The experience of feeling stressed is a pretty broadly understood one. I mean, how many times have you said “I’m feeling stressed” in the past year? I’m assuming it’s a few.
But if I was to ask you to describe the feeling of stress in your body, what would you say? Tightness in the chest? A restless mind? Low energy? A short temper? There are some symptoms that are ubiquitously associated with stressed out bodies, but, as I’ve learnt, stress can present in a whole host of different ways. Some of which are kind of unusual-seeming.
For that reason, I chatted with Lysn psychologist Nancy Sokarno who kindly shared 5 lesser known ways your body can react to stress.
Surprising bodily reactions to stress
Now, before we dive into the more surprising ways your body can respond to stress, it’s worth quickly covering off some of the more common signs you’re stressed out.
These, as Sokarno explained over email, “can range from a rapid heartbeat, headaches, chest pain, low energy, insomnia, tightened muscles, quick breathing and sometimes even loss of sexual desire“.
While the vast majority of us will experience the above, that is not where the list ends.
I’d like to point out here that if ever you experience health symptoms that leave you concerned, it is always a good idea to speak with your doctor and/or a mental health professional about what that could mean for you. This list can act as a general guide on the many ways stress can impact your health, however.
So let’s explore further, shall we?
Feeling stressed can change your hair
If you’ve ever heard someone comment about a stressful experience causing their hair to turn grey, there’s a chance they’re right.
Sokarno explained that “Stress can unfortunately affect your hair, by making it fall out (or even go grey)”.
“This happens when the stress hormone Cortisol causes hair that is already grown [to] move into the telogen part of the hair cycle quicker. In some cases, when the body is experiencing stress, as much as 70 percent of hair can prematurely enter this phase and begin to fall out…”
Hair loss or damage can also be accelerated by stress-fueled habits like pulling, twisting or playing with hair.
You may experience hot flashes
No, this is not just a menopausal symptom. Being stressed out can leave you feeling hot and sweaty because “Your sweat glands are activated by your nerves which are often sensitive to emotions, hormones, and other stressors,” Sokarno said.
She explained that while there isn’t really a clear reason as to why people experience this reaction, but “some scientists have said they think it’s because sweat makes people more slippery and difficult for a predator to catch. The sudden sensation of heat, or hot flash happens to some people because your body is going through the flight or fight response which is its way of preparing for perceived danger”.
Stress can put your sense of smell into overdrive
This is a particularly weird one. But, as with all other physical responses, there are theories about why stress may set off our sense of smell.
Sokarno shared that this reaction “is thought to be linked back to evolution, given that our smell is amongst the oldest of the senses”.
“…put simply – our bodies experience a heightened sense of smell when we’re stressed as a way of sniffing out a threat. The main theory behind this is that stress puts the body in a hyper-aware state, so our brains work harder to sniff out the danger.”
So if you find yourself noticing scents more readily, it may be a sign it’s time to assess how you’re doing emotionally.
Feeling stressed out can result in a weakened immune system
“When we’re stressed, we’re more susceptible to getting sick because our immune system’s ability to fight off antigens is reduced,” said Sokarno.
“Stress decreases the body’s lymphocytes which are the white blood cells that help fight off infection. In addition to that, stress raises the body’s cortisol levels, which can weaken your immune system if they stay high for too long.”
If you’re finding that you are getting sick more often than usual, it’s always a good idea to chat with your doctor generally – but yes, stress could be the culprit behind it all.
Memory lapses may become more common
As we’ve covered before, the impact of stress or mental health struggles on memory is pretty notable. Sokarno explained that “it has been proven that chronic stress has an influence on cognitive ability; negatively impacting your spatial memory”.
If you’re wondering, “Spatial memory is the memory responsible for the recording and recovery of information needed to plan a journey to a location, or to recall the location of an object, or the occurrence of an event”.
It sounds quite scary but many experts suggest that these kinds of difficulties with memory are usually temporary, and once life settles somewhat you’ll usually find it returns to its previous state.
In any case, if one or more of the above are causing you grief in your day-to-day, it’s probably worth giving yourself a bit of a break and chatting with a health professional about how to best get your body feeling 100 per cent again.