The demands of life can get the best of us. Your job is killing you, you’re $30,000 in debt, and nobody’s swiping right on your Tinder profile. It’s no wonder more than half of Americans are moderately stressed, with a quarter being highly frazzled.
Chronic negative stress will eventually destroy your body, and, in spite of what you may think, humans are so good at carrying on in the face of adversity that sometimes you don’t even notice stress. So open up your eyes and see these not-so-obvious signs of stress before it ruins your wonderful life.
Your teeth hurt
Does your mouth ever hurt when you wake up? Sure, it could be your roommates messing with you while you sleep. But it’s more likely to be bruxism, a fancy word for grinding your teeth. Several studies have shown that bruxism is more common in those who perceive themselves to be under great stress. To keep your teeth from actually bearing the brunt of your stress, try sleeping with a mouth guard.
You get canker sores
It seems your mouth is a really great litmus test for stress. If it’s not the bruxism, then maybe it’s the canker sores sounding the alarm. While not necessarily being caused by stress, canker sores are more likely to occur in those who are stressed. They’re also more likely to stick around longer once you get them.
You frequently have bad dreams
If you spend your nights falling to your death as your teeth melt out, there’s a good chance you’re stressed. Anxiety and stress are some of the most common causes of bad dreams. Not only are nightmares an indication your brain’s attempt at processing negativity and stress, but they also disrupt sleep, and make the next day suck that much more… leading to more stress… and more nightmares. It’s a vicious cycle.
You get sick more often, and it lasts longer than you’re used to
Evolution is just the worst sometimes. Originally, your body’s reaction to stress was meant to keep you alive in “fight-or-flight” situations, as opposed to rush hour traffic.
In an actual survival situation, stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline are put to good use. In traffic and board meetings, they don’t do much more than inflame and weaken your immune system. During prolonged stress, cortisol stops doing its normal job of regulating immune cells, thereby increasing your chances of getting sick and staying sick longer. Doesn’t matter if it’s bacterial, viral, or even stronger allergies, stress can cause chronic inflammation and really break you down.
Your hair’s falling out
Let’s talk about another vicious cycle. Inflammation doesn’t just make you sick. It can also stunt hair growth, or worse, make those beautiful locks fall out altogether. Noticing hair loss isn’t exactly a happy fun time, which causes more stress, leading to more hair loss, causing more stress… and on and on until the circle of stress is broken (which we’ll get to in a second).
You’re constantly battling your bowels
Have you ever been so scared that you thought you were gonna crap your pants? Or so nervous about flying, you couldn’t poop the whole trip? Research suggests there’s a strong link between the brain and the gut, and stress affects everyone’s bowels differently.
For some, stress revs things up; for others, it causes serious blockage. And still others, nagging abdominal pain. So maybe it’s not the tacos and cheese wheels after all.
You get itches of uncertain origin
Got an itch that you can’t quite scratch? You might be experiencing one of the psychosomatic symptoms of stress. Tests have shown that some types of itchy skin are caused by mental stress, rather than physical factors, and all the calamine lotion in the world won’t help with that.
You may consider yourself a stoic Vulcan, capable of separating emotion from logic, but your brain structure says otherwise. Emotional stressors and anxiety are directly connected to your cognitive abilities of speech, memory, and motor functions. If you’ve found yourself at a loss for words, your brain could probably stand a bit of relaxation.
Your ears are ringing
Ringing ears (aka tinnitus) can literally be a stress alarm. Many recent studies have shown that tinnitus is exacerbated (and sometimes even caused) by stress. Granted, 1 in 5 people suffer from tinnitus, and there are plenty of causes. But if you’ve been dealing with it, or it’s gotten worse lately, stress should be the prime suspect.
You’re gaining weight
There’s nothing quite like a quart of ice cream and a pound of bacon to calm the nerves. Evolution strikes again. Here’s how it goes: stress triggers the fight-or-flight response. The fight-or-flight response convinces your brain that you’ll be expending great amounts of energy fighting or running for your life. Your brain then releases chemicals that increase cravings for sugar, fat, and high calories (energy). Once digested, your brain then releases an opiate-like compound that basically get you addicted to these foods. Give in to this addiction for too long, and you’ll be busting at the seams in no time.
If you’ve noticed any of these signs (or several others), there are a number of ways to take control. “One of the most important things to remember is that stress is not the problem”, says Dr. Kathy Gruver, award-winning author and speaker. “We can’t control stress… but rather our reaction to it.”
Dr. Gruver reacts with two-minute “mini-meditations” in rush hour traffic, or positive self-affirmations during especially trying times. With the overwhelming scientific evidence for such practices, they’re definitely worth a shot (if only for your hair and waistline).
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Nicholas Knock is a freelance writer for Thrillist who loves all things Swedish. You can follow him on Twitter @nickaknock.