7 Ways Stress Can Harm Your Body
Stress isn't just bad for your mental health—it can harm your physical health as well. Learn how, plus smart strategies to help you take control.
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By: Georgiann Caruso
Americans’ stress levels seem to be declining compared to seven years ago, according to a 2014 survey by the American Psychological Association. Of course, this trend doesn’t apply to everyone. If you’re dealing with some serious stressors, consider seeing a mental health professional. It won’t just help your mood -- it’ll also help slash the physical symptoms of stress.
Click through to find out some key ways stress can harm your body, plus some smart strategies to help you take control.
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2 / 8 Insomnia
Sure, a long night at the office or a spat with your spouse can interfere with your sleep and leave you sluggish the next day. But chronic insomnia can affect your body much more than that. A 2010 study in the journal SLEEP found that getting less than six hours of sleep a night was associated with a significant risk of death in men. And for both men and women, insomnia is linked to heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
Solution: A few small lifestyle changes can help you get more ZZZs. Try these smart sleep strategies, which include keeping a regular sleep schedule and avoiding both alcohol and nicotine.
3 / 8 Fatigue
After a busy, hectic day, anyone can feel run down. But if you frequently feel fatigued, stress may be the cause. In fact, stress can lead to a host of other sluggish symptoms, too: lack of motivation, difficulty concentrating and more.
Solution: Experts recommend that you make it a top priority to take on only what you can handle -- and build a little extra time in your schedule to take care of yourself.
4 / 8 Headaches
Stress is a major cause of headaches, especially tension headaches—which generally feel as if you have a tight band around your head. When you’re stressed, your scalp and neck muscles tighten, potentially triggering the tension. Other research also suggests that people who get tension headaches may have a heightened sensitivity to stress and pain.
Solution: Over-the-counter medications are a temporary solution. If your stress headaches are chronic, try cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). A 2007 study in the journal PAIN found about half of the participants, who all suffered from chronic headaches, reported less headache pain with CBT.
5 / 8 Neck and Back Pain
If you’re majorly stressed out, that stiffness in your neck or back is probably related. When you’re stressed, the muscles in your neck or back tense up because you’re “on guard.” Stress can also worsen existing pain. A 2009 study in the journal BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders found that very stressful life experiences were closely associated with neck pain.
Solution: Gentle exercise may seem like the last thing you have time for, but especially for back pain, research shows it really helps. So do these small daily tricks.
6 / 8 Shortness of Breath
When you’re surprised, you may feel for a moment that your breath was literally taken away. That’s normal. But if you experience shortness of breath because of stress, that’s not. It’s a sign you’re hyperventilating, which can lead to a panic attack.
Solution: Get to a doctor, stat. The first thing you need to do is rule out physical causes of shortness of breath (dyspnea) -- like a heart problem. If the cause is psychological, your doctor can refer you to a mental health professional who may recommend CBT, anti-anxiety medications or both.
7 / 8 Gastrointestinal Symptoms
The gut is extremely sensitive to stress. (You have more nerve endings in your gut than in your brain and spinal cord.) When your brain gets stressed out, it releases a bunch of hormones that can knock your gastrointestinal system out of whack and cause a range of problems -- from no appetite to massive appetite, nausea to diarrhea.
Solution: The same stress management techniques you use to tackle other symptoms of stress should help soothe your GI system. Other tips to help keep your belly balanced: Eat a diet high in fiber and get regular exercise.
8 / 8 Loss of Libido
Some nights, romance is not going to happen because you’re just not in the mood. But lasting loss of libido is something different. It has many possible explanations, including hormonal changes. Stress, however, is a major factor for many men and women.
Solution: Talk to your doctor and be completely honest about what’s going on (or not) in the bedroom. There are many ways to overcome this hurdle: medicines, counseling, lifestyle changes or a combination of these.
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