How Stress Affects You Physically

Your emotional distress (in your mind) is converted to physical distress (in your body). Your mind and body are far more interconnected than you might think. Separating the two isn’t easy. When your mind tells you “you’re worried” or “you’re feeling anxious” or “you’re afraid,” your body hears this, as well. In turn, your body can become anxious and fearful.

So, if you’re worried, your body may become more tense and jittery, and you may start breathing faster. This process can also work the other way around. If your body is stressed, say from that fourth cup of coffee or a too-strenuous workout at the gym, your mind can interpret those physical states as stress, and you can become agitated or worried.

That’s why relaxing your body reduces not only bodily tension but also mental distress.

The following is a short — and only partial — list of some of the effects tension has on your body. Unfortunately, many of these symptoms are all too familiar.

  • Neck pain

  • Headaches

  • Stomach cramps

  • Lower-back pain

  • Clenched, painful jaw

  • Teeth grinding

  • Sore shoulders

  • Muscle spasms

  • Tremors or twitches

And that’s just on the outside. Inside your body, other tension-related changes are happening. Here is a sampling of what else is quietly going on in your body when you feel tense:

  • Your blood pressure goes up.

  • Your stomach secretes more acid.

  • Your cholesterol goes up.

  • Your blood clots more quickly.

All in all, knowing how to prevent and eliminate bodily tension seems like a pretty healthy idea.

Be aware of body tension

The fact is, you may not know when your body is tense. You get so used to being tense that you usually don’t notice that you’re feeling tense. Muscle tension creeps up on you. Slowly and often imperceptibly, your muscles tighten and, voila, the tension sets in. You don’t feel the tension until you get a headache or feel the soreness in your neck and shoulders.

The trick is to become aware of bodily tension before it builds up and does its damage. Tuning in to your body takes a bit of practice. Here, you can learn a simple awareness technique that helps you recognize your tension before it becomes a bigger problem.

Do a body tension scan to relieve stress

One of the best ways to recognize bodily tension is to use this simple one-minute scanning exercise.

Find a place where you can sit or lie down comfortably and be undisturbed for a moment or two (see the figure).

[Credit: Illustration by Pam Tanzey]
Credit: Illustration by Pam Tanzey

Scan your body for any muscle tension. Start with the top of your head and work your way down to your toes. Ask yourself:

  • Am I furrowing my brow?

  • Am I knitting my eyebrows?

  • Am I clenching my jaw?

  • Am I pursing my lips?

  • Am I hunching my shoulders?

  • Am I feeling tension in my arms?

  • Am I feeling tightness in my thigh and calf muscles?

  • Am I curling my toes?

  • Do I notice any discomfort anywhere else in my body?

With a little practice, you can scan your body in less than a minute, finding your tension quickly. Once you have the hang of it, try the body scan while sitting at a desk or standing up. See if you can do a body scan three or four times a day. It’s a great way of becoming aware of your stress.

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