It’s been known for a while that stress not only impacts you mentally, but physically too. Whether it’s feeling tired all the time or having chronic headaches, the more we learn about stress the more we’re realising just how huge of an impact it can have. However, while we may easily attribute our indecisiveness or bad night’s sleep to stress, there are plenty of symptoms that seem unexplainable, yet are actually stress-related.
That toothache you’ve had for months? That could be stress. The cysts you’ve developed on your body? Also, could be stress-related. Even just feeling thirsty all the time can be caused by stress. Every day we’re hearing of more symptoms that are wide-ranging and unusual, which is why, as part of Stress Awareness Month, we’ve decided to find out more. From the strangest symptoms your doctor can’t diagnose, to the even stranger psychosomatic explanations for stress, we’re delving into the complicated world of stress so you can know just what is causing that ‘unexplainable’ symptom you have.
In the UK, 12.5 million working days are lost per year due to stress, depression and anxiety, with 44% of these cases due to workload. While these figures have remained generally the same since 2001, they have shown a steady increase in the last year. It not only means that life is getting more stressful, but that we’re failing to deal with it effectively. A statistic that high shouldn’t stay the same for 17 years, not if the government is implementing policies that actually improve it. The NHS mental health budget continues to be slashed, and working environments continue to be inflexible.
It’s no wonder that we’re still not aware just how many physical symptoms stress has, and that our bodies are finding new and unusual ways to manifest it. So, what are these mysterious stress symptoms impacting our bodies? Well, one of the more unusual reactions is actually burping.
‘Burping is caused by swallowing air due to breathing changes, such as hyperventilation from a stressful situation’, says David Brudo, CEO and co-founder of mental wellbeing app, Remente, ‘if stress causes your stomach to be upset, this can mean that your stomach is not digesting foods properly, which can also lead to excessive burping.’
According to David, there are plenty of strange reactions, although they tend to be in more severe cases. You may be familiar with the dry mouth reaction to nervousness, but there’s also a chance that your constant thirst could be stress-related.
‘Stress can make you feel thirsty’, he tells me, ‘the adrenal glands pump out stress hormones when something external or internal causes you to feel stressed. This can cause fatigue and a fluctuation in your hormones, including a reduction in compounds that affect your fluid levels.’
In rarer cases, stress can also lead to a burning sensation in the tongue, although this can also be a signal of both anxiety and depression.
‘This is normally reported by people who also experience a metallic taste in their mouth’, he continued, ‘the sensation in the mouth or tongue can vary from pain, burning, swelling or tingling.
‘Interestingly, a burning sensation of the tongue, and a metallic taste, is not accompanied by any obvious physical causes for the sensation, but according to a study published on Medscape, it can be a symptom of both anxiety and depression.’
For anyone that has experienced anxiety, physical sensations with no obvious cause are a well-known occurrence. Feeling a tightness in the throat is commonly associated with anxiety, however according to psychotherapist Amanda Perl, who works with the Counselling Directory, a symptom like this shows much more than a fear of being unable to breathe. In fact, her work goes beyond just the physical manifestation of stress and looks to find deeper meaning in just what that symptom says about our deepest emotional woes.
In psychosomatic research, tightness in the throat would indicate a person feeling like they don’t have a voice, or as if they can’t speak their truth without consequences. While this is more associated with anxiety, when it comes to stress, Amanda has found many instances of unusual physical symptoms that are telling about what the person is truly worried about.
What we may consider work-related, or as a direct result of a deadline or relationship issue we’re having, could actually indicate that you’re burying a deeper issue.
‘It’s all to do with what you’re not dealing with and not able to face,’ Amanda tells me, ‘feeling like you don’t have the autonomy to do something about your stress.’
Symptoms range from back pain, which she claims is a signal of someone feeling overburdened, to cysts.
‘Cysts [represent] feeling so hurt and pained but not being able to express that or take that anywhere, too many people have come to me for it to be coincidence now,’ she says, ‘they may say “I’ve got these cysts and I’ve been to the doctor”’ yet they are medically unexplainable. And so, with more people presenting with the same symptom, Amanda has made various conclusions about what physical manifestations of stress really represent.
