Strange dreams, wicked cramps, and more ways your body is telling you to relax
Between the hectic schedule of holiday parties, trying to get all that work finished before your days off and finding the perfect gift for everyone on your list (without totally breaking the bank), the holidays can quickly turn from a time of cheer to a six-week stress-a-thon.
Because there's hardly a minute to yourself in the next few weeks, you might not realize just how stretched to the max you truly are—until your body reaches a breaking point. And we don't mean just finding yourself reaching for your favorite comfort food, breaking out in hives, or crying at the drop of a hat, either. (Fun fact: Emotional tears contain stress hormones, so flushing them out of the body helps you feel better.)
While those are all typical signs of stress, the eight surprising signs below are things you might mistakenly chalk up to some other health problem or brush off as nothing to worry about. In reality, you might want to listen a little closer to what your body's trying to tell you—doing so can save your life. Chronic stress increases your risk for a host of health problems, including high blood pressure, heart attacks, stroke and depression, to name a few. While chilling out is often easier said than done, there are a few simple relaxation strategies to keep in mind, such as breathing exercises, visualization exercises, and even spending time with a furry friend. Listening to music or reading a book can help, too.
As you're finding the relaxation trick that works for you, keep an eye out for these sneaky symptoms of stress.
"Unfortunately, the stress we deal with during the day tends to follow us to bed at night and plays out in our dreams," Lauri Quinn Loewenberg, author of Dream On It—Unlock Your Dreams, Change Your Life, told DoctorOz.com. Maybe you don't realize you're burning the candle at both ends until that dream comes back where you miss your bus or your house is on fire, two of the five most common stress dreams, according to Loewenberg.
However, these dreams might help you pinpoint what exactly is stressing you out and can help you work through why you're feeling that way.
That "I could use a massage" feeling isn't just about a brief oasis from the real (read: stressful) world. Turns out, stress causes us to tense our muscles and can even trigger muscle spasms, leaving us in some serious pain.
Speaking of spasms—ever had a funny eye twitch? Stress could be to blame. While there's not exactly hard evidence to prove it, many people who complain of a twitch also say they're tired or stressed.
A number of people grind their teeth in their sleep, or "chew over the day's stressors," Debbie Mandel, author of Addicted to Stress: A Woman’s 7-Step Program to Reclaim Joy and Spontaneity in Life says. Others may simply clench their jaw while awake and stressed, often without realizing it.
But both can lead to pain, and grinding can even crack teeth. Your dentist can tell you if there's visible damage and set you up with a mouth guard to prevent further stress-induced wear and tear.
Women may experience late or missed periods due to stress. Some may even experience a condition know as secondary amenorrhea, when the cycle seems to completely stop, according to Everyday Health.
Other stressed women may find their periods continue on a regular schedule—but feel far worse. In fact, stress can make cramps up to twice as painful.
You've probably heard someone say stress is turning them gray, but it turns out we're more likely to lose hair when stressed, HuffPost Style reports.
However, if you are already genetically predisposed to going gray, traumatic events and periods of intense stress could speed up the process. The Mayo Clinic explains that stress can cause white blood cells to attack the hair follicle and stop growth, as well as put hair follicles into a "resting phase," so hairs fall out during washing or combing.
Others experience trichotillomania when stressed or anxious, which gives them an irresistible urge to pull out hair on the scalp or other areas, such as the eyebrows and eyelashes.
Stress can mess with your stomach in ways as simple as a bout of the butterflies. But it can also cause more serious reactions, including irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS.
While the link between the two is not entirely understood, stress seems to make the intestines more sensitive and contract more, according to the A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia.
Stress lowers our immune system, leaving us at risk for frequent colds. A recent study found that people who reported high levels of stress were twice as likely to catch a cold than those who report low levels of stress.
The stress hormone cortisol seems to turn down the volume on the body's inflammatory response in order to "free up energy" to fight off whatever the threat that's causing the stress.
"Stressed people's immune cells become less sensitive to cortisol," Sheldon Cohen, Ph.D., the study's author and a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, told Time magazine. "They're unable to regulate the inflammatory response, and therefore, when they're exposed to a virus, they're more likely to develop a cold."