Unless you surround yourself with Tibetan monks, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone in your life — including you — that wouldn’t say they’re stressed about something. There are times when stress can be a good thing — it can help you conquer fears or motivate you to get something done. But when you’re constantly in a state of tension and anxiety, it can have an effect on your body’s physical and emotional state.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 90 percent of all illness and disease is stress-related. In honor of Mental Health Month, we encourage you to take time each day to de-stress and do something that makes you happy. Take a walk, write in a journal or pull out a paintbrush. Want more ways to get a handle on your stress levels? Catch the red flags. Here are some not-so-obvious signs that you need to relax a bit more — and how to do it.
If it seems like every week you’ve got a cough, sore throat or a fever, you might want to blame your workload and not just your sneezing coworker. “When we are under extreme pressure, our bodies secrete a stress hormone called cortisol that can help us short-term,” says Richard Colgan, MD, professor of family and community medicine at University of Maryland School of Medicine, author of Advice to the Healer. “But if you’re stressed out constantly, these hormones aren’t as helpful and can become depleted over time.” Colgan says cortisol and other hormones are components of the immune system and though they help the body cope with stress, when these hormones are withdrawn, we become more susceptible to sickness.
And the side effects don’t end there. “Stress can also slow wound healing, contribute to the reactivation of latent viruses, and increase vulnerability to viral infections,” says Keri Tuit, clinical psychologist at Yale University.
What to do: Listen to your body when you feel tired or drained and make time for rest and extra sleep. Whether you recently spent time traveling, finalizing a huge work project, or just had a lot of late dinner meetings all week, allow your body the time it needs to recover.
When you’re too overwhelmed to focus on what’s in front of you, or you can’t remember simple things like a coworker’s name, it could be a sign you’re overworked. Research has connected long-term exposure to excess amounts of cortisol to shrinking of the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center, says Tuit. Studies have shown that long-term stress stimulates growth of the proteins that might cause Alzheimer’s disease.
What to do: If you find that you’re experiencing this during the workday, taking a few long inhales and exhales can help when faced with a high-pressure situation. “Deep, even breathing not only affects whether or not our thoughts control us or we control them, but it also affects the bodily sensations that are experienced when faced with a high-stress situation,” says Tuit. This type of breathing can help control the heart rate and blood flow, as well as muscle tension, she says.
If you experience throbbing or feel pressure anywhere on the head or temple area, there’s a good chance it’s a tension or stress headache, says Dr. Colgan. Oftentimes people point to particular troubles in their life that might be causing this pain, but lifestyle might be to blame instead. Keep in mind, if your head pain feels like a “migraine headache,” “the worst headache of your life,” or a headache that wakens you from sleep, those are signs of a dangerous health problem and you should visit a doctor immediately, advises Dr. Colgan.
What to do: “When stress is the cause of your headache, the easiest thing to say is, ‘have less stress in your life,’ but that advice itself is stressful,” says Dr. Colgan. Knowing what your headache‘s coming from is helpful therapy. People oftentimes feel worse worrying and trying to figure out what the cause could be, so knowing it’s not some serious health problem may make a person feel better. “Sometimes the most effective way a doctor can treat a patient is to teach them about their symptoms,” says Dr. Colgan.
“If you find yourself waking up and worrying or ruminating over things, it could be a sign of anxiety or depression,” says Dr. Colgan. After a long day, sleep should come easy and getting into bed should finally be a time when you can shut your brain off. If you feel tired but have a difficult time falling asleep, it’s possible you have stress-related fatigue.
What to do: Talk to your doctor if this is regular occurrence. Discuss whether your chronic stress may have led to depression, says Dr. Colgan. When you’re not sleeping well, everyday annoyances might make you feel even more overwhelmed and frustrated because you’re more vulnerable. “A tired body is not well prepared to cope with stressful situations and ward off illness,” says Tuit. She suggests addressing your sleep issues by asking yourself if you’re getting six or more hours of sleep each night. If not, determine what’s interfering with that. “Cutting back on caffeinated and alcoholic beverages and increasing exercise can also improve sleep patterns,” she says.
If you’ve got knots in your shoulders, a stiff neck or your lower back cramped up after a long day of work, it could be the constant of a job or personal situation, not just the position you sit in during the day. “High levels of stress and tension create discomfort and muscle pain by tightening muscles and causing muscle spasms,” says Dr. Colgan. And stiff muscles in your neck can also lead to headaches, he says.
If your back pain developed after an accident or emotional trauma, it could also be a sign of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The National Institute of Health recommends talking to your primary doctor, as many people aren’t able to heal their back pain until they deal with the emotional stress that’s causing it.
What to do: “Many relaxation techniques can help with stress reduction, including guided imagery, taking deep breaths from the diaphragm, meditation, massages and yoga,” says Tuit. Try devoting time for stretching breaks throughout the day to help prevent muscles from tightening up, and make time for some of these yoga poses to unwind at the end of the day.
If you’re waking up with more than a few strands on your pillow, you may be suffering from alopecia areata. This is an autoimmune skin disease brought on when the body’s immune system attacks the hair follicles. It causes small round patches of hair loss on the scalp. “It’s not dangerous, but it’s likely to be associated with a severe stressor, like an assault or significant traumatic event in one’s life,” says Dr. Colgan. This disease is more likely to occur in young women or adolescent girls.
What to do: In most cases, this is typically a temporary condition and your hair will grow back once stress is minimized. But don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor about what’s going on, says Dr. Colgan. While your MD might recommend injectable scalp steroids to help with hair growth, it’s best to have an examination. The hair loss could possibly be a sign of a scalp fungal infection, a bacterial function or even a thyroid disorder.
If you’ve ever been in a meeting that dragged on for hours or didn’t get up from your desk for a bathroom break, you could be putting yourself at risk for urinary tract infections, says Dr. Colgan. “When people are under increased stress or working too hard, they sometimes put off going to the bathroom, but that’s one of the biggest risk factors for a UTI,” says Dr. Colgan, who’s also a UTI expert.
What to do: C’mon, you’re an adult! When you feel the urge to go to the bathroom, give yourself permission to take a break and go. An uncomfortable urinary infection is going to feel way worse than those few minutes you spent trying to crank out your work.
Read the full article on DailyBurn.com.
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