Stress is a normal and natural reaction to life's many challenges, and everyone experiences it at some point. A 2015 study polled individuals and found that over 30% of people report having high levels of stress. Though some people can manage stress better than others, excessive or chronic stress tends to affect everyone's health. Symptoms of stress can manifest in a variety of ways. Everyone experiences stress differently; the mental and physical symptoms vary from person to person.
One of the most visible signs of stress is acne. A study of 94 teenagers found that higher stress levels seem to correlate with objectively worse acne, particularly in males. Researchers are still attempting to discover if stress causes breakouts directly, or if there are other contributing factors as well. For example, when people experience stress, they touch their faces more often, which contributes to the spreading of bacteria and could then lead to acne.
Some people complain about pain and aches when stressed. Multiple studies link the stress hormone cortisol to chronic pain. One study built comparisons between 16 people with back pain to a control group and discovered that individuals with worse pain had more cortisol in their systems. Stress hormones frequently cause muscle tension, which can lead to chronic pain. Some people who experience stress describe shoulder tension that is painful to the touch. It may be that people who are stressed unconsciously tense their muscles. It is not clear whether stress brings on the pain or whether stress is a consequence of dealing with pain and discomfort.
Sweating may seem like a strange symptom of stress. The American Institute of Stress lists multiple types that could indicate stress, including general sweating over the whole body, and sweaty hands and feet. A 2006 study in the British Journal of Dermatology studied 20 people with palmar hyperhidrosis, which is excessive sweating of the hands. Stress and exercise caused both the palmar hyperhidrosis subjects and the control group to sweat more. When a person is stressed, stress hormones flood the body, raising one's temperature and prompting the sweat glands to try to cool the body.
Some people feel as though they are constantly fighting a cold or flu and exhibit minor but persistent symptoms of those illnesses. Stress can weaken the immune system, which may lead to both more frequent and possibly more severe illnesses. As with many stress symptoms, researchers are still trying to find a direct link. People with high levels of stress tend to be physically inactive and have worse diets, both of which can weaken the immune system.
Frequent headaches are one of the most common symptoms of stress. In a study of 267 people with chronic headaches, researchers found that almost half of the subjects had recently experienced a stressful event. A later, larger study confirmed the results and stated that higher levels of stress led to more headaches each month. Stress seems to boost the frequency of both tension and migraine headaches.
If a person experiences stress over an extended period, it can begin to affect their sleep. People with high levels of work-related stress tend to be sleepier, but have more difficulty falling asleep. Many studies support the links between stress and insomnia, but doctors have yet to discover the internal cause. Some doctors suggest that stressful events cause anxiety, which then leads to insomnia. Others state that stress is often the result of lifestyle choices such as a tendency to work too much and that these individuals are more likely to have insomnia because of these tendencies.
Many people experience changes in appetite during moments of intense stress. Some might binge [on] unhealthy foods, while others find their appetites drastically reduced. A study in the journal Nutrition Research found that 81% of college students experienced appetite issues during periods of stress. An increase in appetite is more common than a loss. In the study, those who increased the amount they ate made more unhealthy food choices and consumed more foods high in sugar. High cortisol levels could be responsible, though this symptom could also be due to changes in the production of ghrelin, a hunger hormone.
People who are stressed often experience digestive issues and changes in appetite. They may report bloating, stomach pain, constipation, and diarrhea in moments of intense stress. Individuals with inflammatory bowel disease or irritable bowel syndrome may be particularly sensitive to stress. The reaction is the result of the body's fight or flight response, and both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems help regulate this response. These systems also interact with the enteric nervous system responsible for digestion. During the fight or flight response, the body redirects energy that would be used for digestion to the muscles, so a person can flee or do battle. This shift in priorities can lead to digestive disturbances.
Hundreds of studies discuss the link between depression and stress. Some suggest that chronic stress causes depression symptoms, while others state that people with depression are more susceptible to stress and have fewer resources to deal with it. In either case, stress and depression are linked. People who experience the former tend to skip the strategies that consciously and subconsciously help to regulate mood, which can lead to depression. Additionally, the symptoms of stress and depression compound each other, worsening both conditions.
Along with insomnia, people with stress often report feeling tired or fatigued. This could be the result of a lack of sleep, but the fatigue tends to appear even before insomnia or other sleep-related issues begin. A study of 2,400 people found that fatigue has a strong association with high stress. It is also likely that the lifestyle changes that cause increased stress contribute to both mental and physical fatigue.
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