4 physical symptoms of stress – and what to do about it

Published: June 08, 2022

Author: Kathleen M. Stuart, MSN, MA, APRN


There is no denying that Americans are more stressed than ever before. Luckily, there are so many ways to help manage stress – and they’re all very accessible. Here are a few different ways stress could show up in the body, and how to combat its effects.

1. Not sleeping.

Practicing good sleep hygiene is one way to deal with stress. As a registered nurse, I advise people to take one night and go to sleep at 9 p.m. Tell your body that it’s going to sleep with no stress or expectation that you need to be awake at a certain hour. Get up whenever your body wakes up. That is the number of hours you should be sleeping each night. For some people it might be 10 hours, for others it could be 7.5. Whatever that is, that is your normal length of time that your body needs to sleep.

How to enhance better sleep: Avoid electronic devices within two hours of sleep. Take a bath with lavender bubble bath, and/or drink chamomile tea before bed. During the day, take breaks throughout to focus on breathing slowly through your nose and out of your mouth to set your intention for the day.

2. Joint or stomach pain.

Stress can manifest itself in the body in many ways. If you’re hunched over your computer all day, it could show up as neck or upper back pain. For some people, it can affect their gut health and lead to colitis or irritable bowel syndrome (or diarrhea or constipation).

How to remedy physical pain caused by stress: If you’re sitting at a desk all day, you need to move. Sit up, roll your shoulders up, back and down, and then reverse direction. Next slowly and gently rotate your head around in circles one way then the other way. After work, no matter how tired you are, try to go for a walk for 20 minutes.

Journaling can also help: People are often worried about a certain project or something they want an answer to or a solution. I recommend you write it down in a journal before bed and set an intention when you go to sleep that you will dream and your unconscious self will figure out what to do. You might have an answer when you wake up in the morning. Immediately grab your journal and write down the first thing that comes to mind. Try this a couple of times over the next few days and your mind might just give you the answer you need.

Medicine is learning it isn’t just the disease but the stress behind it that affects how a person responds. Learning how to relax is a key technique to improving an outcome. Start with sitting quietly, perhaps listening to some meditation music on an app or on YouTube. Just sit there and breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth slowly and deeply about three times and then let your breath come easily while you listen to the sound of soft rain, or gentle lapping ocean waves, or streams trickling over rocks, or whatever soothing sound appeals to you. Do this for about 10-15 minutes.

If you’re suffering from gastrointestinal issues, consider speaking to a nutritionist skilled in working with IBS patients to develop a diet containing the foods that work best for you and that cause you the least amount of discomfort. Develop a regular bowel habit, knowing this is your private time to safely eliminate waste from your body. In addition, you could try using a warm compress on your belly to relieve cramping.

3. Headaches.

Headaches can be another physical symptom of stress. If they’re recurring it is worth taking action to address them.

Advice for headache relief: One simple tip to try is to use peppermint oil and dab a small amount on a cotton ball then lightly massage it into your temples.

Beginning a meditation or yoga practice could help. There are many free resources online to help you get started – it doesn’t have to be intimidating. It simply takes practice. If you start meditating, make it a planned part of your day. This is your personal time to get quiet for about 15 minutes of peace. Schedule it twice a day if you can. At any rate, make it a time you spend just for you.

4. Inability to focus.

This is a sign that you’re overwhelmed with stress and need to try to relax. Easier said than done! One way to do it is to focus on your breathing: Looking at your belly, gently stretch your hands across your belly letting your fingertips touch, then inhale through your nose and watch as you send your in-breath to your belly, stretching it out towards the belly button then contracting your abdomen to exhale. Remember on the in-breath to let your belly expand with air, then release the breath, allowing the belly to contract when you exhale. Doing this easy relaxing breath can help reset the brain so your heart rate slows down, your respirations deepen, and your blood pressure drops. By doing this you have shifted from a “fight-or-flight” mode to a “rest-and-digest” mode.

Set an intention for each day. If what you're thinking about accomplishing today is in your mind, it isn't just in your mind, it's in your whole body. And if you're truly passionate about what it is, you're alert, you're awake, and you're open to the experience and the ideas. Sometimes going for a walk is one of the best things people can do to clear the cobwebs out of their mind. It is time that allows your brain to function unimpeded by anything other than the joy of movement and observing nature. This is key to getting in touch with your creative self.

One final piece of advice is to take a vacation with your family, meet up with friends, laugh, and enjoy the time spent. Make memories! Anything that releases endorphins is good for your body and mind – seek out those experiences as often as you can.

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