Unless you surround yourself with Tibetan monks, chances are, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone in your life — including you — that wouldn’t say they’re stressed about something. And while stress can sometimes be good — it can help you conquer fears or motivate you to get something done — when you’re constantly in a state of tension and anxiety, it can have an effect on your body’s physical and emotional state. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that 90 percent of all illness and disease is stress-related.
So what’s the best way to get a handle on your stress levels? We’ll help you identify eight red flags that you need to relax a bit more — and how to do it.
1. You’re perpetually sick and just can’t seem to get over it.
If it seems like every week you’ve got a cough, sore throat or a fever, you might want to blame your workload and not just your sneezing coworker. “When we are under extreme pressure, our bodies secrete a stress hormone called cortisol that can help us short-term,” says Richard Colgan, MD, professor of family and community medicine at University of Maryland School of Medicine, author of Advice to the Healer. “But if you’re stressed out constantly, these hormones aren’t as helpful and can become depleted over time.” Colgan says cortisol and other hormones are components of the immune system and though they help the body cope with stress, when these hormones are withdrawn, we become more susceptible to sickness.
And the side effects don’t end there. “Stress can also slow wound healing, contribute to the reactivation of latent viruses, and increase vulnerability to viral infections,” says Keri Tuit, clinical psychologist at Yale University.
What to do: Listen to your body when you feel tired or drained and make time for rest and extra sleep. Whether you recently spent time traveling, finalizing a huge work project, or just had a lot of late dinner meetings all week, allow your body the time it needs to recover.
“A tired body is not well prepared to cope with stressful situations and ward off illness.”
2. You’re having trouble concentrating.
When you’re too overwhelmed to focus on what’s in front of you, or you can’t remember simple things like a coworker’s name, it could be a sign you’re overworked. Research has connected long-term exposure to excess amounts of cortisol to shrinking of the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center, says Tuit. Studies have shown that long-term stress stimulates growth of the proteins that might cause Alzheimer’s disease.
What to do: If you find that you’re experiencing this during the workday, taking a few long inhales and exhales can help when faced with a high-pressure situation. “Deep, even breathing not only affects whether or not our thoughts control us or we control them, but it also affects the bodily sensations that are experienced when faced with a high-stress situation,” says Tuit. This type of breathing can help control the heart rate and blood flow, as well as muscle tension, she says.
3. You have a constant headache that just won’t go away.
If you experience throbbing or feel pressure anywhere on the head or temple area, there’s a good chance it’s a tension or stress headache, says Dr. Colgan. Oftentimes people point to particular troubles in their life that might be causing this pain, but lifestyle might be to blame instead. Keep in mind, if your head pain feels like a “migraine headache,” “the worst headache of your life,” or a headache that wakens you from sleep, those are signs of a dangerous health problem and you should visit a doctor immediately, advises Dr. Colgan.
What to do: “When stress is the cause of your headache, the easiest thing to say is, ‘have less stress in your life,’ but that advice itself is stressful,” says Dr. Colgan. Knowing what your headache‘s coming from is helpful therapy. People oftentimes feel worse worrying and trying to figure out what the cause could be, so knowing it’s not some serious health problem may make a person feel better. “Sometimes the most effective way a doctor can treat a patient is to teach them about their symptoms,” says Dr. Colgan.
4. Your back or neck is always aching.
If you’ve got knots in your shoulders, a stiff neck or your lower back cramped up after a long day of work, it could be the constant of a job or personal situation, not just the position you sit in during the day. “High levels of stress and tension create discomfort and muscle pain by tightening muscles and causing muscle spasms,” says Dr. Colgan. And stiff muscles in your neck can also lead to headaches, he says.
If your back pain developed after an accident or emotional trauma, it could also be a sign of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The National Institute of Health recommends talking to your primary doctor, as many people aren’t able to heal their back pain until they deal with the emotional stress that’s causing it.
