How Does Your Body React to Stress?

What happens to your body when you’re stressed? Do your shoulders become tense? Does your stomach roil? Do you get headaches or back pain? Can you sleep? By contrast, how does your body feel when you are calm and more carefree? Is there a big difference?

Many of us are living with chronic, unmitigated stress thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, and, according to a recent Times article, that can result in a range of physical symptoms.

In “Your Body Knows You’re Burned Out,” Melinda Wenner Moyer writes about work-related stress, but everything she says can apply to the lives of students as well. She talks to Jeanette M. Bennett, a researcher at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, about the physical effects:

Stress can have wear and tear effects on the body, especially when it doesn’t ease up after a while — so it makes sense that it can incite physical symptoms, too, Dr. Bennett said. When people are under stress, their bodies undergo changes that include making higher than normal levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline, epinephrine and norepinephrine. These changes are helpful in the short term — they give us the energy to power through difficult situations — but over time, they start harming the body.

Our bodies were “not designed for the kinds of stressors that we face today,” said Christina Maslach, a social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who has spent her career studying burnout.

She also describes some of the symptoms, with help from Dr. Lotte Dyrbye, a physician scientist at the Mayo Clinic, and Dr. Jessi Gold, a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis:

One common burnout symptom is insomnia, Dr. Dyrbye said. When researchers in Italy surveyed frontline health care workers with burnout during the first peak of the pandemic, they found that 55 percent reported having difficulty falling asleep, while nearly 40 percent had nightmares.

Research suggests that chronic stress interferes with the complicated neurological and hormonal system that regulates sleep. It’s a vicious cycle, because not sleeping throws this system even more out of whack. If you’ve noticed you’re unable to sleep at night, that could be a sign that you’re experiencing burnout, Dr. Dyrbye said — and your sleeplessness could exacerbate the problem.

Physical exhaustion is another common sign. Dr. Gold said that one of her key symptoms of burnout was fatigue. “I realized I was sleeping every day after work — and I was like, ‘What is wrong with me?’ but it was actually burnout,” she said.

Changes in eating habits — either eating more or less than usual — can also be a sign of burnout: In the study of Italian health care workers, 56 percent reported changes in food habits. People might eat less because they’re too busy or distracted, or they might find themselves craving “those comfort foods that we all like to go to when we need something to make us feel better,” Dr. Bennett said. Research suggests, too, that stress hormones can affect appetite, making people feel less hungry than usual when they’re under a lot of stress, and more hungry than usual when that stress alleviates.

Headaches and stomachaches can also be incited by burnout, Dr. Gold said. One study of people in Sweden suffering from exhaustion disorder — a medical condition similar to burnout — found that 67 percent reported experiencing nausea, gas or indigestion, and that 65 percent had headaches. It’s also important to note that burnout can develop alongside depression or anxiety, both of which can cause physical symptoms. Depression can cause muscle aches, stomachaches, sleep issues and appetite changes. Anxiety is linked to headaches, nausea and shortness of breath.

Students, read the entire article, and then tell us:

  • What has worked for you in dealing with these physical symptoms? In dealing with the underlying issues? What advice in this article you might try?

  • Right now, do you think people are more stressed than usual? Are you?

  • If, as the article suggests, you imagine each source of stress in your life as a pebble in your shoe, what does each pebble represent? Which sources seem to cause you the most problems? Can you think of small changes you can make to help remove or lessen some or all of your stressors, at least temporarily?

  • After reading the article, do you think you’ll pay more attention to the mind-body connection? How can you be more sensitive to the messages your body is sending you?


Want more writing prompts? You can find all of our questions in our Student Opinion column. Teachers, check out this guide to learn how you can incorporate them into your classroom.

Students 13 and older in the United States and Britain, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.

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