6 Surprising Signs of Stress

Your body may be telling you it's time to relax

You may think stress is all in your head, but the biggest indicator of how you're feeling is how you're feeling. Whether you realize it or not, your body activates involuntary physiological changes when faced with a challenge. "When you're under stress, a part of your brain picks up threatening signals, creating a fear response. It engages the sympathetic nervous system and its effects including increasing your heart rate, blood pressure, and sweat," says Gregory L. Fricchione, MD, Director of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. "There are a myriad number of physical and emotional signs of stress. It's a reflection of how important our stress response systems are—they'll engage many if not all of our organ systems."

These indicators from Dr. Fricchione, all of which stem from an overstimulation of your nervous system, may help you better realize when you're overwhelmed. "The important thing is to know yourself," he says. Understanding where your baseline is with these indicators will help you understand what your body is trying to tell you. If you're feeling any of these indicators, try one of Dr. Fricchione's solutions at the end.

Sign: Tension Headaches
For most people, when the brain engages the sympathetic nervous system under stress, it's displayed as a tension headache, Dr. Fricchione says. Unlike migraines or unilateral, behind-the-eyes, cluster, and other types of headaches, a tension headache feels like a tight band around the back of your head.

Sign: Jaw Clenching
If you're waking up feeling tired and with jaw, neck, and shoulder pain, you may be grinding your teeth and/or clenching your jaw. This could lead to temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction, which results in tension flowing into your neck and shoulders. That tight neck may not just be from sitting at your desk all day.

Sign: Respiratory Changes
"A classic sign is the 'sighing response'. It often happens as a reaction when someone is sick in the family or if someone dies, but can be caused by general stress," Dr. Fricchione says. You may not notice if your breathing pattern changes this way, but it's certainly something those around you will pick up on. Sighing is not necessarily harmful to your body, it's more an indicator of stress.

Another respiratory change that's more noticeable is hyperventilation, when your breathing becomes shallow and rapid, potentially leading to dizziness. When you hyperventilate, you're quickly blowing off carbon dioxide, but sighing is the opposite—you're actually increasing the flow of oxygen and reducing the outflow of carbon dioxide, Dr. Fricchione says. 

Sign: Gastrointestinal Distress
When it comes to your gut, "you're in stress land," Dr. Fricchione says. "Over 50% of people who go to gastrointestinal doctors have dysfunctional bowel disorders related to stress." There's a direct connection from your brain to your enteric nervous system, which lines your GI tract. "Your gut becomes an outflow track for mental and emotional stress." Symptoms are variable and include abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, and frequent bowel movements. Whether or not you have a history of GI issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), it's important to notice when your GI acts up to prevent your discomfort from becoming debilitating.

Another sign related to your gut is a change in appetite, which could mean eating a lot or losing your appetite.

Sign: Bladder Changes
"Some people, when they get nervous or stressed out, have a more frequent need to urinate," Dr. Fricchione says.

Sign: Stuttering or Stammering
One neurological reaction to stress is a change in your speech patterns. If you start stuttering, stammering, using place holder words like "um" and "ah", and feeling flustered when you speak, your nervous system is overwhelmed.

Solution: Pay Attention
"It pays to learn your particular triggers and pay attention to what your body is trying to tell you," Dr. Fricchione says. There are many ways to mitigate the effects of stress on your life and create a relaxation response. He suggests daily breathing exercises, good sleep hygiene, exercise, and positive psychology. With the latter, think about the things you are grateful for and blessed with, rather than focusing on what's always going wrong. "Negative thinking is one of the things, in addition to outside stress, that generates internal stress," he says. Learning to think more positively will help you take a less-stressful point of view. If your physical symptoms become a bigger problem, visit your primary care doctor to make sure there isn't something else going on in your body.