What to do: “Many relaxation techniques can help with stress reduction, including guided imagery, taking deep breaths from the diaphragm, meditation, massages and yoga,” says Tuit. Try devoting time for stretching breaks throughout the day to help prevent muscles from tightening up, and make time for some of these yoga poses to unwind at the end of the day.
5. You having trouble sleeping well.
“If you find yourself wakening up and worrying or ruminating over things, it could be a sign of anxiety or depression,” says Dr. Colgan. After a long day, sleep should come easy and getting into bed she finally be a time when you can shut your brain off and relax. If you feel tired but have a difficult time falling asleep, it’s possible you have stress-related fatigue.
What to do: Talk to your doctor if this is regular occurrence and discuss whether your chronic stress may have led to depression, says Dr. Colgan. When you’re not sleeping well, everyday annoyances might make you feel even more overwhelmed and frustrated because you’re more vulnerable. “A tired body is not well prepared to cope with stressful situations and ward off illness,” says Tuit. She suggests addressing your sleep issues by asking yourself if you’re getting six or more hours of sleep each night, and if not, determine what’s interfering with that. “Cutting back on caffeinated and alcoholic beverages and increasing exercise can also improve sleep patterns,” she says.
6. Your hair is starting to fall out.
If you’re waking up with more than a few strands on your pillow, you may be suffering from a medical condition called alopecia areata. This is an autoimmune skin disease brought on when the body’s immune system attacks the hair follicles, causing small round patches of hair loss on the scalp. “It’s not dangerous, but it’s likely to be associated with a severe stressor, like an assault or significant traumatic event in one’s life,” says Dr. Colgan. This disease more likely to occur in young women or adolescent girls.
What to do: In most cases, this is typically a temporary condition and your hair will grow back once stress is minimized. But don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor about what’s going on, says Dr. Colgan. While your MD might recommend injectable scalp steroids to help with hair growth, it’s best to have an examination, as the hair loss could possibly be a sign of a scalp fungal infection, a bacterial function or even a thyroid disorder.
7. You’re getting UTIs.
If you’ve ever been in a meeting that dragged on for hours or were so focused on an assignment that you didn’t get up from your desk for a bathroom break, you could be putting yourself at risk for urinary tract infections, says Dr. Colgan. “When people are under increased stress or working too hard, they sometimes put off going to the bathroom, but that’s one of the biggest risk factors for a UTI,” says Dr. Colgan, who’s also a UTI expert.
What to do: C’mon, you’re an adult! When you feel the urge to go to the bathroom, give yourself permission to take a break and go. An uncomfortable urinary infection is going to feel way worse than those few minutes you spent trying to crank out your work.
8. Your sex life is suffering.
While you or your partner might not be aware of it, stress and tension are the leading causes of erectile dysfunction. “A lot of men walk into my office and say they want Viagra, but oftentimes I’ll tell them I don’t think a pill will help their problem when I believe it’s stress that’s causing the issue,” says Dr. Colgan. It’s a vicious cycle, as erectile dysfunction can also cause more stress for the person experiencing it. “And since they’re stressed, sometimes guys will start drinking alcohol to reduce their inhibitions, but I’ll remind them that this is a muscle relaxer, so it won’t help them perform better in their sexual relations,” he says.
What to do: Identify what’s causing the problem. “I tell patients, the body and mind are like significant others: When one doesn’t feel well, the other sympathizes,” says Dr. Colgan. “If you’re having a rocky relationship, increased financial stresses, or lost your job, it’s illogical to think that with all that worry and tension in your life, your body is going to stand by idly and not act differently.”
Dr. Colgan also recommends talking with your partner to let them know what’s going on in order to work through the problem. “I tell them the answer isn’t a pill. The solution is for you and your partner to communicate so you can help them understand that you’re under a lot of stress and tension right now.” If you can work to relieve that tension, your sex life should improve as well.
What are your favorite tips to minimize stress in your life? Share them in the comments below.