When Tess Kearns and her husband started an all-natural catering company in Chicago last year, the responsibilities of running a new business and raising two kids were super-consuming. “I found myself with a late mortgage and not enough business and racing to learn new skills to keep it all going,” says Tess. “But I didn’t feel like I was worn-out. I just felt like I had a heavy load to carry.”
Then her memory began to slip. “I’d meet someone for a second or third time and not recognize them,” she says. “I needed to write to-do lists so I wouldn’t forget tasks, but then I’d lose the lists. I was in my 40s, and I was afraid I had early-stage Alzheimer’s.”
Tess didn’t have dementia: She was careening toward burnout. Memory blips are just one of the body’s clues that it’s stressed to the max. But we’re often operating at such a fast pace that we don’t even notice the signs. “Our bodies try to tell us to slow down, and we just don’t listen,” says Alice Domar, PhD, founder of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health in Waltham, Mass. “If you ignore the distress signals for too long, they can turn into health problems.” Watch out for these biological tip-offs that it’s time for a breather.
You keep drawing blanks
When you’re under stress, your adrenal gland pumps out cortisol, and research has shown that this fight-or-flight hormone can hinder your powers of recall, making it tougher to access stored facts (including so-and-so’s name and where you left your phone).
Add late nights or insomnia to the mix and your recollection may get even slipperier. “During sleep, your brain replays whatever you learned that day and moves it into long-term storage,” explains Sandra Ackermann, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher in biopsychology at the University of Zurich. If you don’t get enough shut-eye or you go to bed with your cortisol levels still spiking, that process of encoding details is disturbed.
Tess finally connected her spaciness to burnout at a networking event, where a Reiki therapist spoke about how stress can make the body go haywire. “I went in for a session, and while I was there I felt peace and calm,” says Tess. “It may sound ‘woo woo,’ but I got my focus back. Shortly after that, we had our best business month yet.”
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Your cuts take forever to heal
Whether you graze your knuckle with a vegetable peeler or develop a nasty blister on a long-distance run, expect to wear a Band-Aid for a while if you’re overtaxed. “When you get an injury, your immune system engages right away, sending signals to produce collagen, form a blood clot and recruit cells to protect against germs,” explains William Huang, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C. “But when you’re stressed, your body has higher levels of chemicals called glucocorticoids, which suppress your immune system and make healing slower.” Researchers from Ohio State University studied this effect in the caregivers of dementia patients: They found that people shouldering such responsibility healed 24 percent more slowly than those in a control group.
Your cramps are lethal
You already know that stress can make your period late. That’s because when the hypothalamus, the regulatory center of the brain, senses that your body is running on empty, it can delay the release of an egg, shifting your whole cycle offtrack.
But for some women, feeling frazzled may make PMS worse as well. In a National Institutes of Health study, researchers followed 259 women for more than a month and quizzed them on how often they felt, for example, nervous or not in control of their lives. Those who reported more stress early in their cycle were more likely than relaxed women to have moderate to severe symptoms before and during their period. (Because killer cramps are just what you need right now.)
Your GI tract protests like whoa
Christa Reed, from Park Ridge, Ill., had always had a stomach of steel. But about nine months into a TV news gig that required her to be on-site by 3 a.m., she was diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux disease. Her doctor prescribed a modified diet and more sleep. Six months later, the pain was worse. “Instead of carrying lip gloss and gum in my purse, I had Tums and Pepto Bismol,” says Christa, who was then 27. “My doctor told me that if I didn’t get more rest, I’d end up with esophageal cancer.” So she decided to quit her job, and within two weeks, the reflux was gone.
Christa’s story is far from unusual. “Stress can alter gut secretions and slow or speed up digestion, causing problems like reflux, nausea, constipation or diarrhea,” says Michael Gershon, MD, professor of pathology and cell biology at Columbia University and author of The Second Brain.
