Ever fall asleep thinking about a project at work and wake up the next day with a splitting headache and pain in your jaw? Or been on the go with the kids all day and ended up with stomach cramps and a bad case of the runs? Don’t blame it on the weather or bad luck! It could be your body’s way of saying you’re too stressed out.
Headaches and stomach problems are among several seemingly mundane ailments that could signify you’re under too much tension in your life, says Dr. Kenneth L. Savage Jr., an osteopathic physician at the University Community Hospital Physician Care Group in Tampa, Fla. “It’s normal to have some level of stress,” he says. “When it becomes abnormal — or your body can’t handle it — that’s when things start to happen.”
In the worst-case scenario, stress can lead to high blood pressure, heart problems, mood disorders and other issues. But it can also be the source of more common health issues. Do any of these sound familiar?
Argh! My skin’s so itchy!
A sudden outbreak of hives or a rash can be a sign of tension (assuming you haven’t walked into a patch of poison ivy recently). Stress taxes your body by causing its energy to funnel away from the immune system, says Savage. This can lead to the abnormal release of inflammatory substances in your skin — and suddenly, you’re scratching away. Too much tension in your life can also worsen rashes you’re already susceptible to, such as allergy-related dermatitis or the itchy scalp and greasy dandruff of seborrheic dermatitis.
Try: An outdoor walk or bike ride. “A little bit of sunlight and exercise can be healthy,” says Savage. Moderate sun exposure provides your body with vitamin D, and it can improve your mood and well-being. Staying active also benefits your circulatory and immune systems.
Yuck! A cold sore!
Tingling on your lip, then an ugly, crusty red blister … you know it’s another cold sore, and right before an important meeting at work too! Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1. Although the initial infection comes through direct contact with someone who has the virus, recurrences can crop up when you’re under stress because your immune system isn’t strong enough to fight it off.
Try: Saying no once in a while. “Manage stress by controlling the source of the stress,” says Savage. If your workload is weighing you down, talk to your boss about delegating some tasks. If all those school fundraisers are taking up too much time, remember that you don’t have to volunteer for all of them.
Achoo! I’m sick again!
Sure, you’re bound to catch a cold every so often — especially when everyone in your office has the sniffles. But you’re more likely to come down with a runny nose and scratchy throat when your body is already run down by an overactive schedule or lack of sleep.
Try: Getting your z’s. Adequate sleep doesn’t just make you feel refreshed in the morning; it also boosts your immunity and makes you less prone to picking up your coworkers’ or kids’ colds. Go to bed an hour earlier and see what a difference it makes.
Ugh! My stomach hurts!
How we care for our bodies while under stress can cause as many problems as the stress itself. If you’re so busy shuttling the kids to dance class and baseball practice that you’re skipping meals or grabbing fast food all the time, that’s a formula for stomach upset, diarrhea or constipation.
Try: Planning ahead. Shop on Sunday for a week’s worth of healthy meals, including dishes you can serve as leftovers the next day. Knowing you have the dinner situation under control is one less thing to stress out about. Keep fruit, plain yogurt and other nutritious snacks in the fridge so you can grab them and go.
Ow! My jaw’s so sore!
Stress doesn’t magically end at the end of the day. Going to bed with worries on your mind may lead you to clench or grind your teeth while you sleep — a condition called bruxism. If you often wake up with an aching jaw, head or ear, or if your teeth seem worn or chipped, see your dentist. He may prescribe a mouth guard or suggest ways to keep your mouth relaxed at night.
Try: Winding down before hitting the sack. Practice 10 minutes of yoga, listen to soft music or read a book so your dreams stay sweet and stress-free. You may also want to look into a process called biofeedback, which trains people to watch and use signals from their bodies. It’s been shown to be useful in some bruxism cases, according to Tampa Bay Jaw and Facial Surgery.