The Subtle & Sneaky Ways Stress Manifests Itself Physically

stress
PHOTO: MARIA DOROTA / GETTY IMAGES

Earlier this year, I thought I had no real problems to speak of: I liked my job, my social life, my new city. There was only one thing wrong: I couldn’t sleep. No matter what I did, I’d wake up over and over to horrific nightmares, an aching jaw, and a headache. I couldn’t figure out what on Earth was wrong — I felt happy when I was awake, so why couldn’t I sleep?

Then one day I looked in the mirror and noticed that something else was wrong, too. My entire back was riddled with acne and acne scars, something I haven't experienced since I was a teenager. Something clicked, and it dawned on me:

Girl, you are stressed OUT. 

Apparently, feeling consciously happy and being stressed aren’t mutually exclusive. And, apparently, your body will show you that you’re stressed, even if you’re not aware of it.

Everyone’s body manifests stress in different ways. My body kept me awake and exploded into zits. Your body may twitch randomly, develop rashes, or shed its own hair. You may feel exhausted and unable to eat, or constantly awake and ravenous. Often, the symptoms involve a persistent ache somewhere — our jaws, our heads, our stomachs, our backs. It makes sense — that a body holding onto excess tension begins to clench in a way that can’t be loosened.

Some of these symptoms are impossible not to notice. A sudden bald patch will send any young woman running to the doctor, trying to figure out what’s wrong. A long bout of insomnia will ruin even the happiest of people. But even when we see the signs, we don’t necessarily understand them. We assume that something else must be wrong, like malnutrition, a bad mattress, or a disease. Stress seems like an unlikely culprit because it’s so common. To be alive on Earth in 2018 is to be stressed. It’s easy to diminish how much chronic stress can impact our lives — not just by making us feel bad, but also by changing the bodies we live in.

Underneath the red flags our bodies fly high to tell us that we’re too stressed, other more insidious physical effects are taking place. Stress is a physical experience, after all; it changes your heart rate and sends out hormones that put the body into an inflamed state. It's an evolutionary adaptation that is meant to help us survive life-or-death situations; it's not meant to be sustained long-term, and when it does, terrible things can happen.

Chronic stress can actually change your brain, damaging the part responsible for memory. It can turn certain genes on and off. It reduces the capacity of your immune system to heal your body. It increases your likelihood of developing heart disease, osteoporosis, autoimmune diseases, allergies, and cancer. It affects how quickly your cells age. Sudden stress may even cause heart attacks in people who are predisposed to heart problems. 

It may be common, but being stressed out constantly is not a joke, and it shouldn’t be taken lightly.

The daily symptoms of stress, like insomnia or hair loss, are noticeable and unpleasant because they're trying to tell us something. They’re saying "slow down and pay attention!" They’re begging us to take care of ourselves. Often, the causes of our stress are life circumstances — jobs, kids, living situations, romantic partners. They’re things that we’ve purposefully avoided thinking about, because they’re difficult to change. So when our bodies start sending up red flags, we feel confused. Everything’s fine.

You owe it to yourself to admit that everything is not fine. The strange physical manifestations of stress are all the proof that you need — trust them. 

If you’re not sure what the problem is, start by paying attention to your body throughout the day. How does it feel? What’s going on in the moment that might make it feel that way? What are you thinking about, where are you, who are you with? 

Keep in mind that, for some of us, stressful childhoods mean that we will always be predisposed to acute and chronic stress, no matter what's going on in our lives. That makes it especially important to pay attention to the signs and proactively increase the amount of chill in your life.

Even if you can’t address every issue right away, you can take other steps to tackle the stress head-on and mediate the impact that it has on your body and mind.

How do you do that? You take the advice that you’ve probably heard a million times before: Eat well, exercise, take rest breaks, ask for help. I know, I know, it sounds so simple. All of these things become a million times harder when you’re already chronically stressed; in fact, stress may be directly affecting your ability to eat or sleep. 

But these simple items deserve your serious attention and effort, even if it's just one thing at a time. Try not to turn relaxation into yet another thing to stress about, and don’t forget the last item on the list: Ask for help. Ask your friends, your family, and/or a professional if you need to.

When all else fails, pause what you're doing and take a deep, long breath. This era doesn't have to last forever; most things don't. Managing stress is all about taking care of your body and mind enough that you can deal with the life circumstances that are causing this issue in the first place. 

Our bodies speak a language that is loud and clear, and honestly? It's a beautiful thing! Without my insomnia and skin problems, I would have never realized that I was, actually, suffering daily. Instead, I was able to tackle the thing that was causing the stress reaction. Like magic, I was able to sleep through the night again, and my skin cleared up. More importantly, I took a step toward long-term health.

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KIM WONG-SHING

Kim Wong-Shing is a writer, lipstick junkie and plant mama in New Orleans. She was born in Philadelphia and attended Brown University.

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