For many of us, stressful experiences can become so routine that we don’t notice the toll it’s taking on our health and our lives. Stress is a common and normal physical response to challenging situations and while a little of it is good for us, too much stress can seriously impact our lives and be detrimental to our health.
We all experience stress differently, and when we think of stress, we might associate the classic physical signs of stress with tension headaches, exhaustion or indigestion, but what about the lesser-known symptoms that are often overlooked?
Understanding “Fight or Flight”
“Fight or flight” is the body’s natural physiological reaction to stressful, frightening, or dangerous events. It is activated by the perception of threat, quickly igniting the sympathetic nervous system, releasing hormones, and preparing the body to face the threat or run to safety.
Since everyone’s bodies are unique, the specific physiological reactions can vary from person-to-person. Here are some of the lesser-known ways your body is telling you you’re stressed:
Digestive issues. Because of the brain-gut connection, when you’re stressed or anxious, some of the hormones released by your body enter your digestive tract and interfere with digestion. This causes a negative effect on your gut flora (which aids digestion). As a result, for some people, this slows down digestion, causing bloating, pain and constipation, while in others it speeds it up, causing diarrhoea and frequent trips to the toilet.
Frequent urination. In addition to changes in digestion, stress can also have an effect on the bladder, causing an urge to urinate more often. One of the most likely causes of frequent urination is because when you’re stressed, your muscles get very tense. This tension puts pressure on your bladder, which in turn makes you feel like you need to urinate more than you would otherwise.
Regular colds. There’s an opposing relationship between stress and immunity, meaning the greater your stress levels, the lower the effectiveness of your immune system, making you more susceptible to colds. This can prolong getting better, increase the frequency and amount of infections, as well as aggravate any existing health problems.
Ringing in the ears. Tinnitus can be a sign of stress and can be experienced in several ways. You may hear ringing, buzzing, whooshing, or roaring in your ears. Research shows that stress can be a trigger for tinnitus, or make it worse. Some people find that tinnitus makes them feel stressed and anxious, so you may find yourself in a cycle — stress makes your tinnitus worse, which in turn makes you feel more stressed.
Menstrual changes. Because stress can affect the part of the brain responsible for producing hormones, it can throw hormonal levels out of sync, which can lead to changes in the frequency and duration of your menstrual period. This is because of the increase in the production of cortisol (stress hormone) which blocks the production of female hormones, oestrogen and progesterone.
Mouth Ulcers. Although there is no direct link or clear explanation for the relationship between mouth ulcers and stress, stress may aggravate mouth ulcers. A recent study points to the relationship between mental health and oral health and the role of the immune system. Mouth ulcers also can lead to more stress due to pain when talking, chewing, eating, and drinking.
Hair Loss. The change in your hormone levels during your body’s fight or flight response can have an effect on the growth patterns of your hair follicles. Worrying about hair loss can also be a vicious cycle as it’s easy for people to get anxious and stressed out about losing their hair, which then in turn raises stress levels, and can cause even more hair to fall out.
Libido changes. Chronic or ongoing stress over an extended period of time, can affect testosterone production, resulting in a decline in libido and erectile dysfunction. This is because stress affects how your brain signals your body’s physical response. When it comes to sex, stress can interrupt how the brain sends messages to the penis to allow extra blood flow, resulting in sexual performance issues.
Keep stress levels low
No matter what your level of stress or what causes it, adopting healthier habits can be extremely beneficial. Here’s some effective strategies:
Eat well. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains not only supplies critical nutrients to help combat stress, but it can also help you feel more energised and focused.
Limit caffeine. Caffeine increases your body’s cortisol levels, so too much will elevate your stress levels and stimulate your body’s fight or flight response.
Exercise. Being active can boost your feel-good endorphins and help you blow off steam and release pent-up tension.
Good sleep habits. Aim to get seven to nine hours of uninterrupted sleep — and stay away from screens at least one hour before bedtime.
Take some time out. Regular, uninterrupted time to yourself helps your busy brain to unwind. You might choose to relax in a warm bath, go for a walk, or read a book.
If you’re still struggling there are a number of resources available to help you better manage your stress levels. If your stress is causing serious health problems and interrupting daily life, you might want to contact your GP to help you identify helpful ways to cope with stress and provide further guidance on how to tackle it.