It's rare to find someone who doesn't say he or she is stressed. Holidays stress us, work stresses us, family stresses us…it can get overwhelming.
In fact, a recent survey of over 3,000 women conducted by HealthyWomen, Prevention magazine and health care communications agency GCI Health, discovered that 40 percent of women experience stress constantly—multiple times a day. Twenty-six percent experience it daily, and 22 percent experience it once or twice a week. What's interesting, though, is how stress can present itself in our bodies. It can be different from one woman to the next.
Sophia L. Thomas DNP, APRN, FNP-BC, PPCNP-BC, FNAP, FAANP and President of American Association of Nurse Practitioners says that when patients come to her office, they don't tell her they're stressed out. “Patients say 'I'm having headaches, not sleeping, having abdominal pain. What's wrong with me?'" she says. “They present with physical symptoms, not realizing that they're stress related. They're living in a state of stress and it's their normal. The general population is used to this."
Part of conquering this problem is educating both patients and health care providers. “Once we get an awareness of this stress and all the different things it can cause, we can get people to go to their primary care provider, who can guide the treatment on ways to control stress," says Thomas. “It takes spending a lot of time with patients to get an awareness about stress."
Here are a few symptoms of stress you should discuss with your health care provider. Thinking it can wait? Read about what happens if stress is left untreated.
Many people experience changes in their sex drives during stressful periods. Some studies have found that higher levels of stress are associated with less sexual desire, arousal and satisfaction. “When you're stressed, it's all-consuming," says Thomas. “You can't relax enough to enjoy intimacy with your partner."
Aches and pains
Aches and pains are a common complaint that can result from increased levels of stress. Studies have shown that increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol may be associated with chronic pain. One study showed that people with chronic pain had higher levels of cortisol in their hair, an indicator of prolonged stress.
Seventy-two percent of women don't sleep well when stressed. Considering the importance of sleep on overall health, that is a major reason to take charge of stressors in our lives. “Sleep deprivation leads to all sorts of health issues, like obesity, memory problems, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and depression," says Beth Battaglino, RN-C, CEO of HealthyWomen. “When stress gets in the way of sleep, it's a sign that your stress needs to be taken seriously." Plus, when you experience sleep issues from stress, it can lead to low energy levels. Constantly enduring a poor night's sleep means the longer you're experiencing low energy.
Typically, hair grows, stops growing and then falls off. However, stress interferes with hair growth and accelerates it from falling off. That's mainly caused by an interference in the production of hormones due to your stress. You may not lose your hair immediately when you're stressed; it may take up to 3 months before you realize or see hair loss.
Skin, especially your face, is the one place you likely don't want to show your stress. If you experience existing skin conditions like psoriasis or eczema, chronic stress can exacerbate symptoms. Stress triggers chemical changes in your body, making your skin more sensitive. Plus, stress is usually accompanied by an increase in oil production on your skin. That can trigger acne flare-ups if you're prone to them or rashes.
Weak immune system
Stress makes the common cold more miserable and harder to kick by letting inflammation linger, a study found. Men and women in the study who had chronic stress caused by work woes or marital strife were more likely to develop persistent cold symptoms after inhaling the cold virus than their stress-free counterparts. The culprit: cortisol, a stress hormone that serves as the off switch for the body's inflammatory response. With chronic stress, cortisol is overproduced, and the immune system becomes resistant. In the absence of the off switch, inflammation lingers long after the cold virus is gone.
During times of stress, some people put on the pounds, eating everything in sight. Others shed them, skipping meals or forgetting to eat. Besides weight loss, eating less food can cause nutritional deficiencies and health complications. This appetite changes are happening since stress causes hormonal changes in the body. An increased production of hormones cortisol and adrenaline can affect your appetite. And that leads you to make poor eating habits.
When we're anxious, our breathing can become shallow and rapid, known as hyperventilation. This response enables our lungs to take in more oxygen and distribute it quickly to our body. This extra oxygen helps our body prepare to either fight or flee a threatening situation. However, hyperventilation can also make it feel as if we aren't getting enough oxygen, so we may gasp for breath. This can exacerbate the hyperventilation and associated symptoms such as dizziness, light-headedness, weakness and tingling.
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