There may be farther-reaching consequences as well: “When anxiety disrupts digestive processes, the gut’s microbiome may begin to change,” explains Dr. Gershon. “The presence or absence of different bacteria can influence the strength of your entire immune system, your weight, even your mood.” The good news: A little R & R can help restore the balance of bugs in your belly.
You can’t stop scratching
In response to any sort of trauma or pathogen, the skin’s nerve endings release chemical signals called neuropeptides that communicate “Houston, we have a problem” to the brain. Weirdly, a looming deadline or crammed social calendar can activate the same messengers—resulting in inflammation that makes you feel itchy. “The skin is a dynamic organ, and skin and stress have a complicated interplay,” says Dr. Huang.
Your dreams are downright wacky
If your sleep scenes play out like Dancing with the Stars-meets-The Walking Dead fan fiction, you may need a lot more shut-eye. People who are sleep-deprived tend to have more intense dreams, though experts aren’t entirely sure why.
One possible explanation: When you’re not getting enough rest, your brain prioritizes REM sleep—the most restorative stage, which also happens to be when dreams occur. “Typically, REM sleep doesn’t begin until about 90 minutes after you fall asleep,” says Joyce Walsleben, PhD, associate professor at the Sleep Disorders Center at NYU School of Medicine. “But if you’re exhausted, the brain can get there in as few as 10 minutes.” Throughout the night, it will cycle quickly through the other two stages of sleep to make up for the deficit in REM, which means more time for creative nocturnal imaginings to unfold.
Plus, if you’re stressed-out and sleeping fitfully, you’re more likely to wake up middream, or just after one, and remember the details vividly—especially if it involved, say, flamenco-dancing zombies.
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Your head pounds on Saturdays
After a brutal week at the office, the weekend feels like a gift from the gods. You sleep in, enjoy a leisurely brunch and then…develop throbbing pressure in your skull? “We’re not exactly sure why, but migraines are sometimes triggered by the letdown after a period of stress rather than the stress itself,” explains Peter Goadsby, PhD, a neurologist who specializes in headache disorders at Kings College London. The effect might be the result of a sharp drop in cortisol. Who knew?
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POSES FOR PEACE
Your brain and body are screaming for z’s—but stress is keeping you up at night. Help! This simple yoga series from celebrity instructor Mandy Ingber can help relax your mind for better rest.
1. Easy seated pose with alternate-nostril breathing
Sit on the floor, legs crossed. Use your right thumb to close your right nostril. Inhale through your left nostril. At the top of the inhale, close your left nostril with your right ring finger and release right nostril. Exhale and inhale through your right nostril. Close right nostril again and exhale through left nostril. Repeat the sequence 16 times.
2. Reclining Pigeon Pose
Lie on your back, knees bent and soles of feet on the floor. Cross right ankle over left knee. Clasp your hands behind left hamstring and draw thigh toward your torso. Hold for up to two minutes, breathing deeply. Switch sides.
3. Legs-up-the-wall pose
Sit by a wall with right hip and shoulder touching it, knees bent. Roll onto your back and extend legs up the wall. Stay here for 5 to 10 minutes. “This mellow inversion reverses blood flow, encourages lymphatic drainage and brings renewed blood to your heart,” says Ingber.
RELATED: 3 Stress-Busting Yoga Poses
TENSION-BUSTING TIPS THE PROS USE
“I’ve created little cues to remind myself to take breaks. Now, whenever I’m stopped at a red light, or whenever I glance at the clock at work, I practice diaphragmatic breathing.” —Alice Domar, PhD
“Some whole foods can actually help you handle stress better. Berries, red bell peppers and kale are all good sources of vitamin C, which helps regulate cortisol. And avocados contain loads of potassium, which helps keep your blood pressure healthy.”—Wendy Bazilian, RD
“For the best sleep, you have to find a way to separate the day from the night. That might mean taking a quick shower before bed or starting a new bedtime routine, like writing in a journal or doing some yoga.”—Joyce Walsleben, PhD