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Home / Articles / Taking Care of You / When Stress Literally Hurts

When Stress Literally Hurts

The physical toll stress can take on the body

When Stress Literally Hurts

How many times have you felt your body literally unwind like a tightly coiled spring at the end of a stressful day? You may not have even realized that you spent the last eight hours with your shoulders arched upwards toward your ears, your jaw gritted tight, your stomach clenched like it was readying itself for an attack.

Stress hormones can cause your body systems to go into fight or flight mode, a feeling that many survivors of domestic abuse know all too well. Even when an abuser isn’t attacking their victim—either physically or psychologically—a survivor can still feel like they need to be ready to defend themselves at any moment. This can apply to survivors still with an abuser and those who have already escaped but live with a constant sense of uneasiness that the abuse may continue. 

What kind of toll does this chronic, unrelenting stress take on the body?

Symptoms of Stress

“Your body’s not meant to handle the constant release of cortisol [the stress hormone] in the long-term,” says wellness expert Dr. Virginia Marsico, DC. “When you’re overwhelmed by stress, it’s a multifaceted issue.”

Marsico says the signs of stress can manifest quite literally from your head to your toes in terms of physical symptoms. Below are some of the aches and pains you may notice when your body is under prolonged stress:

  • Headaches or migraines
  • Vision issues, including blurred vision
  • Jaw pain
  • Dizziness
  • Acne
  • Muscle tension, cramps or involuntary spasms
  • Ringing or buzzing in the ears
  • Night sweats, or excessive daytime sweating
  • Stomach issues, including cramping, bloating, constipation or diarrhea
  • Rashes
  • Chest pain or an irregular heart rhythm
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Heavier, more painful periods in women
  • Weight gain

Marsico says stress can especially take a toll on your GI system, or your gastrointestinal system, which is in charge of far more than just processing food. It’s home to some 500 million neurons that are connected to your brain through your nervous system. Some medical experts refer to the gut as a “second brain.”

The gut is also home to neurotransmitters, chemicals that control feelings and emotions, as well as help regulate the body’s immune response. “Your gut is essentially the majority of your immune system, so if you have a compromised gut, you have a compromised immune system,” Marsico says. That means that when stress begins to affect your GI system, it can also affect your ability to fight off disease or to heal from injuries. 

Lessen Your Stressin’

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The only way to get your heartbeat back to normal, your back to unwind and your gut to tell your brain it’s all going to be OK is by managing your stress, a task that’s easier said than done. For survivors of trauma, stress may seem ever-present—if the abuser isn’t still harassing you, flashbacks to the abuse may be just as invasive. 

But for at least a portion of the day, consider committing to some radical self-care. Start here:

  • Exercise Can Help Zap Stress” gives five exercise ideas that you can do right at home to help lower your stress level, including yoga, tai chi and circuit training.
  • Our “Self-Care Bucket List” outlines 52 ideas (one a week for a year!) that you can also implement to begin making your emotional well-being a top priority.
  • The online program Courage Unleashed, developed especially for survivors of abuse, can help you reset a negative mindset in 45 days. 
  • Go back to bed—sleep can help reenergize your cells, regulate your mood and help your body heal from injury. Read more in “After Trauma, Sleep May Be What You Need Most.