Six Physical Signs of Chronic Stress
When it comes to stress, we often think of it as a mental ailment, causing us to be irritable, panicky, overwhelmed and feeling unable to cope or out of our depth. According to CIPD’s Health and Wellbeing at Work 2019 survey, 56% of respondents cited mental ill health followed by stress, as the leading cause of long-term illness.
So what happens to our physical bodies when we are under chronic stress and are there signs to look out for? Here, Katie from Counselling Directory explores these questions and what to do if you find yourself under chronic stress.
What is chronic stress?
First let’s understand what chronic stress is. Chronic can be described as a persistent or recurring (in this case) condition that lasts for a long time, often over six months. When we are feeling stressed every day, a stress that completely consumes and overwhelm us, we can describe this as chronic stress.
Integrative counsellor Francesca Rogers MBACP (Accred) explains that although stress can be helpful in certain situations to help you feel focused and energetic, constant stress can be highly detrimental to your health. “The nervous system isn’t particularly good at differentiating between emotional or physical threats, is it onerous constant deadlines or a life-threatening situation – either way it will continue to release stress hormones and long-term this will most likely impact your health, productivity, relationships and general mood.”
Whether it’s professional stress, stress from your loved ones or outside influences, even stress that you unintentionally place on yourself, Francesca notes, “If these symptoms are not addressed properly, further health problems such as anxiety, depression, a weakened immune system and ultimately burnout, are likely.”
If you can relate to any of the symptoms below, it might be time to speak to your GP or visit a therapist in your area who can help you manage stress with coping strategies. Struggling to manage stress is a common occurrence and support for recovery is always available, and essential.
Do you ever experience…?
Frequent tension headaches are the most common type of headache and regular episodes can be a sign of both anxiety and stress. Often causing pain and stiff muscles down both sides of the neck, tension headaches can also cause tired, painful eyes. If you notice these symptoms becoming more frequent, try keeping a diary of headaches to identify the trigger. If your tension headaches are accompanied by nausea, fever and confusion, it’s important you seek medical assistance immediately.
2. Sudden digestive issues and diet changes
Often referred to as the second brain, the gut is intrinsically linked to our actual brain and when we’re under stress or feeling the pressure, symptoms such as nausea, butterflies in your stomach, a frequent need to urinate etc. won’t be uncommon. When we’re stressed, our gut mobility and fluid secretion are increased. This contributes towards the need to wee more often than not or experiencing looser stools than normal.
With stress, it’s common to have the urge to overeat or go off food completely: this can imbalance the digestive system causing you to feel nauseous, lightheaded and bloated.
Although gradually at first, you may notice the odd disrupted night sleep but this can become a regular occurrence if you are struggling to manage your stressors. A busy, pressured mind can prevent you from falling asleep, or disrupt the sleep you manage to snatch with disturbing nightmares. Both instances leave you waking up exhausted, groggy and unsettled, heightening your constant stress and leading to a negative cycle, lacking quality rest.
4. Random body aches
If you find yourself noticing odd aches and pain that you can’t put a reason to, it may be that you’re constantly tensing your muscles (muscles do this when under stress to prevent injury). Constant tension in your muscles that don’t have the time to retract and relax can lead to random points of discomfort and aches all over the body.
5. Loss of libido
When you’re in a state of chronic stress, the body secretes hormones in response to the ‘flight of fight’ feelings you are experiencing, including cortisol. High levels of cortisol can impact the sex hormones and dimish your desire for sex.
Alongside this, a stressed mind is constantly distracted with its stresses so a lack of desire to have sex, or be present when having sex, is very common.
6. Constant fatigue
A state of being extremely exhausted, constant fatigue can often be identified when an overwhelming sense of exhaustion that is no longer refreshed by sleep. Starting as regular tiredness from disturbed sleep, stress can cause this tiredness to manifest into fatigue, as the body is constantly under pressure from itself, causing undue stress of both your mental and physical states.
Whilst both mental and physical fatigue are very different, they are both likely to occur together when a person is under extreme mental stress, causing complete exhaustion.
Your recovery journey
It’s important to note that if you find yourself under chronic stress, there are things you can do immediately to help. Acknowledging your physical symptoms and identifying your stressors are the first steps in your recovery journey. Francesca says, “Ask yourself: what is happening in your life? What has changed? How do you feel right now? A simple, quick body scan, identifying your physical reactions and then connecting these to your emotions in the moment, could help soothe your nervous system and potentially reduce stress levels.”
“Practical choices include taking breaks, practising relaxation or mindfulness, following a healthy diet, regular exercise and of course talking to your support network. Human connection can help you feel emotionally supported and bring much needed relief from a feeling of being overwhelmed or isolated.”
Written by Katie from Counselling Directory, an online mental health resource offering members of the public a direct link to registered counsellors and essential mental health support services. For more information on stress, visit their dedicated stress page.