“Sometimes stress can mount over time, so you don’t really realize you have it,” says clinical psychologist Thea Gallagher, PsyD. “People don’t realize they’re stressed because nothing substantive has changed. It can be a slow burn.” Denial, which is a coping mechanism, can also keep you from realizing you’re stressed, says clinical psychologist John Mayer, PhD, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life.
“People don’t realize they’re stressed because nothing substantive has changed. It can be a slow burn.” —clinical psychologist Thea Gallagher, PsyD
But whether or not certain signs of stress register on your awareness radar, they can still make an impact on your body and general functioning. “When stress levels are chronically high, it can cause problems for you, even if you don’t consciously realize you’re stressed,” says psychiatrist Gail Saltz, MD, author of The Power of Different. Because your mind and body are interconnected, she says stress can manifest certain physical symptoms in your body. “Those symptoms can be your body’s way of communicating that things aren’t great,” Dr. Saltz says.
Below find some of the more common ways your body is trying to clue you in that you might be more stressed than you realize.
Below find 8 signs of stress that might not even register on your radar.
1. You’re grinding your teeth at night
Stress creates extra energy in your body—particularly in your muscles, says Dr. Mayer. But that energy needs to go somewhere when you’re sleeping. “At night, while the whole of your body may be at rest, your jaw muscles tighten and thus force the grinding of your teeth,” he says. Grinding your teeth, which is a condition known as bruxism, can cause a sore jaw, headache, and even the wearing down your tooth enamel, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
2. You're having spontaneous weight fluctuations
When you’re stressed, your body typically releases the hormone cortisol, Dr. Saltz says. Higher levels of cortisol in your body can cause a change in your appetite, which can present differently in each person. Some people, she says, may eat more when they’re stressed, while others will eat less.
3. You're experiencing digestive issues
High levels of stress and anxiety can cause your body to produce more stomach acid, Dr. Saltz says. That can lead to aches, heartburn, diarrhea, and a host of other digestive issues. And, if you have an underlying digestive condition like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), stress can make it worse.
4. You’re more forgetful than normal
Stress is distracting, even if you don’t consciously realize you’re experiencing it. “Cortisol release affects the brain and bathes it when you’re in a stressful situation,” Dr. Saltz says. “That can cause issues with remembering things.” Plus, says Dr. Mayer, you can also only process so much at once. “The mind will give worries and fears high priority in times of stress, thus blocking the memories for everyday things,” he says.
5. You're having sleeping issues
Higher levels of cortisol in your body can make it difficult to go to sleep in the first place and hard to stay asleep once you’ve conked out for the night, Dr. Saltz says. “You’re in fight or flight mode, like an overriding sense of alarm,” Dr. Mayer says.
6. You’re having strange dreams
Subconscious thoughts can often come out in dreams. “When you fall asleep, those negative thoughts keep spinning in your brain,” Dr. Mayer says, adding that when you sleep, those thoughts can get jumbled into combinations that don’t make sense, creating strange dreams.
7. You’re more critical of your partner than usual
Stress allows irritability to build up inside of you. “We don’t have many targets to discharge this agitation on without creating more stress, so we discharge it on those closest to us, like our partners,” Dr. Mayer says.
8. You’re having muscle spasms
This is a “common side effect of stress,” Dr. Mayer says, adding that the reason for this is likely similar to why you might start grinding your teeth. That's because the energy that stress creates has a direct impact on your muscles and, in order to get rid of that energy, your muscles contract and release involuntarily.
How to deal with these signs of stress
Realize that one or a few of these symptoms apply to you? If so, Dr. Gallagher suggests taking stock of stressors in your life. Has anything changed recently? And how is your life different now than when you weren’t experiencing these symptoms? “Sometimes, simply becoming aware of the stressors in your life can help,” she says.
If the stress centers upon feeling responsible for an unreasonable number of tasks, Dr. Gallagher recommends talking with your partner or manager or other important people in your life about how to share in a more manageable and equitable way. Furthermore, speaking with a mental-health professional about any struggles you're experiencing is never a bad idea. This person will likely be able to help you find healthy ways for recognizing and coping with your stress.
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