Physical Symptoms of Stress

What are the physical symptoms of stress?

Do you ever find yourself suffering with a racing heart, sweats, butterflies in your chest or stomach, flushed face, dry mouth….? Well the chances are you are under some sort of stress, as these are some of the most immediate – and noticeable - physical symptoms of stress that we get. Your body is working hard to help you deal with a threat that it perceives to your well being, by getting you ready for an extreme physical response – the “fight or flight” response, which most of the time you don’t need to put into action - and it is preparing itself by:

  • Redirecting blood to where it will be needed most, such as the limbs and heart – ready to run – and away from your skin leaving you pale.
  • Creating greater tension in the muscles in readiness
  • Producing lots of adrenalin and other hormones to give you an extra surge of energy
  • Stopping digestive processes, giving you that sinking feeling, butterflies etc., and maybe even making you need an urgent visit to the toilet

Usually, once you are away from whatever is stressing you out, whether literally and physically, or psychologically in your mind, these symptoms begin to ease and you are able to relax. Unfortunately the effect of all those physical and chemical reactions still linger, and if you are unable to dissipate them, or they are repeated over time, will start to cause damage to your body.

NB: I am not a doctor, and nothing I have written here or anywhere else for that matter, should be taken as a substitute for a consultation with a qualified medical practitioner. If you feel ill, see the Doc! On the other hand, I have read a lot of what doctors and medical researchers have written about the physical effects of stress and what you see here is a quick distillation of that information.

It is an establised medical fact that stress damages your body.

Hidden physical symptoms of stress

These are just those physical symptoms of stress that you know about because you can feel them and in some cases see them. There are some other equally if not more important and immediate effects of stress on your body that happen below your conscious awareness. This includes the constriction and slowing of your blood flow (some of which *can* be observed, for example in a white face because your blood is doing more important things elsewhere) but much of it can’t – and the deeper inside your organs it is, the more critical it is. Your blood is thicker, sludgier, and building up pressure inside your vessels – and you know that can’t be good.

At the same time, and in response to this, various sugars and fatty acids are being released into your bloodstream to help protect against the damage that this change to your blood and its flow can cause.

Your body's natural responses are protecting you...

The raised blood pressure causes damage – tiny lesions, thinning of the vessels walls and so on – and your body responds by sending lots of healing elements to the site and causing inflammation. And although they mean well, if allowed to build up too much without being cleared out when they’ve served their purpose, these elements themselves can become problematic.

Your nerve fibres carrying messages from your system interact with inflammatory cells, stimulating the release of various substances (neuropeptides, statins etc). This is known as “neurogenic inflammation”, and is the reason why these very real physical illnesses are not just “all in the mind” – rather, they are simultaneously both in the mind and in the body, of the “body/mind”, if you will.

.. but can end up hurting you

These substances have valuable jobs to do, helping cure injury by rushing to the sight damage or incursion by some invader, and overwhelming it and burning it out – hence inflammation. Inflammation is fundamental to our body’s healing process, but if it goes on chronically, it becomes a problem in itself. T

here are hundreds of inflammatory conditions that when they occur briefly, are more indicative of health than of illness, in that it is your body doing what it is supposed to do to keep your well. But if an inflammatory response persists over time and is not allowed to be resolved, other problems like skin diseases, lowered immune response, arthritis, asthma, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, and an hundred and one other things can result.

Sometimes you don't know until there is a crisis

And as if that wasn’t enough, there are those physical effects of stress that can be building up out of your sensory awareness but that you know nothing about until something dramatic happens. An example of this is where pieces of the plaque that has built up in your blood vessels in response to stress break away and start to wander around your blood system. Depending on where such things end up, this may result in thrombosis, stroke or a heart attack.

Ideally, none of us would let it get that far. But in reality, partly because we lead stressful lives, and partly because we don’t fully appreciate the impact of stress on our bodies, we do.

So what can we do about it? See some of our other pages about approaches to reducing stress.

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