Five surprising signs you’re stressed

Beth Gibbons looks at five warning signs that could indicate stress

CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article which appeared on the Healthy website.

Many of the conditions that doctors see are symptoms of an underlying issue – stress. Constant pressure can be disastrous for health by permanently raising levels of adrenaline and cortisol. In the short-term, these stress hormones ready the body for action – such as rushing to get through your to-do list – but, in the long-term, they can lead to raised blood pressure, as well as serious inflammation throughout the body.

Here are just a few red flags to be on the lookout for.

1. Earache
Sometimes patients complain of earache, but there will be no sign of infection. They might also have headaches and jaw ache, which is often a tell-tale sign. It’s not clear why, exactly, but some people clench their teeth when concentrating – often when working – and for prolonged periods, while others grind their teeth in their sleep. In really extreme cases the joints in the lower jaw can become so inflamed they seize up and the jaw locks.

The best course of action is to tackle the cause of stress – cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be helpful – but, in the meantime, a mouthguard discourages clenching and prevents damage to teeth. Anti-inflammatories will reduce swelling in the joints, while softer foods that don’t require too much chewing will give your jaw a break.

2. Food intolerances
When the body detects a threat, even an imagined one, blood is diverted away from the gut to the limb muscles to prepare you for action. The secretion of digestive enzymes is reduced and the stomach, effectively, shuts down. Stress hormones can also cause the gut to go into spasm, causing stomach pains and diarrhoea and/or constipation – key symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). In the long-term, the gut can become so sensitive that certain foods can no longer be tolerated; one recent study of people who thought they were lactose-intolerant found that fewer than one-third actually were. Researchers concluded that it was no coincidence that stress and anxiety levels were high in all those tested.

If you have a sensitive gut then avoiding trigger foods can help, but tackling stress is usually the most effective remedy.

3. Blurred vision
The same stress response that readies the body to tackle threats also sharpens the senses, enabling us to be more vigilant for danger. In the case of vision, adrenaline causes the pupils to dilate to let in more light. Brilliant if you’re looking out for bears in the middle of the night; not so great if you’re sat in front of a bright computer screen in broad daylight! Unfortunately, when we’re stressed we’re less likely to look up from our screens, which can further strain the eyes. Increased sensitivity to light can lead to vision problems, while prolonged stress can also cause the tiny muscles around the eyes to become tense, resulting in twitching, double vision and pain – a condition known as asthenopia.

If you are experiencing vision issues of any kind, see an optician immediately. Ask your employer to assess your workstation and look up from your computer every 20 minutes to give your eyes a break.

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4. A muffin top
One of the roles of the stress hormone cortisol is to flood the bloodstream with glucose, to give you the energy to act quickly in the event of any physical threat. However, when that ‘danger’ is a psychological one, such as an overwhelming workload, for example, or getting the weekly shopping done, the body doesn’t use the extra glucose to react physically. Instead, the excess glucose is converted to fat and is then stored around your abdomen, where there is an abundance of cortisol receptors. Unfortunately, we know that the risk of diabetes and heart disease increases with your waist measurement, which makes this kind of fat something that needs to be taken seriously.

So, if you’re struggling to get into your jeans, taking a long hard look at the stress in your life could be an important weight loss tool.

5. Low energy levels
We often associate stress with having to get things done under pressure – that slightly manic state of busyness in the office, or whizzing around the house doing the housework in between looking after the kids. In fact, chronic stress can render you less productive than ever because of
its serious effect on energy levels. For starters, stress can disrupt sleep, which leaves you tired and reaching for stimulants such as coffee and sugar – both of which lead to energy crashes soon after, which further disrupt sleep. There’s also the fact that, in the long-term, it seems that cortisol no longer functions because the body stops producing enough, or the body ceases to respond to the production of it. Studies suggest a link between low levels of this hormone and chronic fatigue, which may be one of the factors in so-called burnout.

Addressing your stress levels will help you avoid extreme energy slumps in the long-term.

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