Stress is part of life — and it’s not always a bad thing. Sometimes it gives you the motivation you need for hitting a deadline or performing your best. But unmanaged or prolonged stress can wreak havoc on your body, resulting in unexpected aches, pains and other symptoms.
“Stress doesn’t necessarily cause certain conditions, but it can make the symptoms of those conditions worse,” says Richard Lang, MD, MPH, Chairman of Preventive Medicine and Vice Chairman of the Wellness Institute. “When physical symptoms worsen, they may in turn increase a person’s level of stress, which results in a vicious circle.”
Stress can do some strange things to your body, affecting it in various places:
1. Muscles and joints
Stress can cause pain, tightness or soreness in your muscles, as well as spasms of pain. It can lead to flare-ups of symptoms of arthritis, fibromyalgia and other conditions. That’s because stress lowers your threshold for pain.
2. Heart and lungs
Too much of the stress hormone cortisol may make heart and lung conditions worse. These include heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and asthma. If you have pain or tightness in your chest or heart palpitations, see a doctor as soon as possible to rule out a serious condition.
3. Skin and hair
If you have a skin condition such as eczema, rosacea or psoriasis, stress can make it worse. It also can lead to hives and itchiness, excessive sweating and even hair loss.
Stress really shows in your digestive system — from simpler symptoms such as pain, gas, diarrhea and constipation to more complex conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome and acid reflux (GERD).
5. Shoulders, head and jaw
Doctors call this the “tension triangle.” Stress can trigger tension headaches, tightness in the neck and jaw, and knots and spasms in your neck and shoulders. It also may contribute to TMJ, a jaw disorder.
6. Immune system
You need a strong immune system to fight disease, but stress weakens your body’s defenses. It makes you more likely to catch colds or the flu, for example. It also may make autoimmune conditions such as lupus and inflammatory bowel disease worse.
7. Mental health
Stress can bring on symptoms of depression and reduce your enthusiasm for activities you usually enjoy — from everyday hobbies to sex. People also tend to eat poorly and exercise less when stressed, which only makes symptoms stronger.
Feeling down in the dumps because of stress is not a personal failing. It happens to most of us, so don’t be afraid to reach out for help. “We can treat the symptoms,” Dr. Lang says, “but the real key is to find and treat the cause of the problem.”