21 sneaky signs you're stressed — even if you think you aren't
- As our lifestyles get busier and busier, being under constant stress can start to feel normal.
- Being stressed is often given a badge of honour, but it can really mess with your mental and physical health.
- There are several telltale signs you're simply under too much stress and you may not even realise it.
In our "always-on" culture, being in a perpetual state of stress can start to feel normal for many of us. As our schedules get busier and busier, we adjust to a more hectic lifestyle without even realising that we seriously need to slow the heck down.
You may not feel frazzled, but there's a good chance there are some subtle ways your body is telling you that you're stressed, and they can impact you both mentally and physically.
It's scary but true: there are plenty of silent signs stress is making you sick, or just messing with your well-being in ways you aren't fully aware of.
Here are some telltale signs that stress is messing with you, even if you feel perfectly fine.
1. You've got jaw or tooth pain.
If you've been noticing soreness or pain in your jaw or teeth, you might be under some pretty intense stress. Grinding your teeth, known as bruxism, is something you may be doing whether you realise it or not - many of us do it in our sleep, which can lead to serious pain during waking hours.
Check with your dentist to ensure that the problem doesn't get worse over time.
2. Your memory is shot.
As our schedules get more and more packed, it's easy to brush off issues with our memory or forgetfulness, but it's often a clear sign of a bigger problem: you're too stressed.
Whether you're finding it hard to focus, or you're forgetting things that once came easily to you, you might be flat-out frazzled. Paying attention to your train of thought (or lack thereof) can help determine if you've got too much on your plate, and whether you need to seriously scale back.
3. Your period is out of whack.
For many people who menstruate, irregular periods can feel like the norm - after all, periods are known for being unpredictable. But sudden changes in your cycle can indicate that you're enduring too much stress, and you should pay attention.
By tracking your physical and emotional symptoms each month, you'll know if your periods come late or are suddenly absent, a surefire sign that you could be dealing with sneaky emotional stressors.
4. You're facing digestive issues.
You may not think that your stomach and your brain have much in common, but it turns out that digestive health is very closely linked to your stress levels, giving a cornucopia of unpleasant side effects including heartburn, diarrhoea, or constipation.
Deborah Rhodes, MD, a Mayo Clinic internal medicine physician, told Parents.com that stress can up your body's production of digestive acids.
"Anxiety and stress can cause the body to produce more digestive acid, which leads to heartburn," Rhodes said. "They can also slow the emptying of food from the stomach, which causes gas and bloating, and may even increase the number of times your colon contracts, leading to cramping and diarrhoea."
5. You can't drink enough water.
If you find yourself heading to the water cooler more often and can't figure out why, you could be dehydrated thanks to too much stress.
Dr. Robert Kominiarek, DO, a family physician in Springboro, Ohio, explained to The Huffington Post in 2014 that stress causes your body to "pump out" those stress hormones, causing your adrenal glands to be overworked and fatigued.
The adrenal glands are also in charge of producing a hormone called aldosterone, which helps regulate your body's levels of fluid and electrolytes. "A"s adrenal fatigue progresses, your body's production of aldosterone drops, triggering dehydration and low electrolyte levels," according to Dr. Kominiarek.
So while upping your H2O intake will help in the short-term, it's still a chronic problem that needs to be addressed.
6. Your muscles are sore and tense.
When you're under a ton of stress, your muscles respond by involuntarily tensing up, which can lead to a lot of body pain in time. When your body is constantly in "fight-or-flight" mode, it produces excess cortisol, a stress hormone.
So, the same way you might have soreness from teeth grinding, you could battle a host of other aches and pains, including back and neck pain. Regular massage helps, but figuring out ways to reduce the amount of stress in your life is the most surefire way to get back to fighting shape.
7. You're sleeping too much - or not at all.
If you're under a lot of stress, the first thing to go is a solid night's sleep, and it makes sense why: You end up taking any daytime anxieties or worries with you to bed, and your brain knows just how to bring them back up when you should be getting the sleep you need.
So if it's hard to fall asleep at night, it's pretty obvious that it could be due to stress. But what about if you're sleeping too much? That could also be a sign that you're dealing with something bigger.
