For most of us, stress in everyday life has become an accepted part of living in the modern world. It is a combination of physical, mental and emotional strain as we deal with the demands of a modern lifestyle and life events that can be very disruptive. Some people handle stress better than others but stress affects every person to some degree at some point in time. Stress is a broad term that refers to any substance, disturbance, activity or event that places a strain on the body. Different types of stress may affect the body in different ways.
Running around the block when you are not conditioned for this type of activity is considered as stress. But life stress specifically focuses on activities and situations that cause a sustained strain on the system. It can range from minor incidents like feeling overwhelmed when rushing around to many appointments in a day on a tight schedule or driving around a car full of screaming kids. More severe stress is seen with events like losing your job, a failed relationship or death of a loved one. It is usually a combination of physical strain on the body, mental exhaustion and emotional episodes.
No Signs Of Stress
Some people do not show that they are stressed and may claim not to feel any change. These people generally have good coping skills but individual personality also plays a role in how a person experiences, reacts to and exhibits signs of stress. It is possible that the signs and symptoms of stress are not so clear and obvious where you can attribute it to stress or where your family realizes you are stressed.
However, with deeper introspection and investigation of changes that you may have ignored, you will find that you are indeed responding to life stresses. The human body undergoes a host of different changes when exposed to life stress. It depends on the nature and intensity of the trigger. It also depends on other circumstances that may make an incident more stressful to one person than it will be to another, despite their level of coping skills.
It is mainly due to a prolonged ‘fight or flight response’, a mechanism that involves the release of ‘stress hormones’ like adrenalin and cortisol. This response is intended to help a person cope with a dangerous situation and survive. It should only be present for a few minutes to hours at most. But in the modern world, this response is sustained for days, weeks, months and even years thereby impacting the body in various ways.
Most of us know that stress is a major contributor to inadequate sleep, whether you have a problem falling asleep or staying asleep for a sufficient period of time. But on the other end of the spectrum, some people may sleep excessively when they are stressed. A change in sleeping patterns is one of the most common signs of being stressed but it is also important to exclude any underlying diseases that can disrupt sleeping patterns.
Abnormal sleep patterns may be associated with infections, metabolic disorders and mental health conditions like depression. Feeling tired after a night’s sleep, nightmares, night sweats, restlessness and talking while asleep are other sleep-related symptoms of stress.
As with sleep, changes in appetite are commonly associated with stress and can be at either end of the spectrum. Some people will experience a lack of appetite and eat less frequently or smaller meals. Naturally they will tend to lose weight over time. But others may eat more and indulge in comfort eating in order to cope with incidents or thoughts that are stressful in nature. Here weight gain will occur if the change in eating pattern persists. But it is only one reason for stress weight gain. Most people do not notice these changes in appetite and eating patterns until it causes changes in clothing size and body weight or they are notified by others that they are either eating too little or too much.
Alterations in bowel habit is another common symptom of stress but it might not always be a problem. People who have underlying bowel disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and serious bowel diseases like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD )are more likely to be affected. Changes in bowel habit can vary from constipation, to frequent bowel movements, loose stool and even full blown diarrhea. Some people may experience alterations in bowel habit that may not be as easily classified – for example, feeling the urge to defecate shortly after eating a meal may be due to an abnormality in the defecation reflexes.
Aches and Pains
Chronic conditions marked by pain tend to worsen during periods of stress. However, even a person without any underlying medical condition may experience non-specific pains throughout the body. Headaches are very common with stress. It is often associated with muscle spasm of the neck, shoulders and upper back.
But patients with migraines, cluster headaches and other headache syndromes may find an aggravation of pain when stressed as well as increase in the frequency of attacks. This often leads to overuse of pain medication or the need for stronger painkillers which can ultimately contribute to drug misuse.
Impaired immune activity is also common with prolonged stress. Most people who are otherwise healthy may not detect these immune changes. It is usually marked by frequent infections, like a recurrent flu or cold. It is also common for the flu or cold to persist for longer than usual and for complications like bronchitis to arise thereafter. Due to this decrease in the effectiveness of the immune system, some people experiencing long periods of stress may develop pulmonary tuberculosis (TB) if they are exposed to people with an active infection. The dip in the immune system may also be associated with poor eating habits, inadequate sleep and other health changes as a result of stress.
An elevation of blood pressure can also occur for short periods of time when stressed. It is often a transient fluctuation in a person who otherwise has a normal blood pressure. Usually intense stress will cause a moderate rise in heart rate and blood pressure in these patients. However, in hypertensive patients there may be an elevation in blood pressure even if it was previously well managed with medication. People who are at high risk may find that hypertension develops and persists following a stressful period in life. It often progresses to a chronic state. Stress was not the cause but can serve as a trigger for a person with contributing factors for developing hypertension.
Abnormalities in blood glucose levels does occur for short periods of time during episodes of severe stress. However, in a person with otherwise normal glucose tolerance these fluctuations should not occur for a prolonged period of time. It is more likely to affect a diabetic.
Long periods of abstaining from food, due to appetite changes associated with stress, can cause dips in the blood glucose levels (hypoglycemia). Diabetics as well as people with pre-diabetes also need to be cautious when stressed as the alterations in blood glucose levels may require a change in any current drug regimen and appropriate diet or lifestyle changes.
Feeling tired is a daily occurrence, especially at the end of a long day. Some days you will feel more tired than usual if you had an unusually busy day. Fatigue is extreme tiredness that does not correlate to the level of activity in the day. It is common in many physical and psychological conditions. With stress, a person is fatigued most of the time even after a full night’s sleep. There may be episodes of energetic activity and emotional outbursts but generally a person is in a low state and constantly tired. Changes in eating habits, alterations in glucose levels and physical fitness all contribute to the level of fatigue. Therefore it may vary one person to another.
Mood changes and extremes of mood are also common with stress. A person may switch from an otherwise placcid state to irritation and anger within seconds and then back to the original mood. These mood changes can be associated with certain mental health and hormone-related conditions as well so it is important for a person to be screened thoroughly by a doctor. Uncharacteristic outbursts at even trivial incidents is the main sign but it can also be prolonged like days of depression, agitation and irritability. Anxiety is another common sign of being stressed and nervousness about situations that were otherwise not of concern to a person.
Sensitivity to stimuli in a person who is stressed may vary from finding the TV too loud while others are comfortable with the volume to an intolerance to bright light, loud sounds and touch that may lead to outbursts. It is usually associated with mental irritation and restlessness.
Sensitivity to stimuli may lead a person to change certain aspects of their lifestyle, from keeping the curtains drawn all the time, avoiding places with loud crowds, altering the temperature of bath water and not wanting to be intimate with partners. However, as with many of the other signs of stress it is important to first exclude underlying diseases that may be the cause.