Stress is a normal part of life, and it's the feeling you get when you must make an important decision or when you're trying to meet a deadline at work. Stress hormones help us push through these situations and keep going.

But when stress becomes chronic, it can be harmful to your health. As a result, it may manifest with physical symptoms. Learn more about stress, its causes, and possible physical symptoms.

What is stress?

Stress refers to a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances. It's the body's way of reacting to a situation or event that we perceive as threatening.

What causes stress?

Many different factors may cause stress, including:

  • unexpected changes in your routine;
  • financial difficulties;
  • relationship issues, e.g., divorce;
  • negative thoughts like worrying excessively about the future;
  • Some illnesses, such as chronic pain;
  • work-related issues like poor work conditions;
  • major life changes such as moving house or getting married;
  • internal pressures such as worry, guilt, or regret about past events.

What are the physical signs of stress?

Stress can manifest physically, and it's not always obvious. Here are 6 signs in your body that may be caused by stress:

  1. Digestive problems: Stress is often associated with digestive issues such as constipation and diarrhea because the gastrointestinal tract is one of the main sites where the body produces cortisol (a stress hormone). When you're stressed out, your body produces more cortisol so that you're prepared to deal with whatever danger might be coming your way, whether real or imagined. Unfortunately, this means your gut doesn't get the rest needed to perform its vital functions properly, leading to gastrointestinal symptoms such as bloating, constipation, diarrhea, and heartburn (reflux).

  2. Headaches and migraines: Headaches develop when blood vessels in the brain become inflamed due to excessive stimulation from neurotransmitters like norepinephrine and serotonin. The pain associated with these headaches may be dull or sharp. It can range from mild discomfort to debilitating pain that prevents you from doing anything else but sitting still until the headache passes.

  3. Skin conditions: Stress can cause acne breakouts, eczema, and psoriasis. When your body is under stress, it produces more cortisol to help you deal with the situation at hand. Cortisol may cause the oil glands in your skin to secrete more oil, which leads to clogged pores and acne breakouts. It also breaks down collagen and elastin fibers in your skin, which help keep it firm, making it look wrinkled and saggy.

  4. Unexplained fatigue: If you're tired all the time but have no idea why it could be due to stress. This fatigue can make it challenging to get through the day without needing a nap or multiple cups of coffee. When fatigue is prolonged or unexplained, it may be a sign of chronic stress.

  5. Weight gain/loss: Stress changes hunger hormones such as ghrelin (which makes you hungry) and leptin (which tells you when you've had enough). This may explain why people who are stressed tend to gain weight or lose too much weight compared with those who aren't stressed out.

  6. Reproductive problems: Stress may affect reproductive systems in both men and women by causing low sperm count or reducing fertility in women. It may also result in early menopause in women due to hormonal imbalance caused by stress hormones that trigger a fight-or-flight response during physical or emotional distress.

Take away

Everyone experiences stress to some degree at some point in their lives. However, the bodies of even healthy people can be negatively affected by the physical effects of stress. Some symptoms may seem harmless on their own, but in combination with others or when very severe, they can be problematic. Keeping track of your physical health could ultimately prevent more serious complications such as heart disease and high blood pressure.