If you suddenly want to stay in bed all day, or if you find it downright impossible to get out of bed in the mornings lately, you might be experiencing signs of depression, which can be linked to excess stress. Check in with your doctor, who can help figure out what's going on and get you back to feeling like yourself again.
8. You're having weird dreams.
Sound sleepers rarely report remembering their dreams, and there's a solid reason why: the less stimuli your brain is responding to at night, the less you'll be able to recall your dreams. So if you find yourself waking up with vivid or otherwise bad dreams, your brain might be subconsciously working through things you haven't yet dealt with during daytime hours.
If you're having crazy dreams, Robert S. Rosenberg, doctor of osteopathic medicine, board-certified sleep medicine specialist, explained why in a 2016 interview with Women's Health magazine. He said, "It's during REM sleep that we believe most emotional modification takes place," which means your brain might be managing negative or stressful emotions while you're just trying to get your z's.
9. Making decisions big and small is a challenge.
Whether you're deciding what to have for lunch or whether to make a life-altering change, like applying for a new job, being under extreme stress can cause your brain to act in weird - but subtle - ways. You might think nothing of your inability to make small decisions throughout your day, but a 2012 article published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, showed that stress changes how people make decisions … and it might not be in the way you'd think.
Stress may make you focus on more positive outcomes, according to the researchers. They found that people might try to block out any negative outcomes when they're already feeling stressed, which sounds great until you take a new job offer without thoughtfully considering the impact on your daily commute, or something similar.
The researchers discovered that "stress seems to help people learn from positive feedback and impairs their learning from negative feedback," which might be your brain's way of protecting you from stress overload.
10. Your head is constantly throbbing.
We already told you that carrying around too much stress leads to tense muscles, and that radiates from head to toe … literally. Tension headaches and migraines are a common, yet painful, side effect of stress, but sufferers may not even realise that they're linked, especially if they're predisposed to headaches already.
If you're battling more headaches or migraines than is normal for you, or you're experiencing new headaches altogether, it might be that your body is sending a subtle message that you're too stressed… which is not good.
11. You're experiencing appetite or weight changes.
When we're stressed, it often shows most clearly in our appetites. And over time, this can lead to weight changes in either direction.
According to Reader's Digest, "Two-thirds of people eat more under stress, while the rest eat less. The stress hormone glucocorticoid stimulates appetite, and it can take hours to clear the bloodstream, prompting emotionally charged overeating when we're stressed."
You may not even realise that you're suddenly finding less time to eat, or conversely, that you're "stress eating," but as mentioned earlier, our digestive systems are so closely linked with our mental health, that it's no surprise how our appetite can be inextricably linked to our stress levels.
12. You're feeling edgy and irritable.
Let's face it: Too much stress is downright unpleasant, so it's not a secret why you might feel extra edgy or snippy. It's all thanks to our wiring and evolution, so when our bodies are under stress, our brains react by going into "survival mode," according to Reader's Digest, who notes that "stress is closely related to fear." Being in that "fight or flight mode" too often can make our emotions, especially negative ones, heightened.
Thanks to evolution, being ready and able to fight off predators helped us survive. But according to the magazine, "This is quite true if you're faced with a grizzly bear," but given that most of us don't face the threat of attack from wild animals these days, "Our plunge into an edgy emotional state is one of the signs you're stressed over an imagined threat that doesn't exist." Yikes.
13. You're finding less enjoyment in the fun things.
If suddenly you're finding less enjoyment, or even downright dreading, things that normally make you happy (say, a dinner out with friends or your favourite physical activity), it might be a sign that you've got too much on your plate. This is because stress seriously messes with your hormones.
According to Reader's Digest, "During high-stress situations, interactions between a stress hormone called adrenal glucocorticoid and serotonin receptors in the brain interfere with our ability to experience pleasure and remain motivated. Serotonin levels that are consistently off-balance produce the brain chemistry that leads to depression."
If you find yourself withdrawing socially, or avoiding activities or, really, anything that once gave you joy, you should speak with your doctor or a licensed counsellor or therapist that you trust.
14. Your sweat glands are on overdrive.
There's a reason why we sweat when we're stressed and it's actually not the same than why we perspire when we're hot or physically exerting ourselves.
