18 Silent Signs Your Stress Is Harming Your Health

With your stress levels even higher because of COVID, know these subtle hints of bigger problems.

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Historically, the human body's reaction to stress used to be a matter of life or death. "From an evolutionary perspective, having a stress response is important. If you're being chased by a predator, you need to get away, so your body responds by creating protective barriers to stress. Your blood pressure goes up; you become hyper vigilant; and your blood even releases compounds that allow it to clot better, in case you get hurt," explains family physician Scott Kaiser, MD, director of geriatric cognitive health at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute.

However, not all stress is created equal. And today's most common stressors—before the coronavirus pandemic happened, that is—are rarely predators; they're usually the little things that tend to wear on us over time. "It's when you react to answering emails and attending to all the notifications from your phone as if you are being chased by a tiger that stress becomes a real problem," Kaiser says. "Chronic stress is what raises our risks for disease. We can't get rid of stress in our lives, so it's how we deal with stress that will help us in the long run."

With the coronavirus adding a slew of worries to the ones you were already managing in your daily life, the impact of stress adds up—possibly more quickly now than ever before. With that in mind, here are the ways your body is telling you that you need to relax. And for tips on how to deal with the specific stresses of the current health crisis, check out 5 Ways to Manage Stress From "Pandemic Panic," According to a Doctor.

1
You have chronic migraines and headaches.

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As deadlines and meetings pile up, there's a risk you could develop a splitting headache—or worse, a migraine. While there are many lifestyle and medical factors that contribute to migraine attacks, a Feb. 2014 study from the American Academy of Neurology shows that stress is associated with tension-type headaches and migraines. "Chronic inflammation in the brain [due to stress] can affect blood flow, and therefore can trigger migraines and headaches," Kaiser explains. And for more on how feeling overwhelmed can impact your health, check out 23 Terrifying Ways Stress Wreaks Havoc on Your Body.

2
You constantly crave sweets and fatty foods.

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It's no secret that when you don't get enough sleep and are stressed, you're more likely to consume more calories, which can lead to weight gain. And when you're not feeling great, you're more likely to reach for sweets and processed snacks as a form of comfort since your hunger hormones—leptin and ghrelin—are out of whack, as a 2018 study published in the journal Obesity notes.

3
Your blood sugar levels are unstable.

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For those who stress eat, you need to be careful about controlling your cravings since those comfort foods can cause spikes and dips in blood sugar. "Stress raises your blood sugar levels so your body produces more insulin, but over time, you become insulin resistant because these circuits are firing at full capacity at all times," Kaiser says.

Studies have also shown that sleep deprivation—which you're also more likely to experience when you're stressed—is linked to insulin resistance, which can increase your risk of type 2 diabetes. And to learn why you get sick more often when you have too much on your plate, Here's How Stress Affects Your Immune System, According to Doctors.

4
Your skin is breaking out.

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While there are many different causes of acne, including hormonal imbalances and bacteria, high cortisol levels in the body caused by stress can increase oil production in the skin and lead to breakouts, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). If you notice that your acne is occurring at the same time as a seriously stressful situation, try getting a handle on your stress levels and clear skin should follow.

5
You're developing fine lines and wrinkles.

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Stress can have a bigger impact on your appearances than you might realize. A Nov. 2009 study in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity shows that stress can lower collagen production in the skin, causing you to become more susceptible to developing wrinkles and fine lines. What's more, severe stress can also trigger more serious skin issues, such as psoriasis, atopic dermatitis, and contact dermatitis, according to a June 2014 study in Inflammation & Allergy Drug Targets. And to separate fact from fiction when it comes to getting older, check out The Biggest Myth About Aging You Need to Stop Believing.

6
You're getting cold sores, shingles, or other rashes.

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Shingles is a painful rash that is caused by a viral infection—the same one that causes chickenpox. While the virus is usually dormant, stress can reactivate it by weakening the immune system, according to the National Institute on Aging. The same goes for herpes infections, which cause cold sores.

7
You have high blood pressure.

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Stress is a major risk factor for hypertension and cardiovascular disease. "When you're constantly dealing with a barrage of stressors, whether it's financial stress or stress at work, it incites a physiological response to increase your blood pressure. Chronic high blood pressure over time can increase your risk of stroke, heart attack, and dementia," Kaiser explains.

To help you lower your blood pressure from stress, Kaiser recommends practicing simple breathing techniques. "We take breathing for granted. Just pausing to have some awareness of your breath can help you relax instantly," he says. "I count the inhalation and exhalation of my breath and focus on the depth of each breath."

8
You're having breathing issues.

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Speaking of breathing, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, and asthma symptoms have all been linked to increased levels of stress and anxiety. And interestingly enough, an Apr. 2018 study in Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that children of women who experience stress and anxiety during pregnancy are more likely to develop asthma and other breathing disorders. And for more helpful information delivered straight to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.

