Physiological Symptoms of Stress

person stressed while taking a test

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When the body feels overwhelmed by environmental stressors, it may respond in ways to protect itself from what appears to be threatening.

As a defense, the body produces chemical reactions that prepare it to respond in the moment,, like an increase in blood pressure, altered breathing, and muscle tension.

The body is built to undergo the reactions to stress, but when stress is chronic, it can place more pressure on the body than usual. The body can react to chronic stress in multiple ways. For example, sometimes, a person doesn't realize how stressed they are until it begins to expose itself in the form of physiological symptoms.

This article discusses some of the physiological symptoms associated with stress.

Physiological Symptoms of Stress

Below you will find a few physiological symptoms that may accompany ongoing stress.

Fatigue

Many people suffer from fatigue, which can be attributed to stress. Stress-related fatigue can stem from many factors, including too little sleep, burnout, overworking, anxiety, and anxiety.

A study found that one in every four participants experienced stress-related fatigue, which is more prevalent in women than men. The researchers also discovered that burnout due to stress-related fatigue is associated with factors like work demands, "little vacations or leisure time," and working overtime. 

In this study, fatigue was linked to social disadvantage, depression, unhealthy lifestyle behaviors such as cigarette use and obesity, as well as severe medical conditions. It affects productivity and the ability to complete tasks.

Understandably, it is difficult to get much done when you constantly feel drowsy or drained.

Reducing stress levels can help with managing fatigue. This can be done by improving sleep hygiene, changing your nightly routine, consuming a healthy diet, and exercising regularly. For example, a study found that regular physical activity helps with sleep quality and lessens fatigue.

Poor Sleep

Sleep plays an essential role in human homeostasis (i.e., stable bodily functioning).

Stress can have a significant impact on sleep quality. Insomnia related to stress may pass after a few days but can be debilitating when it is chronic. The good news is that insomnia can be managed with healthy lifestyle practices.

Mindfulness stress-reducing techniques can benefit those who experience difficulty sleeping due to stress. Researchers discovered that an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program improved sleep quality for cancer patients.

Headaches

Most people can say they get headaches occasionally, but when headaches are chronic, that could be concerning. Chronic headaches are something to check out and speak to a doctor about to ensure they aren't a sign of an underlying condition. Commonly, headaches are a cause of stress.

Stress can predispose to the onset of a headache disorder, and increase the likelihood of developing chronic headaches or exacerbating headache symptoms.

The most common headaches are tension headaches and migraines, both of which are associated with stress.  Tension headaches may feel like a tightness in the head muscles, whereas migraines can present with a variety of symptoms, including throbbing pain in one area. About one billion people suffer from migraines.

Heart Palpitations

When experiencing heart palpitations, it feels as if your heart is pounding or beating fast, somewhat like a fluttering sensation in your chest. These may be occurring because of stress.

According to researchers Berntson and Cacioppo, the association between stress and heart rate may be related to the fact that "stressors are often associated with an increase in sympathetic cardiac control, a decrease in parasympathetic control, or both." These changes in cardiac control can result in altered heart rates and the experience of heart palpitations.

Keeping a log of what you are doing when palpitations occur might be beneficial in identifying any potential stressors that might be contributing.

Abdominal Pain

Researchers believe stress's link to the gastrointestinal system is its biological interference with appetite and the digestive system's functioning. This can result in gastrointestinal (GI) issues, like gas or constipation, that causes abdominal pain and cramps. Stress can interfere with the stomach's inflammatory responses, increasing GI inflammation and altering the movement of the GI tract, triggering conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). It can also affect how the body manages acid, which is why stress can trigger acid production.

Most research on stress and abdominal pain explores this connection in children. Researchers found shared experiences of abdominal pain in children and adolescents in stressful environments, especially with IBS.

Stress is a predisposition to IBS and exacerbates symptoms. Since stress is a pertinent factor in IBS symptoms, researchers believe that reducing stress can also help manage IBS symptoms.

Muscle Pain

Everyone experiences muscle pain, especially after a workout, when overcoming an injury, or combating viral infection. However, muscle pain can also be attributed to stress. Stress can lead to chronic muscle tension, contributing to pain.

