Monday, May 12, 2014

Physical warning signs of chronic stress

In my last blog I went over the relationship between chronic stress and heart disease.  One of the key products of chronic stress is chronic inflammation, which can take a toll on the body.  In this blog I will go over some of the ways that chronic stress can manifest itself in the body.

1)Tight muscles

Stress has a pretty significant impact on the musculoskeletal system.  The purpose of the stress response is to mobilize energy and prepare the body to deal with whatever stressor you encounter.  One thing that happens during this process is a tightening of your fascia.  The fascia is integrated throughout your body and helps muscle transmit movement from muscles to bone.  When you encounter a stressor, this allows you to create more tension in the musculoskeletal system which allows you to generate more force.  The problem is, stress is meant to be acute, not chronic; and psychological stress initiates the same stress response as physical stress.  This causes increased tension in the muscles that, in chronic stress caused by psychological issues, never gets used and causes increased tightness.  One of the best things you can do in this situation is have a foam rolling and stretching program to pull some of this tension off of the musculoskeletal system.  My foam rolling and stretching program videos can be found here and here.

2)Impaired immunity

The immune system and stress response system both prepare you for threats, the only difference is that the immune system prepares the body for threats within body while the stress response system prepares you for threats outside the body.  In the initial stages of acute stress, their is actually a slight increase in immune function.  Once stress becomes chronic, your body is preparing you to deal with a perceived threat from outside of the body so to do this, resources that you don't need such as immunity are put on hold until the stress is over.  If you find yourself getting sick often or taking an unusual amount of time to recover from sicknesses or even workouts, chronic stress may be compromising your immune system.

3)Impaired sleep

Sleep is one of the more important things a person can do.  Unfortunately, a lot of people don't sleep very well either because they are overstressed or they don't prioritize their sleep.  This is a double edged sword because poor sleep actually increases stress and decreases the threshold at which the stress response is activated.  People who are experiencing a lot of stress have a problem shutting down their brain prior to bed and can have a difficult time falling asleep or staying asleep.  When you sleep your brain does it's job of housekeeping by cleaning up debris, so prioritizing sleep should be at the top of your list.  A common manifestation of too much stress/too little sleep is twitching of the eyelids.

4)Impaired digestion

Doctors have known for years that there is a significant link between IBS/IBD and stress.  The autonomic nervous system is a part of the nervous system that is in charge of automatic processes such as breathing, heart rate, immunity, and digestion.  It's job is to select the resources that are most appropriate for the task at hand  and direct attention to them while dampening attention to the others.  While experiencing stress, this means shifting attention to the musculskeletal system and away from digestion and immunity.  As stress becomes chronic, these systems remain shut down and this can cause things like digestion to become compromised.  If you are being chased by a tiger, you don't need to digest your food, you need to mobilize energy and send it to your muscles, digestion can wait until the stress is over.  In chronic stress, the stress is never over.  To add further fuel to the fire, it appears that the bacteria within your gut can have a significant influence over how the autonomic nervous system works.  This means that not only does stress affect your digestive system, your digestive system can affect how you perceive stress.

5)Grinding your teeth or clenching your jaw

Grinding your teeth while awake or clenching your jaw is often associated with chronic stress/anxiety.  The science isn't really clear on the relationship between grinding your teeth while you're asleep and stress.  Many people who do this do not know they do it until they experience tooth pain or their dentist tells them they are wearing down their enamel.  Another sign that you may be doing this is if you frequently bite the inside of your cheek or lip.


Chronic stress can manifest itself in many ways.  Many people who are experiencing chronic stress may not even know they are experiencing it because it has become such a permanent part of their lifestyle.  Once you understand that you are under chronic stress, steps to manage stress can help improve your health and well being.  These steps include stretching, Yoga, meditation, and lifestyle modification that identifies avoidable stressors and attempts to limit them.