9
Your libido is low.

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When you're under a lot of pressure, your sex drive can take a hit. That's because, according to a Feb. 2015 study in Frontiers in Neuroscience, stress, anxiety, and depression lower your testosterone levels. "Our hormones help us thrive. Estradiol helps with hot flashes, night sweats, vaginal dryness, and fertility, while progesterone helps with sleep, anxiety, and mood. Testosterone helps with motivation, drive, libido, and energy. Stress robs us of these hormones," explains Stephanie Gray, DNP, founder of Integrative Health and Hormone Clinic in Hiawatha, Iowa.

The best way to improve your libido and boost your testosterone levels is by creating time for intimacy and having honest conversations with your partner. This not only strengthens your relationship and eases your anxiety, but also creates an emotional bond that can lead to a better love life.

10
You're struggling to get pregnant.

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There are many factors that affect a woman's fertility, stress included. An Oct. 2018 study on more than 4,000 women published in the American Journal of Epidemiology showed that women with higher stress levels found it harder to conceive.

11
You forget things.

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It's easy to chalk up brain farts to momentary lapses in memory. But high levels of cortisol—which is the primary stress hormone—are actually linked to short-term memory loss in older adults, a June 2014 study from the Journal of Neuroscience suggests. In the study, researchers at the University of Iowa found that chronic exposure to stress leads to a gradual loss of synapses in the prefrontal cortex where short-term memories are stored.

According the Kaiser, the key to not allowing it to get to that point is creating barriers to stress that allow your mind and body to reset. "Don't look at your phone during lunch and turn off notifications on your phone at night," he says. "By changing your relationship with stress, you can begin changing your response to it so you're not treating an alert or email like being chased by a predator."

12
Or just don't feel your sharpest.

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Having trouble concentrating lately? If you've been feeling more overwhelmed than usual, it might be the reason you're unable to stay focused. It's been proven that stress from the loss of a job, a breakup or divorce, the death of a loved one, or another traumatic event can affect your cognitive function and memory. A Mar. 2019 study published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry shows that traumatic or stressful life events may lead to a decline in cognitive function and memory.

13
You get sick more often than you used to.

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With proper rest and relaxation, your body is armed with the necessary anti-inflammatory defenses to prevent illness. When you're chronically stressed, though, your immune cells become insensitive to cortisol, promoting the development of disease. "Having chronic inflammation from stress affects your ability to fight off infections and heal from them," Kaiser says.

An April 2012 study published in the journal PNAS suggests that when you're under a lot of stress, you're more susceptible to developing a cold. Stress can also affect your ability to fight a cold once it comes on. So if you can't seem to shake off the sniffles, it's a red flag that you need to stay away from your inbox.

14
You're moody or anxious.

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When you're under pressure, you're more likely to feel irritable and view things negatively. And if stress becomes chronic, it can increase your risk of developing depression. "When you're chronically stressed, you increase immune activity, which leads to chronic inflammation. This inflammation inflames your brain and leads to attentional issues and depression," Kaiser says.

15
You're experiencing digestive issues.

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Stress can manifest in many places, including in your gut. Research has shown that chronic stress and anxiety can unleash an onslaught of digestive woes, like abdominal cramps, pain, nausea, bloating, and diarrhea, as the Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports. That's because, according to a Mar. 2011 study in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, stress can change the balance of bacteria in the gut, which can affect the body's immune response and has even been linked to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Moreover, the American Institute of Stress reports that increased heart rate from stress can upset your digestive system and cause both heartburn and acid reflux.

16
You can't stay asleep at night.

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Sleep is essential for restoring and recharging the body after a hard day of work. And if you're constantly stressing over something, chances are you're not getting enough quality sleep at night, even if you're going to bed early.

"The interaction between stress, sleep, and mood is very robust and multi-layered. When we're always hyper vigilant from stress, it can affect our sleep," Kaiser says. A July 2015 study published in the journal Sleep showed that job stress can be linked to sleep disturbances, including issues falling asleep, restlessness, and premature awakenings. So if you're tossing and turning at night and waking up full of dread and anxiety, take it as a sign that you need to unwind.

17
Or you're always tired.

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Stress can take a toll on your energy levels, especially if you haven't been getting enough sleep. In some cases, fatigue from stress can become so extreme that it develops into what's known as chronic fatigue syndrome.

People with chronic fatigue syndrome aren't able to improve their symptoms through rest and find it difficult to work and take part in a social activities due to their tiredness. Researchers haven't been able to pinpoint the exact causes of chronic fatigue syndrome, but it's possible that stress can trigger the condition due to high inflammation in the body.

18
You grind your teeth at night.

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Bruxism, a condition in which you grind or clench your teeth at night, is a common side effect of stress. According to the Mayo Clinic, people with bruxism can develop jaw pain, headaches, and tooth damage. If you suspect you have bruxism, consult your doctor or dentist about oral appliances that can help protect your teeth.

Tiffany Ayuda
Tiffany Ayuda is an ACE-certified personal trainer and freelance writer covering health and fitness. Read more
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