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Bridging the Gap: Stress, Body Pain, and Holistic Healing Approaches

If you’re experiencing body aches, you might want to head to a massage. But what is it that contributes to the body pain? Scientists have zeroed in one possible reason – stress, and we will take a look at how it can happen.

Effects of stress, can stress cause body ache?
By Elwynn/Unlimphotos. Royalty Free License

1. What Is Stress?

The World Health Organization suggests stress as a situation, which is associated with worry or mental tension, which may be caused by a difficult circumstance.

By some, it is believed to be a fight and flight response by our body, to prepare to face any situation head-on. It is this fight and flight response that prepares our body to face a stressful situation while protecting ourselves.

There is not a single person on our planet who might not have experienced stress. It is this stress in small doses that makes a person capable of protecting oneself from a potentially difficult situation. It is another ballgame when the stress is in a very high dose.

What really marks the major difference between different individuals dealing with stress, is how one deals with it. Whether one responds to the situation causing stress or reacts to it. This is a deeper statement which we will discuss later.

2. Mechanics of Stress

The physical response of the body to stress starts in the brain.

  • The Amygdala, which is the small part of the brain, responsible for managing our emotions, sends a signal for help.
  • This signal is sent to the hypothalamus, a part of the brain, which is the coordinator of bodily functions.
  • It sends signals to small organs sitting on top of our kidneys called adrenal glands, which then release a hormone called adrenaline or our body’s fight-and-flight hormone.
  • Adrenaline is responsible for gearing your body up for the upcoming stressful event.

The mechanism thus starts in the brain, followed by an increase in the flow of blood which occurs due to an increase in the heart rate, followed by an increase in the blood pressure. The oxygen consumption of the body also rises, which is responsible for an increased breathing rate.

Stress may make you more alert and aware of your surroundings. This is how the body physically prepares itself to deal with the impending danger.

This, however, made more sense when the impending dangerous and stressful situation was a possible attack by a bear when our forefathers went to collect food, or more recently when civilizations were still developing and the world was far removed from modern technology.

In today’s time, the very definition of what our body perceives as a stressful situation has undergone tremendous change. Our lives have become fast moving and the attack of the bear is less likely than an attack by a colleague. The search for a new job or the occurrence of a traumatic or negative life event like the loss of a family member, are all reasons which can lead to too much stress.

The same response the body gave while facing a primal fear, now gives for any situation in life that threatens your well-being.

3. How Does Chronic Stress Affect You?

There is a saying which goes by, excess of everything and anything is bad for you. The same can be said for stress. A little stress helps us perform tasks to the best of our abilities. However, when you start dealing with too much stress, that is when it starts to show in your body.

Stress can present in more ways than one. How an individual presents the symptoms can vary from one individual to another.

Not everyone responds to stress in the same way.

Too much stress, unlike popular belief, can present with physical symptoms as well as emotional symptoms.

Rising stress levels can also have deeper implications, triggering chronic diseases.

How stress affects your brain - Madhumita Murgia

4. What Are the Emotional Signs of Chronic Stress?

4.1 Anxiety

One of the primary emotional responses to chronic stress is anxiety. In the face of a situation that is the cause of chronic stress, usually leads to making you anxious. Anxiety usually presents the following symptoms:

  • Trouble concentrating
  • Feeling restless or tense
  • Having an increased heart rate
  • Profuse sweating
  • Immense tiredness without apparent reason
  • Feeling overwhelmed

This anxiety can sometimes easily turn into a full-blown panic attack. A panic attack is an episode of the person feeling intense fear which causes the tightening of the chest among other symptoms, when there is no actual danger or any other obvious cause. Anxiety can be very crippling and can cause decreased physical activity which in turn diminishes the well-being of a person.

4.2 Depression

According to the American Psychiatry Association depression is a sudden serious illness which gravely alters the way you feel, the way you think and act. Studies suggest that the first depressive episode usually occurs in light of a negative life event.

Losing a job, pet or a family member can be a few reasons why someone would slip into depression. Getting diagnosed with a terminal chronic disease is also a major cause of depression.

