By Amy Przeworski, PhD, Special to Everyday Health
With the hectic pace of life, it can be difficult to keep your stress to a minimum. Sometimes it’s also difficult to recognize that you’re experiencing stress or anxiety. Because of the mind-body connection between your mental health and physical health, stress or anxiety often appears physically as vague aches or pains. Here are some common physical symptoms of stress or anxiety that you may not realize are psychological in origin:
- Frequent headaches. Clenching your jaw; tensing your facial, neck, or shoulder muscles; or grinding your teeth are physical responses to stress that could cause head pain.
- Body aches or tension. When you are exposed to stress, your sympathetic nervous system activates the fight-or-flight response. Blood is then sent to major muscle groups that increase muscle tension and prepare you to fight or flee a situation. If you do not take any action, however, muscles may stay tight and become sore or painful.
- Restlessness, tapping your foot or hand. Stress or anxiety can cause this common nervous habit.
- Gastrointestinal distress. For some people, the gut may be a barometer of extreme stress, leading to diarrhea, constipation, nausea, or upset stomach.
- Acne. Stress increases levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and increased cortisol can contribute to acne.
- Eczema. Stress and anxiety increase inflammation of the skin, which can trigger or worsen eczema.
- Increased sweating. We sweat when stressed, thanks to hormones such as adrenaline, which is involved in the fight-or-flight reaction.
- Insomnia, nightmares, sleepwalking, or disturbed sleep. Chronic stress increases rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and decreases slow-wave or deep sleep, disrupting cell and body maintenance and repair.
- Frequent illnesses. Stress promotes overproduction of hormones that regulate your immune system and affects your ability to produce the white blood cells that fight infection, weakening immunity and increasing susceptibility to illness.
- Decreased interest in sex, sexual arousal problems, reduced fertility. Stress inhibits gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), the body’s main sex hormone, which can lead to reduced sperm count, ovulation, and sexual activity.
- Panic attacks. Stress causes your baseline arousal level to be higher than typical — closer to the level at which people begin to experience panic attacks — which may increase your likelihood of experiencing a panic attack.
Stress or anxiety also can affect your mood and make it more difficult to regulate emotions, causing irritability or mood swings. People who are stressed or anxious may have difficulties with concentration, decision-making, and memory, as well.
How to Know When You Need Help
If you are experiencing many of these symptoms of stress or anxiety, the following can help you reduce your stress level, as well as the accompanying symptoms:
- Mind-body practices such as mindfulness, meditation, and yoga
- Exercise like walking, running, or other aerobic physical activity
- Relaxation techniques including breathing exercises and muscle relaxation
But if your stress or anxiety is chronic and interferes with your daily life, you may have an anxiety disorder. Most people find significant improvement with professional care, and you may benefit from the assistance of a trained mental health professional. Anxiety and related disorders can be treated by a wide range of health care providers, including psychologists, psychiatrists, clinical social workers, and psychiatric nurses.
Amy Przeworski, PhD, is an assistant professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. She has been treating and researching anxiety disorders for 15 years, and has published numerous journal articles and book chapters. As a professional member of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), Dr. Przeworski raises awareness about these conditions.