Can Stress Physically Hurt?

For years we’ve been referring to stress as the “silent killer.” In actuality, your body is screaming symptoms at you to decompress, but we often don’t associate those signs with being chronically stressed.

Pain in the Neck

Do you suffer from tension headaches or migraines? This may be a clear sign to take a step back. Muscle tension in the neck, shoulders and upper back can lead to these chronic headaches, meaning that your muscles are “on guard” against stressors.

Harder to Breathe

Stress also affects your respiratory system. If you’ve ever had a panic attack then you know what hyperventilating, or rapid breath, feels like. This type of breathing can also be due to physical stress, like exercise. When you get dizzy during your workout it’s because your body can’t push oxygenated blood cells to your brain quickly enough to keep up with what you’re demanding of it. 

Tugging at Heart Strings

When presented with acute stress, your fight-or-flight response kicks in. You feel the sudden rush of adrenaline and a rapid heartbeat, but this all dissipates once the situation has passed. Conversely, chronic stress can lead to real lasting damage to the heart. The roller coaster of heart rate, stress hormones and blood pressure increases your risk of hypertension, heart attack, and even stroke.

Tummy Troubles

The old expression “trust your gut” isn’t just a saying. Your stomach has over 100 million neurons lining it that are often referred to as the “Little Brain.” This network of cells communicates with your actual brain via the vagus nerve. When you’re presented with a dangerous or uncomfortable situation, blood is redirected from your gut to your muscles (giving you that flushed feeling), and the “butterflies” are your stomach’s reaction to that shift. If stress is very severe, it can cause vomiting, bloating, nausea and pain. It may also affect your digestion, leading to bowel issues, especially if you suffer from IBS, IBD, or Crohn’s Disease. 

How to Manage Physical Effects of Stress

  • As with most things, exercise helps. Make time for a physical activity that you enjoy. Go for a walk during lunch, lift weights after work, or take your dog for a jog in the morning. Countless studies demonstrate the improvement of mental health from exercise. 
  • Make time for mindfulness. Be sure to have an evacuation plan when you feel stress rising, like focusing on your breath, reading, stretching, or a solitary stroll with your thoughts. 
  • If your stress is affecting your daily life, be sure to chat with your physician or psychotherapist about solutions and coping mechanisms.