Anxiety can also be a cause of depression, studies suggest. People who have anxiety following life-changing events more often than not have major depression later in life.

4.3 Eating Disorders

People dealing with some sort of stress often turn to food for comfort. Stressful situations cause people to either eat too much or too little.

Sometimes due to stress, eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia can also develop. Anorexia is a disease where a person doesn’t eat sufficiently due to the fear of gaining weight. On the other hand, bulimia involves a person eating excessively and then purging it all in order to get rid of the extra calories. Persons who experience stress can easily succumb to these eating disorders.

4.4 Low Energy And Lack of Sleep

Stress can lead to a disruption in a good night’s sleep, sometimes leading to insomnia, which is a lack of sleep for a prolonged period of time. This naturally leaves you with low energy and decreased energy to work or complete even basic tasks. Studies show that Chronic stress has a direct correlation with insomnia.

 

Lack of Sleep and insomnia can be caused by chronic stress
By Novic/Unlimphotos. Royalty Free License

There is another study which, like the above-mentioned study, analyzes sleep reactivity which is the ability to fall asleep and remain asleep. It is stated that a person who has trouble falling asleep and staying asleep due to various reasons causing stress tends to become insomniac.

However, there are no studies that claim that stress in every case affects sleep. The sleep quality can, however, be affected.

4.5 Decreased Sex Drive

One of the resounding effects of stress has been observed on the libido of a person. Libido is the desire an individual has to have sex. This effect on stress on libido can be understood to have an effect in two separate aspects, the physical effect and the emotional effect on the desire to have sex.

Let us first discuss the emotional effect of stress on sexual desire.

Research suggests that more commonly women who are under stress were less likely to be aroused while watching an erotic film and were also shown to present with a decreased sex drive.

Such studies thus indicate that the effect of stress can be profound and can create additional tension among couples.

4.6 Low Self-esteem

One of the most prevalent circumstances associated with people with mental health issues is self-harm. The thoughts of self-harm usually stem from situations and conditions which cause a person to develop low self-esteem. Self-esteem is an individual’s ability to value themselves. It also implies how a person perceives themselves.

Stress may create an environment that makes an individual experience low self-esteem, which essentially makes them feel terrible about themselves, thus the thoughts of self-harm. Chronic stress can produce an environment that is conducive to negative thoughts.

Stressful situations affect mental health profoundly. Several mental health problems that have been on a steady rise can find their roots in the ever-increasing stress that people are under. Chronic stress as we have understood can be detrimental to a substantial extent, to our mental well-being.

Leading cause of depression is stress
By IVYPHOTOS/Unlimphotos. Royalty Free License

The emotional effects of prolonged stress can still be considered as an obvious implication, but can physical health also be affected by it? Is it possible that the way our brain works affects the quality with which our body functions? Let us take a deeper look at this.

5. What Are the Physical Symptoms of Chronic Stress?

It is established that chronic stress causes both mental and physical exhaustion. Sometimes, in certain situations, it may have a profound effect on the physical health of a person.

When viewed from a scientific point of view, it has been observed that when a person is under stress, a hormone called cortisol is released. This hormone is usually released post the release of adrenaline.

It has several purposes, like maintaining your state of alert so that your body can stay in the fight-and-flight response in the face of a stressful situation.  It also helps in maintaining the body’s metabolism. It diverts the attention of the brain from the regular functioning of the digestive system, reproductive system and several growth processes.

At the time of a stressful situation, cortisol along with adrenaline, causes the blood pressure to rise.

Once the stress-causing elements are removed, the levels of adrenaline and cortisol fall and slowly the heart rate and blood pressure start to slowly come down to normal.

However, when the stress-causing elements stay present and the stress becomes chronic, the levels of adrenaline and cortisol do not fall back to their normal levels, it starts to have a detrimental effect on your physical health along with your mental health.

To truly appreciate the effect of chronic stress on physical health it was important to acknowledge the science behind stress.

