Most of us are familiar with stress. Whether you're a top-level executive, a stay-at-home parent or a high school student, stress is often part of the drill. While you might recognize some of the more common warning signs that pressure is building to unhealthy levels — things like difficulty breathing and rapid heartbeat — other stress signals may go unnoticed.
"Maybe you're having more headaches than usual, or suffering from increasing jaw pain, but you're so stressed you haven't taken the time to pause and notice," says Lynn Dado, M.D., an internal medicine physician at Henry Ford Health.
Often Overlooked Or Unrecognized Signs Of Stress
Whether or not you recognize signs that you're stressed, living in a constant state of "fight or flight" can have debilitating and long-lasting effects. The following seven signs may indicate your stress level is getting out of hand:
- Memory problems: Pumping out stress hormones requires significant brain power. To manage the flood of stress hormones and focus on fears, your brain puts memories for everyday things on the back burner. So if you're chronically stressed, it can be tough to focus. You might not be able to remember what you just read or lose your train of thought in the middle of a sentence. You might even forget to turn off the coffee pot.
- Headaches: Stress can literally hurt your head. In fact, stress is a primary trigger for run-of-the-mill tension headaches as well as more debilitating migraine headaches.
- Low back pain: "We hold emotions in our muscular tissue, so it makes sense that stress affects our posture," Dr. Dado says. "In fact, most low back pain is not a mechanical problem." You might feel tightness in your neck and shoulders, which are commonly linked to stress, but your low back also takes a hit.
- Digestive complaints: Stress and anxiety can be tough to stomach. The reason: You're producing more stomach acid than usual, which can lead to digestive dilemmas ranging from heartburn and tummy aches to diarrhea. Already suffering from a digestive issue, such as irritable bowel syndrome? Stress can worsen your symptoms.
- Jaw pain: When you're feeling stressed, all of that angst has to go somewhere. A lot of people expend that energy by unknowingly grinding their teeth while they sleep. Grinding can lead to pain in the face, neck and shoulders.
- Insomnia: A tired mind is tough to shut down. "You can't fall asleep because your mind is racing," Dr. Dado says. And it makes sense: If you're in fight-or-flight mode, the mind doesn't feel safe to quiet down.
- Irritability: When your stress hormones go on overdrive, the brain chemicals that make you feel calm and happy take a back seat. The end result: You snap at your children, get short with your partner and blow up over something silly.
Taking Stock Of Stress
If one of these lesser-known signs apply to you — or you’re suffering from other telltale symptoms of stress — consider taking a step back to take stock of your stress level.
"Identify the causes of your stress. Is it your job? Finances? Your marriage? Then come up with strategies to help alleviate the pressure," Dr. Dado says. "Sometimes simply noticing when you feel stressed can help."
No matter what your level of stress or what causes it, adopting healthier habits can have a tremendous payoff. Here's a sampling of 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 energized and focused.
- Watch the caffeine: There's no doubt a morning cup of joe can help put a spring in your step and enhance performance. But too much caffeine, or caffeine that is ill-timed (after 3 p.m.), can amp up your anxiety and stress levels.
- Exercise: Working out regularly can help you blow off steam and release pent-up tension. A bonus: Making time for exercise can also help you refresh your mind so you can problem-solve more effectively.
- Develop a solid sleep routine: Turn in at an hour when you can get seven to nine hours of uninterrupted sleep — and shut down your devices at least one hour before bedtime.
- Take a time out: If you're feeling maxed out, take a break. Go for a walk. Sit in a quiet place and meditate. Or take some time out for deep breathing. Even just a few minutes of focused breathing can help clear your mind.
Still struggling? Talk to your primary care provider. From health coaching to yoga therapy , there are a number of resources available to help you better manage your stress levels. Partnering with a professional can help you identify healthful ways to cope with stress.
To find a doctor or therapist at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).
Dr. Lynn Dado is an internal medicine physician seeing patients at Henry Ford Medical Center - Bloomfield Township.