes that one of the things that can be most healing to a body is connection to another person.

"There's neurochemicals that actually get released in our brains when we're connecting with other people in a meaningful way," she said. "Relationships and connection with others is key."

You may also be interested in:

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Physical symptoms of stress are a warning sign of mental health issues