Chronic stress can present with a multitude of symptoms due to alterations in physical health.

How stress affects your body - Sharon Horesh Bergquist

5.1 Hair Loss

We will start with a simple one. Hair Loss. It is important to note that, it is normal to lose 100 hair strands every day, when the number of strands lost becomes more than that,  it qualifies as being called hair loss.

An important condition for some but an insignificant problem for a few. In today’s times, where modern humans have become immensely appearance-conscious, hair loss has become a problem where the help of a healthcare professional is sought more times than not.

Hair loss can occur due to multiple reasons, some physical and some mental. Physical signs are those where there is some disease or intake of medication that causes loss of hair like in patients undergoing chemotherapy.

 

Loss of hair due to stressful conditions is extremely common
By kentoh/Unlimphotos. royalty Free License

A visit to a dermatologist for the said problem will see the doctor trying to find the root cause of it. Any hormonal imbalance, dietary deficiencies, side effects of certain medications, etc., could be plausible reasons. One of the reasons that the doctor may also rule out in order to reach a diagnosis is chronic stress. There are certain people who have also reported the loss of substantial hair due to a condition called alopecia. This condition entails the appearance of bald patches.

It is important to understand the cause of the problem. Stress relief is extremely important. Significant improvement is observed in people who were losing hair due to stress, once the stressful situation was brought under control.

5.2 Digestive Problems

The stomach is one of the organs of the body which usually reflects the state of the body. A healthy gut is the sign of you being in the pink of your health. Most problems associated with mental health have a way of reflecting on the health of the gut.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)  is a syndrome which is characterized by stomach aches and bloating. It can be diarrhoea-related or constipation-related. IBS can also be a mixed type or unclassified. This syndrome is considered to have a gut-brain relationship. Sometimes, it has been seen that the IBS is triggered in stressful conditions or in cases where a person has anxiety. It is a condition which can affect the workings of daily life but does not increase the chances of any further health complications in the future. One of the treatment modalities for IBS remains psychotherapy along with drugs that relieve symptoms.

On other occasions, chronic stress can simply lead to constipation or inability to digest well, which presents with a host of difficulties like acidity and bloating.

However, it must be remembered that other factors like diet, and bacteria can be reasons for digestive problems.

IBS and your mind: are they connected?

5.3 Weight Gain or Loss

A change in weight gain or weight loss can be considered as one of the physical effects of chronic stress, but it can also be considered as a representation of the emotional symptoms of stress. The change in weight can be small, unnoticeable or it may be substantial. It can be a representation of stress triggering anorexia or bulimia. In cases where it is not obvious it may be because an unhealthy relationship may form with food in order to better cope with the stress.

The appetite change is the starting point. An erratic eating pattern with no fixed time, eating small or large portions of food can be the small steps from where big changes may be observed.

Ask Emily: Stress Eating or Binge Eating Disorder?

5.4 Skin Problems

However surprising it may be, you might have noticed that when you are under immense stress, to add to your troubles you might break out. Several studies have been conducted which state that acne is associated with stress. One reason could be the constant touching of the face while in a stressful condition, causing the spread of acne-causing bacteria.

Another reason could be increased levels of cortisol when dealing with chronic stress. This causes an increase in the oil production by glands called sebaceous glands. The pores on the skin get clogged thus leading to acne.

However, stress has not been proven to be the sole reason for acne, more detailed studies are required to find a definitive reason for acne in cases of chronic stress. Stress can be considered as a confounding factor for acne. There are several other factors like excessive oil on the skin, improper hygiene, and inflammation which could be attributed to causing acne along with stress.

Other ways stress has been observed to increase skin problems is by causing a flare-up of eczema, psoriasis etc.

Does stress cause pimples? - Claudia Aguirre

5.5 Changes In The Mouth

A lesser-known fact is, that the mouth is a mirror of the general health of the body. And rightly so, there are several diseases which present in the mouth first before presenting anywhere else in the body.

