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5 surprising ways stress can affect your body

Courtney Elder writer headshot By | January 23, 2018
Medically reviewed by Lindsey Hudson, APRN, NP-C

Stress. We all might feel it from time to time: when a job is too demanding, when you’re preparing for a big life change, or simply when you’re stuck in traffic. We’re all likely familiar with the feeling of stress and the common symptoms such as heart racing, perspiration, or worrying so much you can’t sleep. But there are a few other connections  between stress and how it affects the body that can be dangerous if left unchecked.

Here are 5 surprising ways that stress can affect your body:

1. Hair loss 

Have you ever said to someone that you’re so stressed that you’re pulling your hair out? For some, that’s a real condition. Called trichotillomania, it can occur when a person’s levels of stress are so elevated that the only way to find relief comes in the form of pulling out his or her own hair from the scalp, face, or body. Others can experience an involuntary form of hair loss called alopecia areata, where the immune system wages war against the hair follicles, sometimes due to severe stress.

RELATED: Hair loss treatments and cures

2. Magnesium deficiency

Perhaps one of the lesser known effects of stress on the body has to do with being deficient in magnesium, as stress hormones deplete your body’s stores over time. Unfortunately, magnesium is an incredibly crucial mineral for our bodies, and a deficiency can lead to muscle cramping, insomnia, and even mental disorders. Aside from reducing stress in your day-to-day life, plenty of foods offer magnesium-rich benefits and over-the-counter supplements can also help to replenish your levels.

3. Seizure-like episodes 

Physicians at Johns Hopkins have found a startling discovery related to life’s stressors: More than one third of patients who have been admitted with seizure or epileptic types of episodes were actually responding to extreme levels of stress and did not respond to the typical medication administered. These symptoms have been termed psychogenic non-epileptic seizures (PNES), also known as pseudoseizures, and tend to affect those whose life circumstances create an immense amount of stress.

4. Less attraction 

When you’re stressed the last thing on your mind is likely trying to attract someone. But that’s probably good because a study at Binghamton University found that female rats could sense the emotional state of male rats and were far less attracted to the ones who exhibited high levels of stress. While this study hasn’t been tried on humans, it’s probably best to focus on yourself during high times of stress.

5. Memory loss 

When we experience stress, it’s common for us to feel like we can’t remember things, but usually we chalk it up to how much is going on in our lives—which is typically the reason for the stress to begin with. However, researchers at UC Irvine have found that stress hormones can actually affect the synapses in our brains that are responsible for learning and recalling information. Amazingly enough, when stressors were removed, test subjects were able to better utilize their dendritic spines, the places where the synapses live.

How to cope with stress

If you find that your life is riddled with stress and you’re concerned about some of the ways we’ve discovered it can affect you, there are steps you can take to manage the situation.

Sometimes our body is experiencing stress before we even cognitively recognize it. Certain habits or symptoms might make themselves apparent days before the lightbulb turns on above our heads and we realize what’s going on. The first step is to become aware of your personal warning signs that stress is looming.

Once you realize how you specifically manifest stress, you may want to take an inventory of what aspects of your life trigger these reactions. It might be an encounter with a particular coworker, difficult behavior from one of your children, or financial concerns. With a specific list of triggers, you can then zero in on an approach that works for that situation.

For example, deep breathing might be an effective technique that can be done on the spot whether you’re at work, home, or the grocery store. Later in the day, you might find time for one of many types of meditation to further relieve your worrisome thoughts and feelings.

In general, healthy habits like getting enough sleep at night and eating a balanced diet can contribute to a better sense of wellbeing and in turn, less stress on a regular basis. If you find yourself unable to find relaxation through these techniques, it may be time to visit a healthcare professional. He or she can offer additional coping mechanisms and or medication. If you have never visited a mental health professional, your primary care doctor is a good place to start.