Stress effects on the body - I didn’t know it could sneak up on me like that!

Stress effects on the body - I didn’t know it could sneak up on me like that!

Stressed out? I thought I had it all under control. I help people manage their stress, so my own couldn’t be an issue! 

But it was.  More about all of that in a bit, as well as a surprising way to protect yourself.

Stress is a common topic. Most of us are either stressed out, trying to destress, or know someone who is struggling with their stress.  But what is stress really, what are some of the common stress effects on the body, and what can we do about it?

What is stress?

According to Merriam-Webster, stress is “a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation”. Stressful situations are a normal part of life, but our reactions to them can be modified. 

Stress effects on the body

Stress can be either acute or chronic. 

Acute stress is generally helpful. It’s a response to a threat, like jumping out of the way of a car coming at you, or slamming on the brakes if you’re a driver.  You go into “fight or flight” mode. In this situation, you will likely have a pounding heart, your breathing gets more rapid, and you’re alert and energized.  This is in response to chemical changes that happen in your body. 

Chronic (prolonged) stress on the other hand can lead to problems in every area of your life, some of them very serious ones. 

Physical

  • Muscle tension
  • Headaches
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach pain
  • Nausea
  • Change in appetite
  • Increased risk for digestive or eating disorders
  • Fatigue
  • Menstrual changes
  • Skin and issues
  • Changes in sexual drive or function
  • Sleep changes- insomnia or sleeping too much
  • Palpitations
  • Increased risk of cardiovascular disorders

Mental

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Racing thoughts
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Excessive worry
  • Forgetfulness
  • Trouble focusing
  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Pessimism or negativity

Lifestyle

  • Unhealthy choices and behaviors
    • Alcohol
    • Drugs
    • Smoking
    • Food
    • Safety
  • Procrastination

And stress, and its effects, aren’t only related to bad or unwanted things. There are lots of good things that increase stress levels too. Getting married, having a baby, and getting a new job are just a few examples.

So what can be done to decrease stress?

The Mayo Clinic offers some suggestions, and not surprisingly, most of them are things you likely already know to do, including:

  • Eating healthy foods
  • Exercising regularly
  • Make sure you’re getting enough sleep
  • Avoid tobacco and drugs
  • Limit consumption of alcohol and caffeine  
  • Relax using meditation, yoga, or breathing exercises
  • Take time for fun
  • Connect with others

A surprising thing that can be done? Changing your mindset as it relates to stress.

One of the things that I found most interesting in a neuroscience certification program I just participated in is related to our perception of stress. 

A 1998 study showed that when people report a large amount of stress AND believe that stress negatively impacts health they have a 43% increased risk of premature death. Wow! But don’t let that news stress you out.

We just saw above that stress CAN negatively impact health, so how do we change our thoughts? 

By changing how we label things to start. It is common for people to talk a lot about how stressed out they are now, as if it’s a competition.  

Minor annoyances happen to us all - but do they have to equal stress? No. 

Focus instead on what you can improve, starting with the list of stress-reducers above. So much of it is about taking care of yourself.  You can’t put your needs and your health at the bottom of the list indefinitely without it having an impact on your health and well-being. 

Back to my story

And that’s kind of what I had done. For six months I traveled back and forth from my home in Indiana to my nursing contract job in Kentucky. I worked nights, which I hadn’t done for quite a while.  I attempted to keep a lot of things running smoothly at home. I was working on new projects for my coaching practice.

And aside from all of the other parts of normal life, I also had a dear friend that was diagnosed with, and passed away from, cancer during that time.  I am so thankful for the time that I was able to have, traveling back and forth, trying to make the most of it all, but I knew it was starting to impact the way I felt. 

I had prioritized my sleep during this period, but my activity and my food choices weren’t as high on my list.  And I know how much that makes a difference for me, especially when I’m under more stress than normal.

Here are just a few things that I now realize were most likely stress-related:

  • Palpitations, at least 1-2x/day, for a few months
  • More frequent headaches
  • Increasing irritability
  • Teeth/jaw discomfort - my teeth just didn’t feel right when I chewed
  • Popping, like pressure from elevation changes, in my ears. And I had them checked with no obvious issues found.

After being home for just 2 weeks and being back into a routine with a big focus on self-care, for real this time, all of those symptoms have resolved. My labs, which are significantly worse from 8/21 - 4/22? Well, we’ll have to see if those go back to normal in a few months. 

I spend so much time

  • thinking about self-care
  • writing about self-care
  • researching self-care
  • teaching self-care
  • reminding others to focus on their own self-care 

that I forgot to actually practice it for myself

This reminds me of how I got started with my coaching practice to begin with. I was so dedicated to my job as a hospice nurse, and gave so much of myself to others, that I lost sight of what I needed, and in reality, who I even was.

I’m so grateful for the reminder that I can reset, and I love to do that by frequently asking myself, “What do I need MOST right now?” 

I’ve also started using the Body Budget Tracker, which I also learned about and adapted from my neuroscience course.  It’s a simple tool that helps with touching base with ourselves on a daily basis and will allow us to course-correct if needed. You can download a copy here

In conclusion, stress is a part of life for us all. Things happen. If it was all smooth sailing, it would also be boring. Recognizing what increases stress for us, and taking actions that help to decrease the symptoms, can help us to continue to thrive despite pressures.  

Most importantly, take time regularly to check in with yourself and see what you really need. This is the best and easiest way to turn things around before it gets out of control.

And don’t forget to check out the Body Budget Tracker for a simple approach to managing your stress.

Note: If you are feeling hopeless or have thoughts of harming yourself, reach out to a mental health professional immediately. There is no shame in seeking help for mental health issues.

References:

Stress symptoms: Effects on your body and behavior. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-symptoms/art-20050987 Accessed 5/19/2022

Stress Symptoms. Find Your Calm: Managing Stress & Anxiety. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/balance/stress-management/stress-symptoms-effects_of-stress-on-the-body Accessed 5/19/2022

Keller, Abiola et al. “Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality.” Health psychology: official journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association vol. 31,5 (2012): 677-84. doi:10.1037/a0026743 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3374921/ Accessed 5/22/22

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