In this day and age, we are always “on.” Especially as women, we’re doing it all (whatever “it all” means): making time for loved ones, working full time, creating side hustles, and keeping up an Instagram presence while we’re at it. As our schedules get busier and our mental health lowers in the list of priorities, chronic stress just feels … normal.
There’s a lot of buzz about lowering stress for the sake of mental health (any good millennial knows how to meditate!), but there’s more and more research to suggest that stress is toxic for your physical health too. Chronic stress is even associated with chronic disease since it can trigger inflammation and hormone imbalance, but this also means that we can physically see stress symptoms in our bodies.
Here’s the lesson that changed my life: your body is always communicating with you. The secret to achieving optimal health is really no secret at all. It’s simply learning how to listen when your body is trying to tell you something. Here are seven ways your body might be trying to tell you you’re stressed and what to do about them.
1. You have neck and/or shoulder tension
One of the most common signs of stress is tension in the neck or shoulders. Muscles between the shoulders and forehead are sometimes referred to as the “tension triangle” because these muscles react the most to psychological pressure. When feeling mental stress, we often hold that tension by raising the shoulders or clenching the jaw without even realizing it. You might feel tightness and stiffness in your upper back and neck, or you might get tension headaches that are a result of muscle tension in the area.
2. It’s hard to focus
Stress can affect every aspect of our mental health, leading to irritability, brain fog, decision fatigue, and lack of concentration. Chronic stress floods our nervous system with cortisol and adrenaline that can inhibit cognitive functions, meaning your brain might feel too overwhelmed to focus. While short-term cortisol and adrenaline can be good for focus (like when giving a speech or playing a sport), chronic stress can negatively affect the way the brain functions. If you are finding it hard to focus on tasks or feel too overwhelmed to concentrate on projects at work, stress might be affecting your brain.
3. You’ve been losing hair
If you notice more strands of hair are coming out in the shower than usual or you’re seeing small patches and slight hair thinning, it might be chronic stress. Significant stress can push hair follicles into a resting phase, causing hair to fall out and not be able to grow back. Also, since stress can affect digestion, that means it can affect your body’s ability to absorb nutrients. Since hair is a non-essential tissue (though our good hair days beg to differ!), it is often one of the first things to suffer when lacking nutrients.
4. Your eating patterns have changed
The gut-brain connection is real, people! Depending on factors like your body type and hormones, you could be eating more or less whenever you’re stressed. The stress hormone glucocorticoid stimulates appetite, and cortisol can make you crave sugary or fatty foods since your brain wants more fuel to fight whatever threat is causing the stress (that caveman intuition is strong!). However, stress can also distract some people from hunger queues or cause stress-related digestive issues that prevent hunger (more on that below).
5. You get an upset stomach for no reason
Having your stomach in knots is a very real phenomenon when you’re nervous, anxious, or stressed. Stress can threaten the gut’s lining, which creates a pathway for toxins to pass through and feeds bad bacteria instead of good bacteria. The fight-or-flight response triggered by cortisol also shuts down the digestive system. It’s simple biology: if you had to run from a tiger, your digestive system would need to stop in order to exert more energy into running.
6. It’s hard to fall asleep or stay asleep through the night
When the adrenals are overstimulated from chronic stress, cortisol levels become imbalanced. The healthy body should be producing some cortisol in the morning to boost energy and lowering cortisol levels at night to fall asleep. If you’re tired in the mornings and awake at night, it means cortisol levels are imbalanced. In other words, chronic stress is affecting your sleep.
7. You’ve been diagnosed with other illnesses
Chronic stress is one of the main triggers of inflammation. Put simply, inflammation is how our bodies heal injuries and the body’s defense against foreign invaders like toxins. However, when inflammation doesn’t leave (like on account of chronic stress), it can attack the body. Whether you’re suffering from allergies, IBS, cystic acne, or any other sign of inflammation in the body, don’t underestimate the role stress might be playing in your overall health.
So how do you lower stress?
1. Get enough sleep
While stress can make it difficult to get quality sleep, quality sleep can lower stress. It’s an ironic cycle, isn’t it? Set yourself up for sleep success by aiming for at least seven hours of sleep, going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, and cultivating a nighttime routine that relaxes you.
2. Move your body
Exercise releases endorphins, or the happy hormone, which can help balance cortisol in the body. Make sure you’re fitting in enjoyable movement regularly to get the long-term benefits. Try yoga, dance, weight training, or walking for an activity that you will enjoy and look forward to.
3. Try adaptogens
Dr. Brenda Powell, the co-medical director of the Center for Integrative and Lifestyle Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute, explains, “when you take adaptogens, you’re training your body to handle the effects of stress.” As with any other food or supplement you’re ingesting in your body, it’s always best to talk to your doctor before adding in adaptogens. If they are right for you, these natural herbs used in ancient medical practices could seriously help lower stress.
Especially if you’re having difficulty concentrating, meditation improves focus. Beyond just mental benefits, meditation can lower stress in the body. While meditation can be a quick fix for immediate stress relief and helping your mind and body relax, a routine meditation practice can help you build resilience to stress for long-term benefits. For how to start a meditation practice, click here. If you think meditation is not for you, click here.
5. Eat the right foods
Eating foods that help fight inflammation can decrease the effects of stress on your body. Try adding leafy greens, berries (blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, etc.), and omega-3 fatty acids (found in foods like chia seeds, walnuts, and salmon). Certain foods have also been shown to lower stress in the body. Try yogurt, fermented foods, avocados, and asparagus to fight stress.