For some, stress feels like your heart is about to explode out of your chest. For others, stress pops up on your skin as a rash or you notice your hair falling out more than usual.
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Stress is part of life — but 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 internal medicine physician Richard Lang, MD, MPH. “When physical symptoms worsen, they may in turn increase a person’s level of stress, which results in a vicious cycle.”
Stress can do some strange things to your body, affecting it in various places. Dr. Lang describes how stress can affect the body and the negative effects of stress:
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 because stress lowers your threshold for pain.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), when you experience stress, your muscles tense up altogether. When stress goes away, your muscles release the tension.
2. Heart and lungs
Believe it or not, stress can affect your heart even if you’re trying to meet a deadline at work, for example. These situations can make your heart rate increase. Too much of the stress hormone cortisol may make heart and lung conditions worse. These include heart disease, heart rhythm abnormalities, high blood pressure, stroke and asthma. Alongside lung conditions, stress can also cause shortness of breath and rapid breathing.
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
New skin and hair products seem to dominate today’s ad space. However, if you’re stressed, those products won’t do much to help the condition of your 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.
Have you ever had a stomachache from being so stressed out? The correlation is real because 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).
When stressed, you may have a tendency to eat more or less, which can lead to unhealthy diets. If the stress is severe enough, you may even vomit too.
5. Shoulders, head and jaw
The effects of stress in your body can move through the tension triangle, which includes your shoulders, head and jaw.
“Stress can trigger tension headaches, tightness in the neck and jaw, and knots and spasms in your neck and shoulders,” says Dr. Lang. “It also may contribute to TMJ, a jaw disorder.”
Ask your doctor about remedies such as stress management, counseling or anxiety-reducing medicine.
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,” warns Dr. Lang. “It also may make autoimmune conditions such as lupus and inflammatory bowel disease worse.”
Take care of your immune system by boosting it with healthy eating habits and exercise. Most importantly, training your immune system through stress reduction can do wonders in keeping you healthy.
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 they’re stressed, which only makes symptoms stronger.
Feeling down in the dumps because of stress isn’t a personal failing. It happens to most of us, so don’t be afraid to reach out for help.
“We can treat the symptoms,” says Dr. Lang. “The real key is to find and treat the cause of the problem.”
By working together as a team with your doctor, you’ll be on your way to a healthier you.