The effects of stress on the body can range from temporary nuisances to long-term negative consequences. Learn what to be on the lookout for.
Juggling the demands of work with the needs of our families is just one example of the everyday stressors many of us face. Now, as we navigate daily life in a global pandemic, many of us are experiencing significantly more stress.
Stress, especially when it’s ongoing, doesn’t just take a toll on our mental health.
“Stress can manifest itself in our bodies in many ways,” says Noel Battle, MD, a family medicine physician at Keck Medicine of USC and a clinical associate professor of family medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “There are many factors — some of them are emotional, some are physical and some are related to chemicals that circulate in our nervous system.”
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Here are just some of the symptoms that stress can trigger.
1. Tense muscles
If your muscles feel tight or sore, particularly in your neck, shoulders or back, it could be from stress. You may even clench your jaw. Muscles tense up in response to stress, and if it’s ongoing, they could remain in a tightened position for too long, causing aches and pains.
Can stress cause headaches? The answer is yes. Tension headaches, the most common type of headache, are caused by a tightening of your muscles, particularly in your neck and scalp. This causes you to feel pressure or squeezing all over, in the temples or even the back of the head.
“The physical symptoms associated with stress can be as debilitating as pain from other causes,” Battle says.
3. Gastrointestinal problems
Feeling butterflies in your stomach before a performance or test is normal, but if stressful situations are ongoing, it could turn into diarrhea, constipation or upset stomach. You might also have heartburn or acid reflux.
4. Heart palpitations
Stress is a common cause of heart palpitations, which feels like your heart is beating fast, racing or skipping a beat. The exact reason why stress can cause heart palpitations isn’t clear, and there may be other factors at play, according to Battle.
“You can’t assume that stress is the cause of palpitations,” he warns. “There’s always the potential that you have an underlying medical condition. It’s important for you to speak to your doctor if you are experiencing palpitations.”
Chronic stress can also have long-term, negative effects on the heart.
“Increased stress can be associated with elevated blood pressure and coronary heart disease,” he says.
5. Missed periods
Prolonged stress can affect the reproductive system, causing irregular periods, worsening premenstrual symptoms and difficulty getting pregnant. You could even have a missed period due to stress, because your body thinks reproduction has to be put on hold in order to deal with a threat.
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6. Sleep problems
When your mind is racing, it’s no wonder it can be hard to fall or stay asleep. Not getting enough sleep will only make you feel worse and could impact your ability to function during the day. Long-term consequences of insomnia on your body include an increased risk for heart disease, diabetes and even cancer.
7. Weight gain
When we’re stressed, we often look to food for comfort. In addition, the “stress hormone” cortisol, which increases when we are stressed, can lead to overeating and cause the body to store more fat. Being stressed can also mean we don’t feel like working out, especially if we’re not getting good sleep.
If you’re experiencing any of these physical symptoms, talk to your doctor about treatment for both your physical and your mental health.
by Tina Donvito
Are you concerned about the effects of stress on your well-being? Our family medicine experts can help. If you are in the Los Angeles area, request an appointment or call (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273).