6 surprising physical reactions to stress

Woman sitting at desk showing physical symptoms of stress headache

Many of us have become accustomed to being (at least a little bit) stressed. When your mind is constantly occupied by thoughts of Did I?’s What Ifs, and Should I?’s, stress can just start to feel like a part of daily life. So much so, in fact, that many of us might not realize just how stressed we are.

Sleepless nights, recurring headaches and the occasional twitchy eye are some common physical reactions to stress. But you might be surprised to learn that your body can also have some other unexpected (and odd) reactions to stress, including:

  • An upset stomach: Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and constipation can all be side effects of stress. Chronic stress might also lead to issues like irritable bowel syndrome or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Jaw or neck pain: Headaches are a common side effect of stress but, in cases of severe stress, you might also notice neck or jaw pain.
  • A weaker immune system: When we’re stressed, it’s harder for our body to fight off infection. As a result, you might find yourself more susceptible to a cold or the flu and it could worsen the symptoms of autoimmune diseases like celiac disease, lupus, Graves’ disease and rheumatoid arthritis. It might also take longer for bruises, cuts or scrapes to heal.
  • Chest pain: Chest pain is one of those symptoms that you shouldn’t ignore but, if it happens to you, note whether or not it could be a result of stress. If, for example, you’re walking into a big presentation, your chest pain could be attributed to stress. If your pain persists, feels sharp or stabbing in nature, or is accompanied by shortness of breath, jaw pain or lightheadedness, seek emergency medical attention. 
  • Itchy, irritated skin: Stress can worsen skin conditions like rosacea, psoriasis and eczema but it can also lead to hives and itchiness, sweating and flare-ups of canker sores. Hair loss and acne can also be caused by stress.
  • Trouble getting pregnant: A stressful week or two likely won’t affect your fertility in the long run but chronic stress has been linked to problems with fertility in women and men. Stress can also cause women to have a late menstrual cycle or skip it altogether.  

The way to manage these symptoms is, of course, to manage your stress. While some days are bound to be more stressful than others, there’s a few things that you can do to help keep stress in check and maintain good health:

  • Eat a nutritious diet. In times of stress, don’t reach for highly-processed foods; look for protein and healthy fats.
  • Exercise regularly. During a stressful day, carve out 10 minutes for a walk or to lift some light weights.
  • Talk to someone. A friend, a colleague, a partner, a therapist…finding someone to vent to can help.
  • Listen to music, read a book, practice mindfulness—anything that helps you unwind!

And, finally, don’t let debilitating stress become part of daily life. If you notice any of these physical reactions to stress or are feeling more irritable or depressed as a result of your stress, make an appointment with your primary care provider. Stress isn’t something you have to live with and, just like anything else, your doctor can help you navigate how to treat it effectively. 

Main Line Health serves patients at hospitals and health centers throughout the western suburbs of Philadelphia. To schedule an appointment with a specialist at Main Line Health, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (225.5654).

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