12 signs you’re coping with stress without realizing it and how to truly relax

We all know what it’s like to be stressed. When all is overwhelming, you can almost feel the tension rising through your body, your shoulders hunched, and a headache brewing.

Yet, most of the time, we can deal with stress without realizing it. While stress can impact our thoughts, feelings and behaviors in many ways, spotting the signs isn’t always easy, says Pablo Vandenabeele, clinical director for mental health at Bupa UK. Especially if you’ve been dealing with a lot of things for a long time or if there isn’t a single obvious cause for your stress.

In the modern world, we may be so used to being stressed that we’re not actually always aware of our stress until we’re at the boiling point, adds Noel Bell, a psychotherapist and spokesperson for the British Council for Psychotherapy.

To monitor its negative impact, Bell says, it’s imperative to first learn about stress indicators. Here, experts share 12 common but surprising signs to look out for (but always consult your GP if you’re concerned about your symptoms, as they could also be indications of other problems).

Bleeding gums

Long-term high levels of the stress hormone cortisol can affect the immune system’s ability to function well, says Vandenabeele. When your immune system is suppressed, it may be harder for your body to protect you from harmful mouth bacteria, which can lead to bleeding gums.

Procrastinate

Student looking higher in the sky, all elements are in separate layers, color can be changed easily.
Tackle the most strenuous task of the day first (Image: ssnjaytuturkhi/Getty)

Procrastination is not the same as laziness, Bell points out. It is a behavior often caused by the stress in our lives. The best way to deal with procrastination is to try to do the hardest task first. Avoiding responsibilities will only lead to a greater sense of feeling stuck.

A sore morning jaw

According to Vandenabeele, when we’re stressed, our brain sends messages to our muscles to tighten up, to help protect us from perceived injury and pain. If you wake up with a clenched jaw or feeling more sensitive than usual, it could be a sign that you’re more stressed than you think.

Loss of sexual desire

Reduced libido can be very difficult to explain from one person to another, Bell says. For example, there may be medical conditions, difficulties in one’s relationship, or a mental health comorbidity such as depression. But feeling overwhelmed by life events can often lead to a loss of sex drive.

Acid reflux

Stress can lead to more acid in your stomach, says Vandenabeele. For those with GERD, acid reflux can become more prominent when they’re stressed.

Cleaning

If you find that you have a greater need to be in control of your environment—for example, feeling the need to clean more than usual or becoming irritated when items are out of place in your home—it could be a sign of stress, Vandenabeele says. As other elements of our lives become more chaotic and stressful, you may find that you are preoccupied with those elements of your life that you can control.

Swelling

Stress can reduce the amount of blood flowing to your intestines, which makes it harder for your body to digest food, says Vandenabeele. This can also lead to abdominal pain and constipation.

Difficulty sleeping

Spotting signs of stress early can prevent things from escalating (Image: Malte Mueller/Getty)

Insomnia is difficulty falling asleep or actually staying asleep for long enough periods of time to feel refreshed the next day. When we’re stressed, we may worry about future events and may have trouble falling asleep, Bell says. Or we might wake up in the middle of the night worrying about unfinished tasks in our lives. Insomnia can, of course, be related to other causes, but it could be an indicator of stress if our sleep pattern has changed in response to a more challenging chapter in our lives.

Oily skin

Cortisol means your skin’s glands produce more natural oil when you’re stressed, comments Vandenabeele. This excess oil can clog pores and lead to skin ailments like pimples and acne, which can leave you feeling even more stressed.

Unexpected weight gain

If you’re gaining weight despite eating and exercising well, stress may be the culprit. When your body is in fight-or-flight mode, cortisol levels spike, explains Vandenabeele. Cortisol gives the bloodstream a higher sugar content, which can impact the rate of metabolism, which can lead to weight gain.

Irregular periods

If you notice a change in your menstrual cycle, it could be a sign of stress. Cortisol can affect the hypothalamus’ ability to function well and release regular reproductive hormones, Vandenabeele says. This can result in lighter or skipped periods.

Spending or shopping too much

Shopping can briefly make you feel better by giving yourself a dopamine hit, so you may find yourself buying more to chase that temporary high, says Vandenabeele.

How to truly relax

Acknowledge your stress

Until you acknowledge your stress, nothing will change, says psychotherapist Lina Mookerjee. When you accept it, rather than ignore it, the transition to calmness can be tremendous.

Close your eyes

We’re so overstimulated in the modern world, Mookerjee says, that you’d be surprised at how calming it can be to close your eyes for a few minutes.

Plan your relaxation

Whether it’s reading for 30 minutes or listening to your favorite song and dancing in the kitchen, deliberately set aside time for activities you enjoy and know make you feel calmer, advises Bupas Pablo Vandenabeele.

Spend time in nature

Spending time near water and in green spaces can help lower our cortisol, as well as increase endorphin levels and dopamine production, which promote a feeling of well-being, says psychotherapist Noel Bell.

Call a friend

When something in particular comes to your mind, always talk to someone about it. Sharing how we feel with others can help reframe our feelings, which can lead to more positive thinking and less panic about our circumstances, says Vandenabeele.

Listening to music

According to a 2017 study, 20 minutes of listening to music can help lower stress levels significantly. Listening to your favorite music can also help reduce anxiety, heart rate and blood pressure, says Bell.

For this to be effective, create a playlist of songs or sounds from nature, such as the sound of waves in the ocean or birds chirping, and allow your mind to focus on the different melodies, particular instruments or singers.

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