Everyone experiences stress at some point in their lives. The National Institute for Mental Health defines stress as the body and brain’s response to demand (1). However, not everyone experiences stress in the same way, which is why the signs of stress manifest in different forms for different people.
Here are 9 ways our bodies tell us that we might need to relax.
1. You may be getting sick more often
Ever wake up on a critical day only to realize you’re going to have to call in sick? That could be your body’s way of telling you it’s time to rest and take a moment to decompress. Chronic stress has been shown to negatively impact the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a complex system comprised of the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands responsible for releasing the stress hormone cortisol (2).
Stressors in life come in multiple forms. Some may produce a “fight or flight” type of response and exist in the short term. But others, like continuous psychological stress, could lead to continually elevated cortisol. When cortisol is chronically elevated, the hormone could facilitate serious health consequences, including inflammation and reduced immunity (2, 3).
2. Your skin health deteriorates
Skin is our body’s first line of defense against environmental stressors and can provide insight into our levels of chronic stress. Several studies analyzing the effects of chronic psychological stress found a negative impact on skin health (4-6). Specifically, increased cortisol levels were associated with increased skin oil production and stress-induced hormones from local skin cells promoted inflammation, resulting in conditions such as acne, psoriasis, and other skin issues (4-6).
3. You may be losing extra hair
Losing hair is stressful enough, but losing hair because of stress? It’s a vicious cycle! Yet research has found that telogen effluvium, or excessive hair shedding, maybe one of the ways our bodies respond to stress. Approximately 85% of human hair is actively growing (7). An imbalance in inflammatory molecules can impair hair growth by transitioning actively growing hair into a resting phase during stressful events. Consequently, the hair may eventually fall out as it attempts to re-enter the growing phase (5, 7-8). If you’ve been feeling extra stressed, this means you might shed a lot of hair all at once.
4. You don’t have energy or motivation
There are many reasons you might be feeling extra tired or burned out, and stress could be one of them. In a study of over 2,400 individuals, those who felt more fatigued also indicated feeling more stressed (9). Another study evaluating over 15,000 participants experiencing fatigue found that the chief contributor was psychological distress such as stress and anxiety (10). Though it’s unknown why this link exists, it is hypothesized that this may be due to dysfunction in the HPA axis during stress response (11).
5. You’re sleeping terribly
Whether you have a big test or a public speaking presentation coming up, good sleep isn’t always easy when your mind is racing. Stress can have a strong influence on your sleep. In a 2014 study with over 2,300 participants, increased stress was strongly associated with increased sleep disturbances and insomnia (12). This decrease in sleep quality and quantity often resulted in decreased energy levels and negative impacts on body composition such as increased body fat (13).
6. Your head is throbbing
There are many triggers for headaches and migraines. However, for almost 90% of individuals, headaches and migraines are often one of the first indications of stress (14). Although the exact relationship between this pain is not well-understood, researchers note that the cause is likely an individual’s response to stress rather than the stress itself (15). Healthy lifestyle choices and stress management may help in preventing triggers of headaches.
7. Your tummy seems off
The digestive system is often referred to as the body’s “second brain.” Lining the gut are neurons that communicate with our actual brain, creating the gut-brain axis. Under chronic stress, alterations in the gut-brain axis have been observed due to increased pro-inflammatory bacteria in the gut (16, 17). In turn, the negative changes in the microbiota and gut-brain axis may result in an array of gastrointestinal symptoms or disorders, including bloating, irregular bowel movements, and irritable bowel syndrome (18).
8. You are gaining weight
Stress is often the unseen factor hampering the weight loss efforts of many. While acute stress stemming from a breakup, family trauma, or financial troubles is often associated with unwanted weight loss, chronic stress or ongoing problems lasting for months to years is associated with less nutritious food choices, resulting in weight gain (19, 20).
One study investigating stress’s effect on weight found that increased cortisol was associated with a reduction in dietary restraint and increased calorie intake, leading to weight gain among women (21). The researchers also noted that the increased calories came from foods high in refined carbohydrates and saturated fats (21). Researchers have pinpointed these changes in typical dietary patterns during periods of prolonged stress as a driving factor in the association between chronic stress and obesity.
9. Irregular menstrual cycle
Many things can affect your menstrual cycle—stress, excess exercise, changes in sleep habits, and weight loss—making it difficult to pinpoint the exact cause. It is not uncommon for women to experience delayed, light, or even no period at all when chronically stressed. This alteration in menstrual cycles is partly due to dysfunction in the HPA axis, leading to diminished estrogen levels (22).
