Dr Cornelia Chee, director and senior consultant at National University Hospital’s (NUH) women’s emotional health service, points out that our immune systems are built to cope with stress from time-to-time.
Only when you fail to keep your stress levels in check over a prolonged period of time do chronic health issues usually result.
Endocrinologist Dr Vivien Lim warns that stress may give rise to issues in your body’s endocrine system, such that it’s unable to keep crucial hormones in balance. “Different glands in the endocrine system are affected [differently] by stress, so be practical and not stress out [by things you can’t control]!”
More importantly, heed the signs that your body is telling you that you need to chill out and slow down. Look out for these warning signs…
1) Weight gain
In the past, famines were a common source of stress for our ancestors, Dr Chee explains. So, over time, the human body learned how to increase its blood glucose levels that converted to fat to prepare for the drop in the food supply. This link between stress and blood glucose levels has withstood the test of time, so you’ll gain weight when you are stressed.
“Different glands in the endocrine system are affected [differently] by stress, so be practical and not stress out [by things you can’t control]!”
A mild or dull pain in your head, a sensation of tightness and pressure either across your forehead or on the sides and back of your head are signs of a tension headache. Such forms of headaches are commonly triggered by stress and can last at least 30 minutes or longer. Left untreated, some might experience a sharp, throbbing or pulsing pain on one or both sides of their head. This is a sign of migraines, a far more severe form of headache and linked to visual disturbances, nausea and vomiting.
3) A lowered sex drive
When your mind is filled with worries about work and family commitments, sex with your spouse will be moved to the bottom of your to-do list. Dr Chee adds that the hypothalamus — a specific part of the brain — is responsible for your body’s ability to secrete sex hormones. When there’s too much stress, your hypothalamus can become poorly regulated, which results in a lowered sex drive. However, since sex is an important aspect of intimacy in a marriage, such a lack may even destroy your relationship. Fortunately, Dr Lim reassures you that despite a decreased sex drive, your body’s sex hormones may be perfectly normal. So, if you control that stress, your sex drive will likely return with a vengeance!
4) Changes to your period
Similarly, once the hypothalamus is overstretched as a result of stress, there’ll be changes to your periods — it may become irregular and the flow will either be lighter or heavier. If this continues over an extended period, it will compromise your ability to conceive.
5) Eruptions of rashes or hives
When stress levels spike, raised red spots or hives on your stomach, back, arms and face may start to appear. Dr Chee points out that the connection between your mind and body is to blame for this occurrence. “Stress affects our immune system in many ways and this can lead to an increase in eczema and hives.”
6) Hair loss
Losing your luscious locks are a common sign of excessive stress ― hair loss is the outcome of the following stress-related hair fall problems:
* Telogen Effluvium The term telogen refers to the third phase in the four stages of hair growth where new hair begins to grow under the older and detached hairs. Under significant stress, large numbers of your hair follicles enter the telogen phase when simply combing or washing these hairs can result in hair loss. Dr Lim explains that your hair may be shed over the course of a few months or come off in clumps.
* Trichotillomania It is a mental disorder where you feel an irresistible urge to pull out your hair from your scalp, eyebrows and other parts of your body.
* Alopecia Areata Severe levels of stress can also trigger an immune system response to attack your hair follicles, which causes hair loss.
Head and consultant at NUH’s division of Dermatology, Dr Nisha Suyien Chandran points out that the stress hormone, cortisol, is known to affect the functions and cycle of hair follicles. “Elevated levels of cortisol can lead to decreased [creation] and increased degradation of important elements in your skin and hair, leading to hair loss.”
7) Outbreaks of acne or pimples
Dr Chandran explains that stress causes your body to release stress hormones called cortisol. “Cortisol, in turn, stimulates the sebaceous glands to produce more oil and oily skin is more prone to acne.” What’s more, these pimples don’t just pop up on your face, they can in fact turn up all over your body. While it may not lead to long-term health issues, it may have an impact on your self-esteem and confidence.
Feelings like anger, anxiety and sadness can all trigger symptoms in the gut. Look out for problems like heartburn, abdominal cramps or an upset stomach.
8) Mouth ulcers
Mouth ulcers or canker sores are an immune response to protect your body from germs and other foreign invaders. While doctors aren’t sure what really causes these eruptions, stress is known to trigger an immune response, which is why you may start to see these small white or greyish sores appearing inside of your mouth.
You may not realise it, but you may be clenching and grinding your teeth day and/or night because you’re stressed. If left uncorrected, your teeth may shift and cause cavities. Ask your doctor if you should wear a mouth/dental/night guard ― this acts as a retainer, since it is designed to protect your teeth by preventing direct tooth-on-tooth contact.
10) Stomach or gastric issues
It’s a fact — Harvard University’s medical school has identified a definite link between your gastrointestinal tract and your emotions. Called the gut-brain connection, researchers say that feelings like anger, anxiety and sadness can all trigger symptoms in the gut. Look out for problems like heartburn, abdominal cramps or an upset stomach.
11) Chest pain
Some individuals may experience chest pains as a result of stress-induced anxiety. You should note that while some people may feel the pain increasing gradually, others may face a sudden stabbing and sharp pain. Other signs to be vigilant to include a burning or numbing sensation with tightness in your chest. As it can be difficult to differentiate between stress-triggered chest pains and a heart attack, seek medical help as soon as possible.
12) Chronic fatigue or insomnia
Stress-related anxiety over your growing to-do list may cause you to have problems sleeping. Lim explains that inadequate rest caused by insufficient, truncated or disrupted sleep will lead to lethargy, which compromises your mental and physical alertness.
Undoing these physical changes
Most signs of strain can be reversed when you get your stress levels under control. Dr Chee and Dr Lim advise you to:
* Pick up a hobby, then use it to remind yourself that there is more to life than just work and family.
* Get out and meet your friends because these social interactions and relationships gives you the opportunity to open up and share your thoughts, worries and challenges.
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