Stress can also have signs and symptoms which present in the mouth. There is a commonly known disease called pyorrhea, which affects the gums. It involves inflammation and damage to the tissues surrounding and supporting the teeth. As a result of which the teeth become loose and are eventually lost.

Reasons why an individual suffers from stress may vary. These could be enumerated as follows:

  • Poor oral hygiene
  • Hereditary (someone in the family has it)
  • Genetic makeup predisposes you to the disease

Stress is an established reason for the presentation of a severe form of pyorrhea in patients who may have one or more reasons to be affected by the disease. As a standalone reason also chronic stress can be held accountable for pyorrhea.

When under tremendous stress, an individual may develop detrimental habits which affect oral health tremendously. One such commonly observed habit is clenching of teeth. This is known as bruxism, wherein unconscious clenching and grinding of teeth is done by a person which causes the outermost layer of the teeth, enamel, to wear off, exposing them to several other problems.

A rise in the number of cavities is also seen in people who experience stress. This could be attributed to a lack of maintenance of proper oral hygiene when experiencing stress.

Clenching of teeth due to stress is extremely common and detrimental to the teeth
By Creatista/Unlimphotos. Royalty Free License

5.6  High Blood Pressure

The rise in the level of adrenaline when a person is under tremendous stress, along with the rise in cortisol causes a rise in blood pressure. These hormones cause an increase in the blood flow, creating more pressure on the arteries, thus raising the blood pressure. The other factors responsible are also accounted for when a treatment plan is formulated for the correction of high blood pressure.

Stress is thus always taken into consideration when looking for plausible reasons for high blood pressure. The role of stress management helps in the reduction of levels of blood pressure.

Does Stress cause High Blood Pressure?

5.7 Headaches

A stressful day often ends in a headache. A headache involves pain in the head, and neck region. Migraine is a throbbing headache, which causes a feeling of pushing and hammering in the head. It usually affects one side of the head. It can present with a host of other symptoms.

A definite cause for migraine is unknown, but some experts believe that stress could be a dominant reason. Once a migraine occurs it runs its due course, before an episode ends.

There can be other reasons which can also cause headaches, they have to be ruled out before stress can be zeroed in as the reason.

Stress & Migraine Attacks

6. Can Stress Cause Body Aches?

Despite leading lives that are so stressful, it is hard to imagine that it could be the cause of general aches and pains in the body.

Aches and pains in your joints, and neck, and a general sense of ache all over the body could be attributed to the ill effects of stress. Usually for such aches and pains a solid source cannot be found. On some occasions, these aches and pains may increase, if the stress is not brought under control and become severe.

The areas where these aches occur are:

  • Shoulders
  • Neck
  • Back

This stress-related pain does not occur only in the big joints like shoulders etc., but also in the Temporomandibular joint (TMJ). This joint is the one which is responsible for making the lower jaw move. A general sense of ache remains in various areas of the face without any known cause.

There may be some clicking in the TMJ along with pain on opening. This is referred to as myofascial pain dysfunction syndrome.

The sequelae of stress in an individual can have neural, hormonal and behavioural effects. There is a stress system in place which comprises components of the nervous system and the endocrine system.

Various stress components affect the hormones produced and the stress system is activated. Once the level rises above the threshold, the same hormones inhibit the stress system and thus cause pain.

The interesting fact here is that muscle tension is a natural response of the body to stress. However, when this stress becomes chronic, this tension can be irksome.

Prolonged stress causes the muscles to remain in a constant state of tension, thus triggering chronic pain.

When this stress is not managed appropriately, the tensed muscles which cause severe pain can lead to disuse of the body.

Enough movement is not instituted which leads to the wasting of the muscles and more weakness in the body, which further diminishes the movement and further promotes stress-related musculoskeletal disorders.

In certain individuals, it is also observed that chronic stress can also trigger chronic pain secondary to an already existing musculoskeletal disorder.

It is known to cause a flare-up of symptoms of osteoarthritis as well as rheumatoid arthritis.

The relationship between chronic stress and muscle aches and joint pain can be understood to be a two-way road. The presence of one can cause the other to occur. Like if a person is stressed, it can cause aches and pains and vice-versa.

