Despite what stock images want you to think, stress doesn’t always manifest in that classic ‘hands grasping clumps of hair; panicked facial expression’ way (see above).
In fact, stress symptoms don’t always present in an emotional or psychological way — often, they’ll appear in parts of your physical body you’d never expect. “As far as I’m concerned, you can’t separate the mind and the body; they’re so intricately related they directly affect each other,” says Leanne Hall, a Sydney-based clinical psychologist and mind and body expert.
The two main culprits behind these physical symptoms are the hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which tend to increase when the body is under stress. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; they can help the body deal with stressful events in the short-term. The problem arises when this increase is chronic and ongoing.
“When we’re getting around our daily activities with elevated levels of cortisol and adrenaline, that has a major physical impact as well as psychological. Our body goes into complete disarray,” Hall explains. Here are some common physical signs and symptoms of stress you might not be aware of:
1. Muscle pain
Ever been under the pump and desperately wished someone would give you a shoulder massage? That's no coincidence. According to Matthew Squires, principal physiotherapist at Physio Gym Physiotherapy, the influence of stressors often manifests as pain, tightness or rigidity - i.e. hypertonicity - in the muscular body. Yep, stress can literally be a pain in the neck.
"There's a chemical element and a biomechanical element to stress. The biomechanical element tends to be more the fatiguing of muscles and the fact that muscles are trying to hold up compromised body mechanics; the chemical element tends to lower your awareness of pain and your threshold to managing it," Squires explains. "So if you're emotionally stressed, your threshold for pain decreases, and the physical and mechanical element is more noticeable." (Post continues after gallery.)
Hypertonicity tends to appear in the weakest, or most compromised, muscles or vertebrae during periods of stress — commonly in the cervicothoracic region between the neck and the mid-back, and in the lower back.
Being able to recognise which areas of your body hold stress and emotion is crucial in managing these symptoms. Squires says stretching, or getting up and moving away from your desk at regular intervals, will help alleviate the pain. Developing an exercise-based solution with the guidance of a physiotherapist will also help you manage this issue in the long term.
Leanne Hall says your skin is affected by stress for a couple of reasons. For one, during periods of stress it's common to drink more caffeine for stimulation, or alcohol for sedation, which send toxins into the body. "Those toxins then mean the liver under pressure, and one of the main organs that helps clean our systems out is the skin. So we might notice acne or breakouts," Hall explains.
"Cortisol also activates our sympathetic nervous systems — our fight or flight response — which means our parasympathetic nervous system is depressed. That's what helps the body with digestion, restoring and conserving energy levels in the body, and it can affect the skin."
3. Sweet food cravings
Cravings for sweets and carbohydrates are common among people experiencing chronic stress, as their cells tend to be starved of energy.
"Increased cortisol can make us resistant to insulin, so it can elevate our blood sugar. If that happens chronically over a long period of time, it puts stress on our pancreas and we basically end up running around with way too much blood sugar," Hall says, adding that this can also cause inflammation in the body.
"Because our cells have been programmed to be insulin resistant, it means they're starving of energy ... what that does is send hunger signals to the brain for a quick energy fix, even if you've already eaten an hour ago." (Post continues after gallery.)
4. Gut troubles
Some people find stress plays havoc with their stomach — and we're not just talking about that fleeting, fluttery butterfly sensation. Elevated levels of cortisol can really mess with your sympathetic nervous system, thereby impairing the body's ability to absorb nutrients and digest food.
This can result in short-term gut pain or diarrhoea, and for people with Crohn's disease, IBS or coeliac disease stress can provoke flare-ups.
However, a long period of stress, and the inflammation it causes, can yield more serious impacts. "You can end up doing damage to your gut wall, which is where stomach ulcers come in and your bowel becomes affected," Hall says.
During stressful periods, she recommends cutting out any foods that are known to contribute to gut inflammation — sugar, caffeine, alcohol, high-GI foods or anything with high saturated fat.
5. Weight issues
Struggling to lose weight, despite regular exercise and a healthy diet, is a common symptom of chronic stress or adrenal fatigue.
"People with elevated stress and increased cortisol tend to have a lot of trouble losing weight, and in particular tend to gain weight around the abdominal area, which is a dangerous place to have it," Hall says. "They also tend to be chronically tired, even if they've had a good sleep the night before."
6. Blood vessel damage
Your cardiovascular system also take a hit from chronic stress, potentially increasing your risk of a heart attack.
"Cortisol restricts blood vessels and increases blood pressure; it's trying to get as much oxygen around the blood as it can," Hall says. "In the short term that's great, it prepares your body to fight — but long-term it can cause all kinds of damage to your vessels and plaque build-up in your arteries."
7. Nutritional deficiency symptoms
Some of the physical symptoms we associate with stress, like hair loss, are actually indicators of nutritional deficiencies. This can come about during stressful periods, as our diet tends to go out the window — we might eat more or less than usual, or binge on foods that lack important nutrients.
This situation is only made worse by a stressed-out body's impaired ability to absorb nutrients — which is ironic as many of these nutrients, including zinc, omega 3 and vitamin B, can help our bodies deal with stress.
"With high stress you're often lacking minerals, which can then cause things like hair loss or muscle cramps, which are a sign of a lack of magnesium," Hall explains. White spots on nails or bleeding gums can also signal deficiencies. However, Hall stresses it's important to have symptoms like these checked out by a GP, as there could be other causes that aren't related to nutrition or stress.
Have you ever experienced one of these stress symptoms?