How Much Stress is Too Much?
You don’t have to work on a bomb squad or in a hospital emergency room to feel occupational pressure. In fact, 80 percent of Americans say they feel stress on the job, and 25 percent rating work as the No. 1 stressor in their lives (above health or family issues), according to recent research. Researchers say the toll this chronic condition takes on our health can be serious, especially over time. Chronic stress can wreak havoc on all kinds of bodily systems, from neurological to cardiovascular.
We can all handle a certain amount of stress. But how much is too much? Look for these physical signs that it’s time to slow down.
When deadlines loom, chances are you’ve had a brush with bruxism, a term to describe excessive teeth grinding and jaw clenching you may do unconsciously. In fact, when the going gets tough — think: that global recession we’ve just experienced — dentists reported up to 25 percent more cases of bruxism.
So how does your jaw tell you it’s time to make relaxation a priority? Headaches, earaches and facial pain can all be signs that you’re suffering from this condition. While a dentist can fit you with a mold to protect your teeth, it may serve you better to get to the, er, root of the problem by alleviating the stress that’s bringing it on instead. (Try one of these five-minute stress-busters.)
Chronic stress can take a toll on your tresses, too. Scientists agree to disagree about just how much you can blame grey hair on your nerves of late, but research does seem to be consistent about its impact on hair growth. Their conclusions: not good. Chronic “psychoemotional stress induced alteration of hair cycle,” found study authors published in PLoS One. In other words, if you’re finding your hair is lacking lustre or even thinning or falling out, it may be time to reconsider your hectic schedule.
A telltale sign that it’s time to break out of your tension-ridden routine? You guessed it: breakouts. Acne breakouts are another sign of stress, according to plenty of dermatological studies. The reason? Stress wreaks havoc on the barrier, or protective, mechanism of skin by causing water loss. And this reaction doesn’t just show up as pimples on the face. It can also slow down your recovery from any cuts or wounds that can befall you.
Ever wonder why you may want to dive into the salty nuts or random savory hors d’oeuvres when you’ve been thrown into an unfamiliar cocktail party? Scientists may have an answer: It looks like we crave high-sodium foods when we’re stressed because they actually appear to blunt the negative effects of the hormones that spike when we’re feeling anxious. Call it the “Watering Hole Effect,” say University of Cincinnati researchers studying this phenomenon to describe the desire to gravitate to the buffet table in times of social stress.
There’s also a survival component: Elevated sodium levels in our bloodstream actually seemed to cut down on our cardiovascular response to stress, like heart rate and blood pressure increase. So if you’re craving chips and snacks more than usual, think about removing items from your to-do list instead of from your pantry.
Another way your body tells you it’s time for an about-face? Any back pain that seems to arise or be getting worse lately may also be an indicator of stress. In fact, Canadian researchers who published a recent study in Brain assert that stress management may be the critical piece to handling your condition. By analyzing brain scans of subjects, they found that those with back pain are more vulnerable to intensified suffering when exposed to stressful scenarios. Their spike in the stress hormone cortisol appeared to exacerbate their condition, not just their “fight-or-flight” response.
Those hectic days where things slip your mind if they’re not written down? You can blame fuzzy memory, too, on the toll that stress takes on our bodies. Chronic exposure to stress also affects your ability to recall information and even your reasoning skills, found researchers who published their results in a recent issue of Neuron. It appears that the hormones that stressful situations activate tend to affect the region of the brain, called the prefrontal cortex, that also controls our “executive” functions (i.e. our memory and decision-making processes).
Finally, and possibly the most obvious, chronic stress hurts our hearts. You can often recognize this sign pretty easily by the telltale sensation of faster breathing and increased heart-rate. But on the inside, say scientists, work stress can raise your blood pressure and raise your risk of heart attack without you even noticing. It appears that all of this extra pumping action in your blood vessels also damages their walls over time. Yet another reason why learning to back away from stressful situations shows how much you heart yourself — and your good health.