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Updated 03 January 2014

12 stress signals of the body

The human body has ways of sending you distress signals. Here's how to recognise them and why you should take notice.

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Money, work, kids, in-laws, home repairs, relationship problems – basically if you're not stressed to the hilt, you haven't been opening your mail, e-mail, or answering the phone.

Imagine a fire station on full alert – all emergency vehicles are set to race off, all staff members are dressed and ready, all equipment has been checked and uploaded, and only really essential things are given any attention.

That's what happens to our bodies when we become more and more stressed: our bodies give the on-full-alert signal, but the phone call never comes to say where the fire is, or even if there is one.

You're ready to fight or flee, and a flood of stress hormones washes through your body, preparing it for a life-or-death battle which never comes. And now you have adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol rushing through your system, all dressed up with nowhere to go.

And as your spouse bickers, or the bank manager phones, or the kids fight again, you just never get to switch off that panic button.

These stress hormones can do a lot of physical and mental damage as they coast around your system. They're sending blood to your muscles, increasing your heartbeat, reducing blood flow to the vessels under the skin, and dilating your pupils. Our body's natural response is to try and restore some sense of equilibrium, but this doesn't always work.

Here are 12 ways to tell that your body is begging you to slow down:

You're losing it. You snap at people, even though it's not in your nature, and you feel that it takes a great deal of effort to control your temper. This is because constant stress depletes and weakens your mood-lifting mechanisms.

You feel lightheaded. It's difficult to think straight when you're really stressed. An adrenaline surge causes blood flow to be partially diverted from your brain, and sent to your muscles, so you can either run away from the threat, or attack it. Hence the feeling of lightheadedness.

You breathe more quickly. Your muscles need increased oxygen levels to function at their best. The only way to make this happen, is to speed up the breathing process.

You can't sleep. Racing thoughts and anxious feelings would keep anyone awake. A complex chemical process leads to our falling asleep every night. This process is severely hampered by the constant presence of high levels of cortisol, which are supposed to be at their lowest levels at night.

You get eczema or urticaria. Excess cortisol in the body stimulates the release of histamine. And the next thing you know, you've come up in hives, or your eczema has flared up again. Or you have a nasty bout of urticaria, which can make you itchy for weeks.

You sweat. When you're stressed, your heart rate and breathing speed up and your blood pressure also increases. This causes you to sweat more in order to keep your body temperature even.

Your vision blurs. There are many different causes of blurred vision, but some of them, such as high blood pressure, can be made worse by stress. Blurred vision is also a symptom of migraines, which are often caused by stress.

You need the toilet all the time. When you're stressed, your body gets depleted of vitamin B6, and this can lead to frequent urination. Some people who suffer from anxiety especially suffer from this condition at night, when it stops them from getting a decent night's sleep.

Your weight seesaws. Constant high cortisol levels can interfere with your metabolism and lead to unexpected weight gain. Stress and hormonal disturbances, among other things, can also trigger a condition in women called PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome) of which obesity is a symptom. Ongoing stress can also make you lose weight, as stressed people not only use more energy as a result of their constant state of high alert, but they also neglect eating a healthy diet, or eating regularly.

You're drinking more. Many people respond to stressful situations by increasing their alcohol consumption. Alcohol, when taken in moderation (1 unit) can indeed be a stress release, but oddly enough, when taken in greater quantities, actually makes the stress worse.

Frequent infections. When your body goes on full alert, as it does when you're stressed out, all other bodily functions take a bit of a back seat. Your immune system is one of them. Getting ill, or suffering from infections after an exam, or a break-up, or some upheaval at work is nothing strange. Your immune system has simply not been firing on all cylinders, and your body is telling you to slow down.

No interest in sex. Believe it or not, your body doesn't register sex as a life essential, especially in the face of danger. And constant high stress levels will simply play havoc with your libido. A pity, as sex is often a stress reliever in itself.

(Susan Erasmus, Health24.com, updated June 2011)

(Sources: nih.gov; health24.com; cancerhelp.org)

Read more:

Managing stress, anxiety and tension

 
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