Stress can exacerbate physiological symptoms in chronic conditions of the muscles, like fibromyalgia, which is a condition that causes muscle tenderness, joint stiffness, muscle aches, and fatigue.

Weakened Immune System

When experiencing chronic stress, you may find yourself getting sick frequently. Stress can have a significant impact on the immune system's functioning. Within the past few decades, researchers have taken an interest in stress's effects on the immune system. Those with a greater degree of stress develop a weaker immune system, making them more likely to experience illnesses.

Besides the negative impact stress has on the immune system, it can also cause individuals to develop unhealthy relationships with food, sleep, physical activity, and substances like cigarettes and alcohol. These habits can further impair the immune system by decreasing its ability to defend the body from threats and increasing the chances of developing health conditions. 

Literature involving the relationship between stress and cancer discovered that the depression of the immune system that chronic stress causes can contribute to the development and progression of some types of cancers.

Medical Conditions Associated With Stress

Chronic stress has shown to be associated with a variety of medical conditions, such as those below:

How to Reduce the Effects of Stress

Many initiatives can be taken to reduce stress and manage the effect that it has on your life. Review the information provided below to gain insight into a few ways in which you can have a better handle on stress and avoid the physiological symptoms it may bring.

Lifestyle Factors

Below is a list of actions you can take to help alleviate your stress:

  • Have a balanced diet. It is essential to establish healthy dietary habits to reduce stress. Diet has a strong correlation to stress levels and mental health.
  • Exercise daily. Physical activity is essential for a healthy body. It also helps with maintaining stress levels. The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests that adults engage in 75 to 150 minutes of physical activity throughout the week.
  • Create healthy boundaries with bad habits like cigarettes and alcohol use. Overuse of unhealthy substances such as these can harm the body's immune functioning, triggering stress and health issues.
  • Get a good night's sleep. Without proper rest, it is difficult for the body to have healthy immune responses. It is beneficial to get between 7 and 8 hours of sleep a night. Consider making changes to your nightly routine, like keeping a sleep journal, limiting exposure to screens before bedtime, sleeping in a dark room, and not eating a few hours before bed. 
  • Try therapy.  Psychotherapy, like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), can be very beneficial to developing thinking and behavioral habits that can reduce stress. It can also help with determining what is possibly triggering your stress.

Self-Care

Making time for yourself can help to decrease some of the stress you may be dealing with:

  • Make time to relax. Leisure time is very important, but it can be challenging to find the time to sit back and relax throughout a chaotic day. Although it may seem impossible to take a break, especially during a hectic day, it's up to you to make it possible. Even if it's a few minutes of deep breathing, you must view leisure time as a task to check off your to-do list. Try some stress-reducing mindfulness techniques.
  • Take some time to yourself. Maybe it is time for a "you day" or even a vacation. You deserve a break every now and then from your daily routine. You can go to a spa or book a weekend trip. Either way, the goal is to make time for you.
  • Maintain a healthy work-life balance. As mentioned previously in the article, burnout due to stress is associated with being overworked, working overtime, and having little vacations or leisure time.
  • Pick up a hobby. Hobbies are very impactful to mental health and relieve stress. Whether it be stimulating the brain with a puzzle, curling up with a good book, tapping into your creative side with painting, or engaging in some physical activity like bicycle riding, hobbies help one to clear the mind and touch base with themselves.  

Social Support

Surrounding yourself with loved ones and friends can help bring positive energy to your life. Loved ones can also offer a listening ear when you need it:

  • Have an active social life. Be sure to go out and enjoy yourself now and then. Being around people you care about and who bring you joy is an excellent way to de-stress.
  • Talk with a loved one. Sometimes just "talking it out" helps manage the effect of stress. When you feel overwhelmed, you may want to consider seeking advice and comfort from someone you care for and trust. Speaking with a loved one can offer perspective as to why you are feeling more stressed lately and help you feel relief by expressing your concerns. 

A Word From Verywell

If symptoms like those mentioned above come and go, try not to jump to conclusions. Sometimes the body reacts in various ways to let you know that you might need a little bit of a break. So, it is vital to manage stress and, when you begin to experience physiological symptoms, incorporate some of the practices mentioned in this article. However, if any of these symptoms continue to persist, don't ignore them and reach out to a healthcare professional.

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