Updated: Mar 16
Have you ever noticed that when describing the feeling of stress, we often use phrases related to the physical body?
“That was such a headache!”
“My stomach was churning the whole time!”
“I need a nap after that.”
We tend to describe stress as painful, aching, or exhausting. Does it just feel that way when we face a problem, or can stress really give you a headache?
The short answer is YES 100%, stress can have many physical effects on the body. So that tension headache you feel at the end of the workday, or the upset stomach that makes it difficult to focus, could be due to stress. This can lead to a range of physical symptoms, from headaches to stomach aches and even the flu. Here’s how stress affects the body, and three physical symptoms of stress you may encounter in your daily life.
What Does Stress Do to the Body?
While we often treat stress only as an “emotion” (and it certainly does affect the mind!), stress causes a very real physical response in the body as well.
When you feel stress, your body releases a combination of hormones — including adrenaline and cortisol — that trigger the “fight or flight” response. This causes your heart to pump faster, your breathing to quicken or become shallow, and your muscles to tense in preparation to take action. (Sound familiar to any other busy professionals out there?)
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Your body is doing what it’s built to do in a life-threatening situation. In an emergency, the effects of stress on the body are very helpful. You need your breath to quicken, heart rate to increase, and blood to rush to your most important muscle groups so that you’re prepared to flee or fight off a threat. These hormones also suppress some bodily functions, such as the immune system and digestive system. In a life-or-death situation, you need all of your energy to run or fight, so the body temporarily slows or completely stops other functions.
All of this is great — when you need to run or fight.
But how many problems do you face that require you to actually sprint?
In our modern lifestyles, stress comes from intangible sources such as client emails, a big presentation, bills, life events, relationships, or a traffic jam. Although these sources of stress are quite different, the body still reacts the same way.
When the body’s physical stress response fires continually over time, this is called chronic stress and it can have a significant impact on your physical health. Here are three common areas of the body where chronic stress symptoms show up.
Stress and Headaches
Stress can give you a headache, particularly if you experience chronic stress on a regular basis and don’t have systems in place to relieve your stress.
Tension headaches are the most common type of headache (more than one-third of adults have experienced these!) and they are thought to be triggered directly by stress. If you’re feeling pressure or tenderness around your forehead or scalp, you may be experiencing a tension headache. This can also feel like a dull pain throughout your entire head.
There is also a strong connection between stress and migraine headaches. A migraine usually results in severe pain on one side of the head, and may be accompanied by nausea or high sensitivity to light and sound. According to the American Migraine Foundation, about half of migraine patients also have anxiety. While anxiety alone may not be enough to cause a migraine, feeling stress and anxiety on a regular basis can trigger or worsen the pain for people who are already prone to migraines.
Stress and Your Immune System
While stress cannot directly give you the flu or COVID-19, it can leave your body susceptible to catching viruses that you would normally be able to fight off. If you find yourself having more frequent cold symptoms such as a runny nose, sneezing, or congestion, these may be related to chronic stress.
The stress hormone cortisol works to suppress regular functions of the body, like your immune system. In a life-or-death emergency, this allows your body to focus all of its energy on immediate survival actions (like running) rather than long-term actions (like fending off the sniffles).
Experiencing chronic stress results in a buildup of cortisol in your blood, which not only increases inflammation, but also reduces the white blood cells that normally help to fight off infection. This leaves your body more vulnerable to catching an illness like a cold or other viruses.
Stress and Your Digestive System
If you were in a life-threatening situation, you would want all of your energy dedicated to your immediate survival, right? The issue is that your body can’t tell the difference between a saber tooth tiger chasing you, and a fire drill call from your boss. Digestion is one of the functions that doesn’t make the cut as “necessary” in a life or death situation. Just as stress hormones suppress the immune system, they also suppress your digestive system.
If you experience chronic stress day after day, this can have a lasting impact on your digestive health. Stress can interrupt the signals that your brain sends to your gut, which may result in stomach pain, bloating, or discomfort. Stress and anxiety can trigger (or worsen) painful muscle spasms or cramps in the bowels, abdominal region, or the esophagus. Because the stress response impacts how quickly food moves through the digestive system, chronic stress can also cause diarrhea or constipation. Stress particularly impacts people who already have gastrointestinal conditions, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome or Inflammatory Bowel Disease.
If you are experiencing any of the physical symptoms above, you should always talk to your doctor to get a professional opinion. You can also take steps on your own to help reduce and take control of the stress that comes up in your day-to-day life. You may be surprised how stress management can positively impact your physical health.
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