When it comes to stress, listen to your body. Adopting good eating habits, getting adequate exercise, and getting enough rest are just a few of the key things you can do to support your body through stress.
- The National Institute of Mental Health. 5 Things You Should Know About Stress. NIH Publication No. 19-MH-8109. Available from: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/stress/
- Zefferino R, Di Gioia S, Conese M. Molecular links between endocrine, nervous and immune system during chronic stress. Brain Behav. 2021 Feb;11(2):e01960.
- Rodriguez AE, Bogart C, Gilbert CM, et. al. Enhanced IL-1β production is mediated by a TLR2-MYD88-NLRP3 signaling axis during coinfection with influenza A virus and Streptococcus pneumoniae. PLoS One. 2019 Feb 22;14(2):e0212236.
- Yosipovitch G, Tang M, Dawn AG, et. al. Study of psychological stress, sebum production and acne vulgaris in adolescents. Acta Derm Venereol. 2007;87(2):135-9.
- Pondeljak N, Lugović-Mihić L. Stress-induced Interaction of Skin Immune Cells, Hormones, and Neurotransmitters. Clin Ther. 2020 May;42(5):757-770.
- Šitum M, Kolić M, Buljan M. [PSYCHODERMATOLOGY]. Acta Med Croatica. 2016;70 Suppl 1:35-8. Croatian. PMID: 29087669.
- Hughes EC, Saleh D. Telogen Effluvium. 2021 Jun 8. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan–. PMID: 28613598.
- Peters EMJ, Müller Y, Snaga W, et al. Hair and stress: A pilot study of hair and cytokine balance alteration in healthy young women under major exam stress. PLoS One. 2017 Apr 19;12(4):e0175904.
- Kocalevent RD, Hinz A, Brähler E, et al. Determinants of fatigue and stress. BMC Res Notes. 2011 Jul 20;4:238.
- Pawlikowska T, Chalder T, Hirsch SR, et al. Population based study of fatigue and psychological distress. BMJ. 1994 Mar 19;308(6931):763-6.
- Cleare AJ, Wessely SC. Chronic fatigue syndrome: a stress disorder? Br J Hosp Med. 1996 May 1-14;55(9):571-4.
- Drake CL, Pillai V, Roth T. Stress and sleep reactivity: a prospective investigation of the stress-diathesis model of insomnia. Sleep. 2014 Aug 1;37(8):1295-304.
- Geiker NRW, Astrup A, Hjorth MF, et al. Does stress influence sleep patterns, food intake, weight gain, abdominal obesity and weight loss interventions and vice versa? Obes Rev. 2018 Jan;19(1):81-97.
- Houle T, Nash JM. Stress and headache chronification. Headache. 2008 Jan;48(1):40-4.
- Sauro KM, Becker WJ. The stress and migraine interaction. Headache. 2009 Oct;49(9):1378-86.
- Konturek PC, Brzozowski T, Konturek SJ. Stress and the gut: pathophysiology, clinical consequences, diagnostic approach and treatment options. J Physiol Pharmacol. 2011 Dec;62(6):591-9.
- Househam AM, Peterson CT, Mills PJ, et al. The Effects of Stress and Meditation on the Immune System, Human Microbiota, and Epigenetics. Adv Mind Body Med. 2017 Fall;31(4):10-25.
- Pellissier S, Bonaz B. The Place of Stress and Emotions in the Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Vitam Horm. 2017;103:327-354.
- Chao A, Grilo CM, White MA, et. al. Food cravings mediate the relationship between chronic stress and body mass index. J Health Psychol. 2015 Jun; 20(6): 721–729.
- Masih T, Dimmock JA, Epel ES, et al. Stress-induced eating and the relaxation response as a potential antidote: A review and hypothesis. Appetite. 2017 Nov 1;118:136-143.
- Roberts CJ, Campbell IC, Troop N. Increases in weight during chronic stress are partially associated with a switch in food choice towards increased carbohydrate and saturated fat intake. Eur Eat Disord Rev. 2014 Jan;22(1):77-82.
- Huhmann K. Menses Requires Energy: A Review of How Disordered Eating, Excessive Exercise, and High Stress Lead to Menstrual Irregularities. Clin Ther. 2020 Mar;42(3):401-407.