The word ‘stressful’ is commonly used these days as a throwaway term to describe any kind of less-than-ideal set of circumstances. But stress – real, serious stress that can be caused by anything from moving house to starting a new job, or becoming a first-time parent – can actually impact a person in a big way. And that includes physically.
With a Guardian survey carried out for Mental Health Awareness week revealing that three in four Britons have been so stressed that they have felt overwhelmed or unable to cope on at least one occasion in the last year, we wanted to look into the physical manifestations this kind of stress can have on a person.
We asked Nuffield Health’s Brendan Street, who’s Professional Head of CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), to talk us through all the ways stress can turn into physical symptoms because once you can identify stress, you can actually do something about it:
1. Feeling tired
“Stress has a physiological effect on your body by releasing hormones into your bloodstream which accelerate your heart rate and your breathing. This constant strain on your system can have an exhausting effect, leaving you feeling tired all the time.
In a cruel twist, stress can also prevent you from sleeping. Stress has been found to activate an area of the brain called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis in the brain, which plays a part in sleep-wake regulation. You may experience sleep loss and find that you are constantly going over the same issue in your head again and again. This is your brain working overtime to try to find a solution.”
2. Teeth grinding
“Teeth grinding is a symptom of stress closely linked to a lack of sleep, because your nervous system has heightened activity and this plays out in your mouth. Grinding your teeth can cause dental problems and also a painful jaw which can add to your suffering.”
“Sometimes known as stress headaches, tension headaches are known to be brought on by stress. Lasting anything from half an hour to a few hours, these headaches feel like pressure on either side of the head and can also be accompanied by tense neck and shoulders. If you suffer these headaches regularly, it’s possible that you are suffering from stress.”
“Dizziness is often associated with stress and anxiety. This is for a number of reasons. As stress increases, this can lead to changes in breathing rate, which in turn can change the CO2 levels in the blood. This isn’t dangerous but can cause physical symptoms like dizziness. In addition, the body’s response to stress involves the release of stress hormones. These hormones lead to various changes in the body that enhance our ability to deal with the immediate threat (escape or fight – the ‘fight or flight’ response). One such response is that blood is re-directed to the areas that need it for ‘fight or flight’ – blood tends to be redirected from the head and this can lead to dizziness. Finally, long-term stress and anxiety – as already noted – can interfere with sleep. Dizziness or light headiness often occurs when we are over-tired.”
5. Irritable bowels
“When you’re stressed you might experience abdominal pains, bloating, constipation or diarrhea. If you suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome already, being stressed can worsen the symptoms. This is because the digestive system is controlled by the nervous system – the mediator of stress. As already noted, the body’s response to stress involves the release of a range of hormones. These hormones can alter digestion in complex ways and can alter water intake to the digestive system in some way that either slows food (constipation) or pushes food too quickly through the digestive tract (diarrhea).”
6. Loss of libido
“In order for your libido (sexual desire) to function properly, your hormone balance and neurological pathways need to be in sync. When you are stressed, you release stress hormones, which interfere with this balance and can lead to a loss of libido.”
7. Appetite loss or gain
“People who are in a stressed state in the short term may lose their appetite – this is because part of the brain called the hypothalamus produces a corticotropin-releasing hormone, which suppresses appetite. But people who are chronically stressed (for a long period of time) release cortisol, which increases your appetite, especially for sweet and starchy foods. This is where the term ‘stress eating’ comes from.”
8. Hair loss
“Stress can cause many conditions that lead to hair loss. Although hair loss is not usually damaging to your health it can impact your quality of life and self-confidence. There are different forms of hair loss – Alopecia Areata, where suddenly you start to lose large clumps of hair; or Telogen Effluvium, when more hair than normal fall out (some hair loss each day is normal). The link between stress and hair loss seems to be due to three main reasons:
- The hormones released by the body in the stress response can cause hair loss.
- When we are experiencing stress we don’t tend to look after ourselves as well. We neglect our diet and miss meals. Diet has a big impact on hair growth, with inadequate nutrition being one of the major factors in hair loss for women.
- Stress affects our immune system, which in turn makes us more susceptible to illness.
General health is also linked to hair growth and can lead to hair loss. In addition, there is an anxiety condition called Trichotillomania where a person pulls out their hair as a coping mechanism for stress.”
9. Getting sick easily
“Stress has some very real effects on our overall health by suppressing the immune system. This is because when we are stressed we release a hormone called cortisol into our bloodstream and when cortisol is released, the immune-system-supporting hormone called DHEA can’t be released at the same time. As a result, our immune system isn’t as efficient. So, if you find you’re catching colds very easily, or can’t shake them off, it may be because you have a reduced immune system, which can be a result of stress.”
10. Increased heart rate
“The chemicals released into your bloodstream when you experience stress increase your heart rate, as well as the speed of your breathing (to prepare you for ‘fight or flight’). Some people notice this change in heart rate more than others and interpret it as dangerous (e.g. “I am having a heart attack”) This is distressing and leads to the heart rate increasing further with increased distressing thoughts and a sense of panic. Such episodes, usually around 10 to 15 minutes in length are known as panic attacks. You might feel shortness of breath, breath quickly and have a sense that you can’t breathe properly. This is called hyperventilation is very common in anxiety. The tendency is to feel like you need to breathe more quickly. It is better to slow your breathing down. Breathe through the nose rather than the mouth with your hand placed on your stomach. Slow, non-panic breathing through your nose should lead to your stomach rising and falling as you breathe in and out. If panic attacks continue it would be advisable to contact your GP as you might benefit from a course of therapy called Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. This website has useful free resources for dealing with panic (look for the panic button).”
11. Dry mouth
“The body’s stress response can reduce the production of saliva in your mouth, leading to discomfort when swallowing food and an increased risk of developing a bacterial or fungal infection. A dry mouth can also be caused by breathing too much through your mouth (this often occurs when someone is anxious and prone to hyperventilating) and neglecting to drink enough fluids. In addition, a dry mouth may be the side effect of medication used to control stress, such as antidepressants and muscle relaxants.”
Any of these symptoms can be linked to stress, and if you’re experiencing them you shouldn’t suffer in silence. Tell a healthcare professional who will be able to advise on a course of action to reduce your stress levels, and get you back to good health.