Life can be demanding and fraught. In fact, nearly three quarters of British adults have been so stressed at some point, they felt overwhelmed and unable to cope.
We all know how stress can present itself – an underlying sense of dread, irritableness, perhaps too many thoughts jostling for our attention. But left unchecked, it’s not just emotionally draining – it can manifest physically in your body, in different ways.
Dr Amos Ogunkoya explains, “Stress is normally due to overproduction of the hormones cortisol and adrenaline.
“They’re released from the adrenal glands and produce the fight or flight response, which can lead to extreme fatigue and exhaustion.
If left untreated, we can have extreme reactions that go way beyond the usual headache and racing heart.”
Here, Dr Ogunkoya shares 11 rare but potential physical symptoms of chronic stress to watch out for…
Stress can lead not just to a surge in cortisol and adrenaline, but can also change the amount of certain hormones we produce, including testosterone, oestrogen and the growth hormone, somatotropin. The increase in cortisol in women can also suppress normal levels of reproductive hormones, which can lead to no ovulation, periods stopping altogether or heavier periods and increased pain.
Jaw and tooth pain
During tense moments, we might clench our jaws and, while sleeping, grind our teeth. This creates tension in our muscles at the back of our neck and jaw, causing pain, especially if it becomes an unconscious habit. This can lead to headaches, earaches and dental problems, such as cracks in teeth, and, in extreme cases, tooth loss.
A rise in cortisol can cause hair follicles to stop producing new hair – this is known as “telogen effluvium”. It’s sometimes quite sudden – people may wake up to find chunks of hair have fallen out. Trichotillomania – the urge to pull out hair – can be a sign someone is trying to self-soothe under stress, subconsciously or consciously. They can also pluck out eyelashes, or pick off their skin.
Blood sugar spikes
A rise in cortisol increases sugar in the bloodstream, which can trigger extreme spikes. Over a period of time this might raise your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. If you're already diabetic, chronic stress can cause you to become less focused on monitoring your condition.
Increased sensitivity to pain
Pain tolerance remains the same during times of stress, but reactions might be more heightened, because the hormones that help us deal with pain can become less effective due to overstimulation.
Lump in the throat
Your body prioritises muscle use over digestion during periods of stress, causing gastric reflux (when acid from the stomach travels back up towards the throat), and creating the “lump in your throat” sensation. It could also possibly be caused by esophageal spasms – painful contractions within the muscular oesophagus – that can be brought on by stress, or an over- stimulated nervous system.
Heightened sense of smell
Stress can make your nervous system more excitable, and because the parts of the brain that deal with scent and emotions work closely together, they can intensify one another. One theory is that as the brain is working harder to find threats during “fight or flight” state, your body is hyper-aware of smells.
Becoming ill more often
Sleep is everything – it’s how our body regenerates – but when we’re stressed, sleep can feel impossible. As a knock-on effect, your immune system can suffer, leading to a raised risk of cancer, strokes and heart attacks.
Vomiting and weight changes
Acute levels of stress can lead to a diminished appetite due to the “fight or flight” reaction causing reduced blood flow to the digestive system. If you do try to eat, your body might reject the food, triggering vomiting. Stress can also change your body composition. How? Chronic cortisol levels break down muscle tissue, making you less toned.
The activation of your “fight or flight” response can release adrenaline, which increases body temperature and affects the sweat glands’ output. This excessive sweating is called hyperhidrosis – and it’s fairly common.
Urge to pee and poo
The “fight or flight“ response causes your body’s systems to act abnormally, as they work to help you escape the “threat”. Stress encourages your intestines, which have their own nervous system, to process the contents quicker, so you can move as quickly as possible.
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