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10 Weird Ways Your Body Reacts To Stress
Your brain short-circuits
High stress situations—you know, like that work presentation tomorrow—can trigger the release of adrenaline and other fight-or-flight hormones. While those chemicals heighten your brain’s alertness and threat-detection centers (which can be good), they temporarily kneecap your noodle’s cortical networks, which are responsible for contemplation, critical thinking and planning, explains Erno Hermans, Ph.D., of Radboud University in the Netherlands. That happens because your body is conserving energy for a physical confrontation (which, hopefully, won’t occur), Hermans adds. The result: You struggle to find the right words, and you look like a nervous nelly in front of your boss and colleagues.
You suddenly have to excuse yourself
Stress triggers the release of another fight-or-flight chemical known as corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) that messes with your intestinal function, shows a study from the Digestive Diseases Research Center in Los Angeles. Just as animals dump waste during a confrontation, your fight-or-flight response may be helping you jettison excess weight in case you need to flee. Consequently, some people under intense pressure develop diarrhea, the study indicates.
You break out
Elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol tell your skin’s sebaceous glands, which secrete an anti-inflammatory waxy oil, to kick into overdrive, leading to temporary bursts of acne, flushing, eczema or other weekend-ruining skin conditions, explains Flor A. Mayoral, M.D., a dermatologist at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine.
You can’t quite kick that cold
When you catch a virus, all the nasty symptoms you experience (like a runny nose, a cough or body aches) are the result of your immune system’s inflammation response to the bug. Stress causes an uptick in your inflammation levels, which means your body reacts more severely to cold viruses, shows a study from Carnegie Mellon University. Your cold symptoms may last longer too, the study suggests.
Your hair falls out
Days or weeks of heightened tension can cause you to shed hair like a golden retriever in summer, Mayoral says. That hair loss can last for up to three months after a stressful event or period, though your mane will typically grow back after your stress subsides, she adds. It’s possible that elevated levels of stress-induced inflammation are to blame, research from the American Academy of Dermatology suggests.
Your brain shrinks
Not to be dramatic, but stress flips off a genetic switch that would normally spur your brain to produce new synapses, which allow your brain cells to communicate with one another, shows research from Yale. As a result, your noggin’s “gray matter” volume falls over time. Gray matter is at least partially involved in your emotion regulation, the study authors say. And there’s evidence linking this type of brain shrinkage with higher rates of depression, they add.
Your nails look funky
While stress hormones can make your nails brittle, Mayoral also sees ugly, raised ridges in the middle of her stressed-out patients’ nails. Why? Like cracking knuckles or chewing the ends of hair, another way people fidget is to press their fingertips down on the edges of their thumbnails. Over time, that can cause an unsightly, lumpy ridge to form in the center of the nail, Mayoral explains.
Your ears ring
One study from Sweden’s Karolinska Institute found the stress of having to change jobs increased ringing and other hearing problems among women by 43 percent. FMRI scans have shown the limbic region of your brain shifts into overdrive when you experience ear ringing, and that part of the brain is also known to handle aspects of stress regulation. The study authors say this limbic activity could explain why tension and hearing issues are connected, though they can’t yet point to a specific mechanism at work.
Your cuts and scrapes just won’t heal
Your body’s stress response draws water away from your skin’s outer layers, possibly as a way to keep you hydrated in an emergency situation, which undermines your skin’s ability to regenerate and repair itself, shows research published in JAMA Dermatology. Compared to their calm cohorts, students who were frazzled from winter midterms showed more redness and irritation on their forearm skin after the (sadistic) researchers slapped on and removed cellophane tape.
Your stomach aches
Stress chemicals can mess with your gastrointestinal tract, leading to an angry belly or the urge to vomit, shows research from UCLA. While the ways your brain and gut interact under stress are murky, it’s possible the fight-or-flight chemicals your body releases when you’re frazzled cause your digestive system to hold onto calories and other energy sources, which could explain your cranky stomach, the research suggests.