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Physical symptoms of stress: Your body is trying to tell you something

Stress isn’t just a state of mind. It’s something that can create chaos in your body. Experts say poor physical health can often signal poor mental health. 

A recent survey found that 80% of U.S. adults feel the coronavirus pandemic is a significant source of stress in their lives. And 60% of those responding said the number of issues America faces is overwhelming. 
A recent survey found that 80% of U.S. adults feel the coronavirus pandemic is a significant source of stress in their lives. And 60% of those responding said the number of issues America faces is overwhelming. 
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Think of them as warning signs. Something is not right. Maybe you’re not sleeping well. Or you’re getting more headaches than usual. You have no appetite and bouts of nausea, too.

Stress isn’t just a state of mind. It’s something that can create chaos in your body. Experts say poor physical health can often signal poor mental health.

“A lot of times, our body is trying to communicate to us when we’re not in a good spot,” said Vaile Wright, senior director of health care innovation for the American Psychological Association.

The group’s 2020 Stress in America survey found that Americans have been severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic while also coping with other persistent stressors — such as political polarization and racial discrimination.

The survey found that 80% of adults in the United States believe the coronavirus pandemic is a significant source of stress in their lives, and 60% said the number of issues America faces is overwhelming.

“We would be automatons if we didn’t have some emotional reaction or physical reaction to stress,” said Vanessa Kennedy, director of psychology at Driftwood Recovery, an addiction and mental health rehabilitation center in Texas. “But we can certainly mitigate the response ... by making sure that we check in with ourselves each day and make a conscious effort to really pay attention to our bodies.”

When someone experiences an increased level of stress, the body releases stress hormones — cortisol and adrenaline are among the most well-known. This prepares the body for fight or flight — our evolutionary response to a threat.

The problem, Kennedy said, is when stress becomes chronic. Prolonged release of stress hormones increases the overall level of inflammation in the body and can lead to longer term health effects.

Research shows stress affects the nervous system and can even cause structural changes in the brain, which can change how we think and alter our memory. Stress also can weaken our immune system, making us more susceptible to illness. And prolonged stress can worsen health conditions like cardiovascular disease or respiratory problems.

Nearly one in five Americans say their mental health is worse than it was a year ago, according to an October report from the APA.

“Maintaining a level of hyper-arousal isn’t really sustainable,” Wright said. “It’s too much. It just wears you down.”

Kennedy said sometimes it’s easier for people to focus on physical symptoms than it is to identify what they’re feeling emotionally. It’s why she advises patients to perform a daily body scan.

“We’re not going to be aware day to day as we’re just trying to put one foot in front of the other about how we’re feeling or how we’re starting to have a little more muscle tension,” Kennedy said.

To check in, you need to slow down. For 15 minutes, she said, be still and present and pay attention to all your five senses.

“Check in with each muscle group, from your feet to your head,” she said. “You can notice things like, ‘Oh, I’m feeling this lump in my throat,’ or ‘I’m having a mild headache come on,’ or ‘maybe I’m having some fatigue.’ ”

You also can ask yourself:

  • Am I sleeping poorly?
  • Am I eating well?
  • Am I craving unhealthy foods?
  • Am I grinding my teeth?
  • Do I feel body aches?

If you’re answering yes to these questions, “Your body is trying to give you the signal that something either needs to change in the environment, or you need to change your reaction to what’s happening in the environment,” Kennedy said.

She said while stress might not feel good, our body’s responses to it are productive and likely ultimately a good thing if we can use those cues to change what’s in our control. She also points out that one of the things that can be most healing to a body is connection to another person.

“There’s neurochemicals that actually get released in our brains when we’re connecting with other people in a meaningful way,” Kennedy said. “Relationships and connection with others is key.”

Read more at usatoday.com