Are you more stressed than you think?
The occasional manic Monday is a fact of modern life.
But if you're under chronic stress—suffering a daily assault of stress hormones from a demanding job or a personal life in turmoil—symptoms may be subtler, says Stevan E. Hobfoll, PhD, chair of the department of behavioral sciences at Rush University Medical Center. If you experience any of the signs that follow, take some time out every day, he says, whether it's to go for a walk or simply turn off your phone.
1. Stress Symptom: Weekend headaches
A sudden drop in stress can prompt migraines, says Todd Schwedt, MD, director of the Washington University Headache Center. Stick closely to your weekday sleeping and eating schedule to minimize other triggers.
2. Stress Symptom: Awful period cramps
The most stressed-out women are more than twice as likely to experience painful menstrual cramps as those who are less tense, a Harvard study found. Researchers blame a stress-induced imbalance of hormones. Hitting the gym can soothe cramps and stress, research shows, by decreasing sympathetic nervous system activity.
3. Stress Symptom: An achy mouth
A sore jaw can be a sign of teeth grinding, which usually occurs during sleep and can be worsened by stress, says Matthew Messina, DDS, a consumer advisor to the American Dental Association. Ask your dentist about a nighttime mouth guard—up to 70% of people who use one reduce or stop grinding altogether.
4. Stress Symptom: Odd dreams
Dreams usually get progressively more positive as you sleep, so you wake up in a better mood than you were in when you went to bed, says Rosalind Cartwright, PhD, an emeritus professor of psychology at Rush University Medical Center. But when you're stressed, you wake up more often, disrupting this process and allowing unpleasant imagery to recur all night. Good sleep habits can help prevent this; aim for 7 to 8 hours a night, and avoid caffeine and alcohol close to bedtime.
5. Stress Symptom: Bleeding gums
According to a Brazilian analysis of 14 past studies, stressed-out people have a higher risk of periodontal disease. Chronically elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol may impair the immune system and allow bacteria to invade the gums, say researchers. If you're working long hours and eating dinner at your desk, keep a toothbrush on hand. And "protect your mouth by exercising and sleeping more, which will help lower stress," says Preston Miller, DDS, past president of the American Academy of Periodontology.
6. Stress Symptom: Out-of-nowhere acne
Stress increases the inflammation that leads to breakouts and adult acne, says Gil Yosipovitch, MD, a clinical professor of dermatology at Wake Forest University. Smooth your skin with a lotion containing skin sloughing salicylic acid or bacteria-busting benzoyl peroxide, plus a noncomedogenic moisturizer so skin won't get too dry. If your skin doesn't respond to treatment within a few weeks, see your doctor for more potent meds.
7. Stress Symptom: A sweet tooth
Don't automatically blame your chocolate cravings on your lady hormones—stress is a more likely trigger. When University of Pennsylvania researchers surveyed pre- and postmenopausal women, they found only a small decrease in the prevalence of chocolate cravings after menopause—smaller than could be explained by just a hormonal link. Study authors say it's likely stress, or other factors that can trigger women's hankering for chocolate.
8. Stress Symptom: Itchy skin
A recent Japanese study of more than 2,000 people found that those with chronic itch (known as pruritis) were twice as likely to be stressed out as those without the condition. Although an annoying itch problem can certainly cause stress, experts say it's likely that feeling anxious or tense also aggravates underlying conditions like dermatitis, eczema, and psoriasis. "The stress response activates nerve fibers, causing an itchy sensation," explains Yosipovitch.
9. Stress Symptom: Worse-than-usual allergies
In a 2008 experiment, researchers from Ohio State University College of Medicine found that allergy sufferers had more symptoms after they took an anxiety-inducing test, compared with when they performed a task that did not make them tense. Stress hormones may stimulate the production of IgE, a blood protein that causes allergic reactions, says study author Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD.
10. Stress Symptom: Bellyaches
Anxiety and stress can cause stomachaches, along with headaches, backaches, and insomnia. One study of 1,953 men and women found that those experiencing the highest levels of stress were more than three times as likely to have abdominal pain as their more-relaxed counterparts.
The exact connection is still unclear, but one theory holds that the intestines and the brain share nerve pathways; when the mind reacts to stress, the intestines pick up the same signal. Because of this link, learning to manage stress with the help of a clinical psychologist, meditation, or even exercise can usually help relieve tummy trouble too. However, if you have frequent bellyaches, see your doc to rule out food allergies, lactose intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome, or an ulcer.