Is stress making you sick? These are the signs your body could be giving you that your stress levels are dangerously high.
We all get stressed, but how do you know if it’s having an impact on your health? The answer is to look for the signals.
“Often our body is whispering to us that it’s under too much pressure but we don’t listen,” says psychologist Dr Marny Lishman.
Here are 10 signs you need to pay attention to.
You’re waking up with bad dreams
Dreams are places where our brain sorts out the day’s thoughts and normally they get more positive as the night goes on.
“But when we are stressed, sleep is disturbed and we don’t make this progression,” says neuroscientist Professor Rosalind Cartwright. This means bad or sad dreams stay with us even until the morning and, according to Professor Cartwright’s research, this may worsen depression associated with stress.
“Relax before sleep,” she says. “Have a hot bath, which creates the temperature fall we need to sleep, then do something boring for 20 minutes before bed.”
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: Foods to eat (and what to avoid) if you have oily or acne-prone skin
You’re gaining weight around your middle
Studies have shown that we tend to eat about 500kJ more a day when we’re stressed, which is bad news as we also find it easier to pack on the kilos at this time.
“Cortisol, the hormone pumped out when we’re stressed, triggers weight gain, particularly around the middle,” says Dr Craig Hassed, author of Mindfulness for Life. And that’s not just bad news for your waistline.
“This fat is also linked to high blood pressure and high blood sugar, which take their toll on your health,” he says. If you’re gaining weight, gentle exercise like walking helps to fight fat and calm the mind.
You’re playing louder music, doing more intense exercise or putting off doing things more and more
“The adrenal glands, which sit just above the kidneys, are hormone producers responsible for the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline,” says Traditional Chinese Medicine expert Dr Katrina Stewart.
“During normal stress these adequately regulate stress hormones but during severe or prolonged stress they can go into overdrive trying to keep up with the body’s need for adrenalin. Eventually this wears them down and they become underactive.”
The buzz you get from loud music, vigorous exercise or tight deadlines are all subconscious ways to get sluggish adrenals firing again.
Herbal supplements like licorice can help support adrenal function. But before you self treat, try this: Draw a line on your stomach (with your fingernail) and see what happens.
This is called Sergeant’s Test and if the line stays white for more than 20 seconds it can be a sign that your adrenal glands are seriously under pressure. At this point you probably need advice from a nutritionist or naturopath to rebalance things.
You’re having lighter, nonexistent or more painful periods
It’s often said that your ovaries know how stressed you are before your brain does. “It makes sense – to your body, activation of the stress response still means something dangerous like a famine or danger and it doesn’t want you bringing a baby into that situation so it puts your fertility on hold,” says Dr Hassed.
As ever, tackling the stress is most important but he also suggests increasing levels of phytoestrogens from foods like tofu or soy in your diet, which can help rebalance hormone levels. For painful periods, try magnesium.
It’s been shown to reduce cramps, but it also soothes our nerves.
You feel powerless and out of control
When they looked at how stress affects health, UK-based researchers found that those who felt powerless to control or stop their stress were at 23% greater risk of heart problems than those with the same level of stress but who had more control. “Powerlessness can create strong feelings of anger and frustration,” says psychologist Dr Melissa Keogh.
“Try not to let your feelings fester. Acknowledge, explore and communicate with them to help find solutions.”
You’re exhausted when you wake up but wide awake from early evening until the early hours
This can signify you’re overproducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol, says Dr Marilyn Glenville, author of The Natural Health Bible For Women. “Normally cortisol rises in the morning to wake us then declines throughout the day. But if you’re constantly under stress the pattern changes.
You can barely get out of bed in the morning yet by evening you’re energised and may have trouble getting to sleep.” Many stress reduction techniques help to reduce cortisol but yoga is particularly effective – research shows that even one session can lower levels.
You’re feeling overwhelmed – but no longer care or can see how to stop it
If these feelings develop during a long period of chronic stress, it’s a strong sign that you’re moving from stress to burnout – a state some experts describe as like blowing an internal fuse.
“While stress is slightly chaotic, burnout is exhaustion. You become detached and stop responding,” says Dr Marny Lishman. A teacher might walk into a class and not know what to say, a doctor won’t be able to decide what’s wrong with someone.
There’s only one solution to burnout and that’s total rest. You have to stop and take time out.
You’re a new mom and are carrying your baby on the right
New moms often think being tired, frazzled and unsure is part of the role, so how do you know if you’re more stressed than healthy? The side you’re carrying the baby on could be a sign. Normally, new moms cradle their baby on the left no matter whether they’re left-or right-handed, but research from psychologist Dr Nadja Reissland found highly stressed moms were more likely to cradle them on the right.
She doesn’t know why this occurs, only that it could be a sign that it’s time to ask for some help.
You need a glass of wine (or three) to relax
Many of us have a glass of wine when we’ve had a tough day, and that’s not normally something to worry about. “When it is though, it is related to the thinking behind the drinking,” says Cameron Brown, a psychologist with a special interest in drug and alcohol disorders.
“If you start to rely on alcohol and feel you need it to calm you down or move from one glass of wine to a few each night, drinking may be becoming a problem.” To break the habit, remember this: a recent study from The University of Chicago showed that stress reduces how good alcohol makes us feel and alcohol increases how long tension hangs around. De-stress more effectively by changing what you do at the end of the day.
“Find other ways to relax – go to the gym, take a walk or, if you enjoy cooking, prepare a meal,” says Brown.
You wake up with aches and pains next to your ears
This can be a classic sign that you’re grinding your teeth in the night. “It’s a sign you shouldn’t ignore because not only can it cause pain, it can cause real damage to your teeth if it’s not tackled,” says dentist Dr Peter Alldritt.
If you wake up with aches and pains, your jaw develops stiffness or makes clicking noises, or your partner mentions grinding noises at night, go and see your dentist who can spot telltale patterns of wear. They might suggest wearing a mouthguard until the stress passes.
“Some people also clench their jaw or grind their teeth during the day,” says Dr Alldritt. “Remember, your teeth shouldn’t touch unless you’re eating.”