Body symptoms of stress

I’ve been seeking psychological help for depression and anxiety and while this therapy has helped I can’t kick the physical toll stress takes on my body. When I’m stressed my skin crawls with dermatitis and acne and makes me hot and itchy, regardless of the prescription cream I use and my digestive system goes into pendulum mode swinging from constipation to diarrhoea at the drop of a hat. My doctor says I need to work on managing my stress levels through the therapy. But when I’m sitting at my desk I can’t escape my anxious mind, and my dysfunctional body.

Thank-you for your question and sharing your experiences,

I encourage you to continue working with the psychologist you are seeing, as you have indicated that this has been helpful. It may be important to raise with your therapist the physical symptoms you are experiencing and to discuss whether any of the strategies suggested below could be practiced in your sessions together.

Excess stress can certainly manifest in a variety of emotional, behavioural and physical (somatic) symptoms. Common somatic symptoms can include: tiredness, headaches, muscular tension and pain, changes in sleep/eating patterns, and as you have mentioned – digestion and skin issues. Symptoms of pre-existing medical conditions can also become worse when we are stressed.

Stress can differ significantly from one person to another, both in how it affects us, and in how we respond to it.

At times, people can engage in unhealthy behaviours as a way of coping with stress. Such behaviours may include: over-consumption of alcohol, cigarette smoking, misuse of prescription drugs, illicit drug use, unhealthy diet, or over-committing to events and deadlines. Whilst these behaviours may provide some brief temporary relief, these unhealthy behaviours tend to make stress symptoms worse in the longer term.

Stress is common in daily life and is part of being human. In fact, we need a certain amount of stress to feel motivated and energised to do the things that are important to us. If it is prolonged, or at extreme levels however, it can have a significant impact on our mental and physical health. Thankfully there are simple steps we can take to help manage our stress levels:

  • Make time for regular exercise (small changes can have a big impact)
  • Schedule in time for enjoyable activities and socialising with people that make us feel good about ourselves
  • Avoid long studying or working hours
  • Not over-committing to things – trying to get a healthy balance between work/study and things you enjoy doing
  • Taking time out to relax
  • Breathing and mindfulness exercises
  • Getting enough sleep – this will vary from person to person but aim for 8 hours per night
  • Addressing the causes of our stress in a constructive way such as problem-solving and tackling challenges directly rather than avoiding difficult tasks.

The way that we think about situations can also impact on how much stress we experience – if we can view stressful situations as challenges that we can rise to, rather than as a threat or something to fear, this in itself can reduce the negative impact of stress on our body and mind.

Where we focus our attention can also impact the amount of stress symptoms we experience – for example if we are preoccupied with physical symptoms of stress this can make us feel worse. It can be more helpful to try to focus our attention and energy on engaging in helpful stress management techniques such as those listed above.

See further information for managing stress on the Counselling and Psychological Services website.

2 Responses to “Body symptoms of stress”

  1. wiktor johnson says:

    Great article. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Amy Stables says:

    A great study on bereavement counselling. Thanks for sharing

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