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6 Ways to Know Your Stress Has Gone Too Far

Stress is our body’s way of telling us that something’s not quite right. It’s what triggers the “fight or flight” instinct that we share with most other species on the planet, and it’s also responsible for that sweaty palms and racing heart feeling you get when faced with a challenging situation such as a job interview or meeting a new person. 

These acute episodes of stress are a normal part of life. Chronic stress, on the other hand, can have some serious negative effects on your entire body and can even manifest itself in physical ailments. Be on the lookout for these six signs of unhealthy stress levels, and take steps to reduce and manage stress for a happier and healthier body, mind, and outlook.

1. Headaches and Migraines

Stress is the most common cause of tension headaches, and it is also a common trigger for migraines (Mayo Clinic). If you’re constantly battling head or neck pain, don’t simply write it off as “normal.” It’s never a good idea to ignore the signals that our bodies are trying to give us. 

Instead of reaching for over-the-counter pain medication throughout the day, consider adopting some healthy habits to reduce stress and eliminate the root cause of your headaches. These can include things like taking a “time out” to deeply breathe when you begin to feel overwhelmed, getting regular exercise, and eating a balanced diet.

2. Unexplained Weight Loss or Gain

If your exercise and eating habits haven’t drastically changed, yet you’re noticing significant fluctuations in your weight, chronic stress could be the culprit. Stress releases the hormone cortisol, which has been linked with a tendency to overeat as a response to what the body has deemed a “crisis” situation. If your body is under chronic stress, this habit of overeating the sugary and fatty foods that you’re now craving can lead to seemingly unexplained weight gain (American Journal of Epidemiology).

On the other hand, some people lose weight while experiencing a major life event such as having a new baby, starting a new job, or losing a loved one. This is because these events can trigger anxiety, which may kick thyroid hormones into overdrive, resulting in rapid weight loss (NHS UK).

3. Poor Skin Condition

It never fails, as soon as you have an important event coming up, your skin suddenly breaks out. This is because the cortisol that is triggered by stress can increase inflammation and reduce the barrier function of your skin, making it less effective at keeping bacteria out and vital nutrients and moisture locked in (Inflammation and Allergy Drug Targets). This is the perfect setup for acne, which is caused when the bacteria P. acnes becomes trapped and multiplies inside pores. 

4. Poor Sleep Quality

Losing sleep over stressful thoughts and worries is a common symptom of chronic stress, but this can turn into a vicious cycle if you’re not careful. When you’re not getting adequate sleep, your body is unable to rest, recharge, and repair itself, which can leave you feeling run-down and even more stressed out. This leads to insomnia and poor sleep quality, bringing us right back to where we started.

When you’re having trouble relaxing and falling asleep, experts at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center suggest progressive muscle relaxation to help the muscles in your body reach a state of relaxation.

5. Irregular Periods

That troublesome cortisol can also interfere with your body’s sex hormones, which are responsible for regulating your menstrual cycle. It’s not uncommon for stress to cause a late or missed period, which can, in turn, be cause for even more stress and the negative effects on your body that come with it.

6. Chest Pain

Because stress induces high blood pressure and an increased heart rate, chest pain or a feeling of tightness in the chest can be a symptom of chronic stress. If left uncontrolled, stress can lead to serious heart problems such as cardiovascular disease and an increased risk of heart attack (Biological Psychiatry).

The Bottom Line

Although some stress is normal, chronic stress is not desirable and can result in some serious negative health effects if left unmanaged. Fortunately, reining in your stress can be as easy as following a few simple steps.

UPMC uses the acronym “RELAX” to help you remember the five essential steps for stress management: Reflection, Expectations, Laughter, Acquaintances, and Exercise. If you’re still having trouble coping with chronic stress on your own, consult your doctor or other health professional.