Not only does stress affect your mental and emotional health, it can also cause physical symptoms. From headaches to fatigue to full-blown panic attacks, these physical signs only become worse the higher levels of stress we experience. This can also happen if we experience stress over a long period of time. The most important thing you can do is work to lower your overall stress levels through things like mindfulness and physical activity. However, when physical signs of stress rear their head, it’s also helpful to know how to cope with them in the moment. Here are 5 physical signs of stress and how to cope with each one.
5 Physical Signs of Stress (and How to Cope with Them)
Headaches are more likely to occur when you’re stressed. Tension headaches usually cause a steady ache, rather than a throbbing one, and tend to affect both sides of the head. Stress is a common trigger of tension headaches and migraines. It can also trigger other types of headaches or make them worse.
How to Cope:
- Practice relaxation techniques- even 10 minutes of meditation, deep breathing or yoga, can help reduce stress and in turn, headaches. Be sure to also make time for pleasurable activities like reading a book, walking, or playing with a pet to relax and reduce stress.
- Hot or cold showers- this can relieve tension headaches. You may also want to try resting in a dark, quiet room with a warm or cool cloth over your head.
- Practice good posture- when working, walking, reading and doing other activities. Poor posture can make headaches worse since slouching builds pressure in the neck muscles and head.
2. Upset Stomach
When you’re stressed, your nervous system sends signals to the gut and intestine, triggering the muscles involved in digestion to go into a “fight or flight” response. This can cause a number of gastrointestinal issues, including indigestion, stomach cramps, diarrhea, nausea, and constipation.
How to cope:
- Avoid drinking caffeine (especially coffee)- not only can caffeine make you feel more anxious, it also stimulates the bowels, worsening bowel symptoms.
- Find space to relax- step aside to clear your head and try to release some stress. If talking to a friend or loved one helps you to mitigate stress, try to do so at this time.
- Practice mindfulness- mental exercises and breath work can help you manage the stress that causes an upset stomach. Deep breaths can be especially helpful.
3. Panic Attacks
During a panic attack, you may feel a pounding, racing heart, sweating or trembling, nausea, chest pain, and trouble breathing. Symptoms can build up very quickly and you may feel afraid that you’re going to faint, have a heart attack, or even die. If you feel a panic attack come on, there are number of helpful things you can do.
How to cope:
- Focus on your breathing- close your eyes and focus on your breath. Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose, and breathe out slowly and gently through your mouth. You may find it helpful to count to five as you breathe in.
- Engage your senses- focusing on something physical in your environment can help ground you. For example, chewing on a piece of gum, touching a soft blanket, or focusing on a certain object.
- Repeat a mantra- a mantra is a phrase or word that can help with focus and reduce feelings of stress and panic. It can be as simple as “I’m okay, I’m safe”. Focus on repeating the mantra until you feel the panic ease.
Fatigue is a chronic feeling of lack of motivation or energy. Prolonged stress can cause chronic fatigue and disruptions in sleep, which typically result in lower energy levels. The impact of stress on your body can cause it to feel overly tired- it’s a mental and physical exhaustion caused by worrying or difficulty coping with a situation in your life.
How to cope:
- Exercise- while building the motivation to exercise is tough when you feel fatigued, it’s one of the best things you can do for your body and mind. Regular physical activity can help you cope with stress, and also gives you a burst of energy and feel-good endorphins.
- Hydrate- drinking plenty of water can help keep your energy levels up. Dehydration contributes to fatigue and has also been shown to decrease alertness and concentration.
- Eat right- focus on eating a well-balanced diet to help you feel more energized. Eat whole, nutrient-rich foods that will help increase feelings of well-being, and stay away from processed, fast foods that make you feel gross and sluggish.
5. Insomnia and Sleep Issues
Stress and sleep problems often go hand in hand. When you’re stressed, you excessively think about responsibilities like work, family, and finances. When you try to sleep, the thoughts continue and cause disruptions in your sleep patterns. It can prolong the amount of time it takes for you to fall asleep, in turn triggering your body’s stress response system. This leads to a rise in stress hormones, specifically cortisol, which further disrupts sleep.
How to cope:
- Try relaxation techniques before bed- take a bath, read a book, do light yoga, or meditation. These things can help relax you and get your mind into a sleepy state.
- Go device-free- turn off electronics one to two hours before bed. Screen time can seriously disrupt the melatonin surge needed to fall asleep, and the blue light from your screens can keep you awake and alert.
- Keep a consistent sleep schedule- sleep the same hours on weekdays and weekends to get your body into a routine.
If your high stress levels are causing physical symptoms, it’s time to step up your self care game and get your body back in check.
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