According to The Wall Street Journal, "Stress sweat is triggered by the same hormones [as sweat from being overheated], mainly adrenaline, that prompt us to react quickly when faced with a threatening situation."
"It's highly tied to the fight or flight response," George Preti, a faculty member at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, a scientific research institution in Philadelphia, told the Journal. So if your body is regularly feeling those spikes in adrenaline, it might respond by way of overactive sweat glands, which can be localised to particular points, like the armpits, hands, or feet, or all-over perspiration.
If excess perspiration (known as hyperhidrosis) is bothering you, you can visit a dermatologist or your doctor to explore treatment options, including prescription antiperspirants, Botox injections, or medication options to help slow your sweat glands down.
15. You're taking up risky vices.
Lots of us have a cocktail at the end of a long week, or a glass of wine at night to unwind, but when you find yourself relying on alcohol, drugs, or other substances to relieve pressure, you could be heading into potentially dangerous territory.
Substances should never be your go-to way of handling stress, so you should find healthy techniques to help you cope with stress, such as listening to music or podcasts, reading, or meditating.
16. Easy tasks suddenly feel impossible.
When you're chronically stressed, even simple things like routine household tasks or phone calls can feel like you're climbing a mountain. You can blame those stress hormones kicking into overdrive, according to Reader's Digest.
"Stress hormones spike the brain chemical dopamine, which can create a decline in cognitive performance. One of the signs you're stressed is that even easy tasks (say, juggling the laundry, emptying the dishwasher, and signing kids' permission slips) feel difficult to manage," according to the magazine.
And when your brain is on overload as is, your brain resorts to old behaviours, which may not be productive for your current-day self.
17. You're finding new problems in an otherwise happy relationship.
If stress is making you extra snippy, it's no surprise why you might find yourself being short with your significant other, as those closest to us often bear the emotional burden when we're not doing so well.
Stress can have many detrimental impacts to your relationship, and they're often subtle, so you might not even realise that they're happening. If you find yourself picking fights for no reason, glazing over when they tell you a story, looking at your phone instead of connecting with them, or even distancing yourself from your partner, you might just be burnt out in general.
18. You're finding excess hair in your drain or brush.
We all shed hair every single day - it's a totally normal part of the hair growth process. But what if you start losing more hair than you're used to, finding more strands in your brush, down the drain, or all over your clothes?
Stress and hair loss are linked in three ways: one, called Telogen effluvium, is when the hair follicle is pushed out prematurely before completing a full growth cycle, resulting in excess shedding. Alopecia areata is systematic hair loss in which your immune system is actually attacking your hair follicles, causing them to fall out.
Trichotillomania is a disorder in which someone pulls or picks out their own hair, which is often exacerbated by high levels of stress or anxiety. It's a body-focused repetitive disorder closely linked to obsessive compulsive disorder.
19. You're breaking out into hives.
One surefire way to know if you're constantly too frazzled is if you develop a "stress rash," which can be hives or welts that tend to be itchy or painful, but aren't always.
If your skin is suddenly freaking out, and you're noticing red spots or patches, your body might be dealing with stress by giving you hives or a rash, which can be made worse for people who have skin conditions like psoriasis or rosacea.
20. Your sex drive has taken a dip.
When we're under a lot of stress, one of the first things to go is sex, even though sex is a proven stress reducer.
If you find yourself wanting sex less often than is normal for you, it could be due to a spike in cortisol, that pesky stress hormone. A low sex drive is often a result of stress, so if your sex drive is lagging, you'll want to check in with yourself and your partner about how you can reduce your stress levels.
21. You can't ward off colds as easily.
Stress does a number on our immune systems, making you more likely to get sick. And then once you are sick, you'll have a harder time fighting off the infection.
As Jan Kiecolt-Glaser, a psychologist at the Ohio State University College of Medicine, told The Washington Post in 2014, "hormones biologically express our emotions," so "if stress is chronic every day, pumping out hormones without any escaping or fighting, then it's not good for your immune system."
When those hormones are released into our bodies, our immune systems become suppressed, making us more susceptible to illness. If you're battling colds more often, it could be your body's way of telling you that something's up.
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