In light of this, what actually needs to be appreciated is the relationship stress has with chronic aches and pains. The aches which occur because of stress can be of two kinds.

Physical and psychological. The prolonged muscle tension is the cause of the physical pain that is experienced.

Psychological pain is experienced because the body’s ability to handle pain may vary. This implies that the threshold of pain a person has might decrease.

How muscle tension impacts stress

7. Response to Stress

Each person has a different response to stress. A situation that might really affect an individual could just be a temporary setback for another. In the face of a similar situation, the response might vary drastically from individual to individual. The inherent personality is one reason why the response might be different.

Some people are naturally more resilient in the face of a crisis and others might feel more threatened in the same situation. It has also been observed that men and women also handle stress differently. Coping mechanisms can be affected by the difference in the experiences with the external environment.

One other reason could be the amount of resources a person might have. Resources could be internal or external. Internal resources are self-confidence, courage to face a situation, and various experiences in one’s life. External resources include availability of money, job security, good health, etc. The confidence in having these resources can also sometimes change the way a person deals with stress.

Nonetheless, there is no perfect way to handle stress. Each response is unique. If the stress leaves you feeling overwhelmed, help must be sought. There are several ways one can improve their coping mechanism and relieve stress.

8. Tips for Managing Stress

It is common knowledge that several common symptoms we experience could be related to stress and it is essential to understand the deeper health consequences of stress.

Managing stress is an extremely essential thing, it helps to protect oneself from the long-term effects of stress. Let us first start with things that should not be done.

8.1 Say No to Drugs and Alcohol

It is easier said than done, but try not to turn to alcohol, smoking or drugs.

8.2 Avoid Stress Eating

Try not to turn to food for comfort.

8.3 Excess of Anything and Everything Is Harmful

Overdoing any activity in order to forget the reason giving you stress should not be a means to cope with stress.

8.4 Talk to a Medical Professional

When feeling overwhelmed, seeking help may be the hardest decision to make, but a decision that must be made. Speaking to a doctor can help you understand your feelings and find a path to start understanding what exactly might be the reason for the chronic stress.

8.5 Detoxing From Environmental Factors

These days the perils of social media, and the noise of the news channels are some of the reasons which amplify the stress of daily life. Taking a break from these can help you keep a check on the stress and also help you focus more on the problem at hand.

8.6 Exercising

Any form of exercise helps release endorphins, these hormones make you feel happy and boost your energy level as well. There are various forms of exercise that can be practised. Release of these feel-good hormones can take you in place which can help you tackle your situation better and you can take a step towards managing the stress you might be under.

8.7 Yoga and Meditation

The ancient practice from India is more than just a form of exercise. Yoga is a way of life that helps you balance out the workings of the body on the inside as well as outside. It not only helps take care of the physical symptoms of stress but also helps relieve psychological stress.

A regular practice of meditation does wonders in helping you calm down and get a deeper perspective on what might be causing the problem. Deep breathing exercises along with meditation also go a long way in assisting in relieving stress.

8.8 Foods To Include in Your Diet

Certain food items like chamomile tea, dark chocolates, berries, etc., naturally help you relieve stress. These foods contain antioxidants which help in restoring the damages that may be caused by stress.

8.9 Self-care

Self-care and self-love make the baseline for fighting stress. Take some time for yourself. Pursue activities that you enjoy, spend time with family and friends.

8.10 Seeking Help

Talking to someone is extremely important. When feeling overwhelmed, it is important to voice your concerns. Whenever you feel stressed, always reach out.

9. Frequently asked questions

9.1 Can stress give you physical symptoms?

Answer: Yes, stress can give you physical symptoms like chronic pains, headaches, digestive problems etc.

9.2 Does stress cause aches and pains?

Answer: Aches and pains can be caused by prolonged stress. Muscle tension can be prolonged because of chronic stress.

9.3 Can meditation help reduce stress?

Answer: Meditation helps you to calm down thus, it can help reduce stress.

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