For example, toothache, which is often thought to be caused by stress and is medically explained by the idea that the patient may be grinding their teeth habitually to manage the worry, Amanda would say represents much more.
‘Toothache would be really about not feeling you’ve got the right to make decisions,’ she states.
It may sound unusual, and psychosomatic research is often scoffed at as making too far a leap, but Amanda states that it’s only because we’ve been raised on the idea that medicine explains every issue we have that we don’t think beyond that.
‘Why would anyone make the link?’ she asks me, ‘we’re brought up in a medicalised world where we’re taught very clearly that if you’ve got a symptom of something you go to the doctor.’
And while there aren’t ‘very concrete studies’ that can prove the link between symptoms and psychosomatic reasoning, it has become a more popular way of thinking with the rise of new wellness trends that encourage greater mind-body connections.
‘Yoga has become so popular at the moment because there is something about being able to connect the body and the mind in a much better way, so that the physical symptoms don’t come out’, Amanda continues, ‘it’s a kind of emotional regulation, if you can regulate your emotions, as in manage your stress, you’re not going to get these physical symptoms.’
It’s with the popularity of the likes of mindfulness and meditation that more people are able to manage their stress, and so even if psychosomatic reasoning sounds extreme for some, if it’s helping people there certainly seems no harm in it.
In fact, yoga is one of five essential stress-management tips that Frida Harju-Westman, a nutritionist at health app Lifesum, recommends.
‘Practicing yoga is a great way to unwind at the end of stressful day, and is also a great morning activity, helping to prepare your mind and body for the day ahead’, she tells me , ‘not only will yoga leave you feeling as though you have pushed your body, it will have also loosened your muscles, and afforded you a sense of calm through the focus on breathing.’
In fact, all of her tips around coping with stress centre on exercise. Not only does she recommend running for a release of ‘feel-good endorphins’ and ‘allowing your mind to completely switch off’, she also encourages people to take up martial arts.
‘This form of exercise allows you to physically channel the energy and frustration that stress creates, while also giving your entire body a great workout’, she continued, ‘this form of exercise instills self-control, with the added benefit of teaching you self-defense techniques, which in itself is empowering.’
And in order to incorporate some social activity in your stress-management, she also advises taking up team sports, as not only is socialising a good way to manage stress but exercising with others ‘establishes positive relationships and camaraderie’.
For those who can’t find as much time to get into a gym or sports team, Frida explains that office stretches can also be a great way to unwind, especially since a lot of our stress is felt at work.
‘Our necks and shoulders tend to bear the brunt of our stress, so a great exercise to alleviate this is to place your head into your hands, pressing your palms into your forehead as if to push your head backwards, and resisting using your neck muscles,’ she says, ‘then, clasp your hands together behind your head and push your head backwards, this time using your hands to resist. This will not only help relieve the stress in your neck but will also help to tone it.’
So, if you’re experiencing a symptom that cannot be explained by your doctor, now you know it could all be stress-related. While undertaking Frida’s tips for stress-management is a great day-to-day tool, it’s also important to get to the bottom of what is truly causing you to worry. Whether it’s changing your lifestyle to have a less stressful job or seeing a therapist to get to the root of any emotional issues you may be burying, it’s worth taking a minute to note any stress symptoms your having and how they’re impacting your life.
If you’re dealing with stress and want to talk to someone about it, visit the Counselling Directory here.
Click through to see more tips on how to cope with stress..
How to cope with stress
Share your problems with other people. A good support network of friends, family and colleagues can see you through tricky times.
Go to bed earlier. A good night's rest is vital to help you cope with the demands of the next day – aim for seven to eight hours.
Watch what you eat. Don't turn to food and alcohol as a crutch to get you through stressful times. A healthy, balanced diet – with lots of fruit, veg, whole grains and protein – is vital to give you energy.
Turn off your smartphone. Easy access to emails, texts and calls means there's nowhere to hide from friends and work. We all need digital downtime, so switch off and relax.
Take regular exercise outdoors. Research shows that getting active – particularly when combined with the benefits of being in the fresh air – can soothe tension.
If you're not coping, don't feel you need to go through it alone. Your GP can offer help and support and can refer you for counselling and stress therapy.