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Stress symptoms and what to do about them: A head-to-toe guide

Remember reciting the definition of well-being as a kid—“a sound mind in a healthy body”? Well, think of stress as the opposite of all that. Not only does it frazzle your nerves, cloud your thinking and undermine your confidence, it also wreaks havoc on your body.

The trouble is, with phones ringing, kids crying, bosses demanding and various bells and whistles going off nearly 24 hours a day, long-term stress may as well be the bubonic plague of today. Although it’s not as immediately deadly, chronic stress can wear you down. It sends your heart rate soaring, keeps your muscles (all 650 of them) tense and triggers the release of hormones that primes your system to “fight or flee.” The consequences? Here’s a head-to-toe look.


Tense scalp muscles and constricted blood vessels in the brain can trigger chronic headaches and migraines.

Treatment: Try gentle scalp massage to stimulate circulation, bathe in a warm, scented tub or take aspirin or acetaminophen. Ask your healthcare provider about prescription pain relief for severe, chronic headaches.

Jaw pain

The daily grind causes some women to grind their teeth at night, the result being jaw pain and what’s known as a TMJ (temporomandibular joint) headache. Waking up with pain on one or both sides of the head is a telltale sign of a TMJ headache.

Treatment: Report the symptom to your healthcare provider, who may refer you to a specialist or prescribe the use of a nightguard, a special device that prevents teeth-grinding.

Sore neck and back

Emotional upset keeps muscles tight and inflexible, leading to sore neck, shoulders and back.

Treatment: Any activity that keeps muscles flexible and makes you feel relaxed will help. Try stretching exercises, massage, yoga or swimming. A prescription muscle relaxant may also bring relief.


The stress response causes your heart to beat faster and harder, temporarily raising blood pressure. That’s okay if you rarely react to situations with a fight-or-flight response. But if minor setbacks set you off every day, that’s bad news—and it could be laying the foundation for chronic high blood pressure.

Treatment: Your healthcare provider will probably recommend exercise, weight control and sodium and alcohol restriction to control high blood pressure. If you smoke, he or she will also urge you to quit. If those measures don’t work, you may need antihypertensive medication.

Stomach pain

The stomach is connected to the brain by two nerve pathways. No wonder the organ seems to sympathize when you’re under stress! It may react by going into spasms, slowing down, speeding up or secreting more acids. The well-known consequences are heartburn, gas and gastritis.

Treatment: Avoid excess caffeine, alcohol and tobacco, and try eating smaller, more frequent meals. Over-the-counter antacids can also offer relief.

Irritable bowel

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a painful disorder caused by irregular muscular activity of the intestinal wall. Chronic stress can make symptoms worse.

Treatment: Your healthcare provider may prescribe an antispasmodic drug. Including more fiber in your diet may also bring relief.


While there is no evidence that stress causes infertility, infertility definitely causes stress. The result can be an increase in smoking and other fertility-harming habits or dropping out of fertility treatment prematurely.

Treatment: Try meditation, biofeedback or other stress-busting techniques to cope with the emotional roller coaster of infertility.

Pale, dry skin

To get your body ready to act in an emergency, the stress response directs blood away from the skin toward the vital organs. Reduced blood flow to the skin caused by chronic stress may result in flaky patches.

Treatment: Apply moisturizer to problem areas. Because it revs up circulation, regular exercise can rejuvenate skin.

Hives and rashes

Other signs that your skin is ‘stressed-out’ include unexplained hives, rashes and inflammation.

Treatment: If those don’t go away after three or four days, see your healthcare provider. He or she may prescribe antihistamines.

Cold and flu

Because tension seems to suppress the immune system, a body under stress is less able to fight germs. That makes you more susceptible to colds, flu and other infectious diseases.

Treatment: Prevent stress-induced illness by practicing some relaxation techniques.