Stress – It’s Not All In Your Head

Written on 03/27/2024
Sophie Kirk

Everyone gets stressed! This is something we hear all too often at Melp Co -usually as a way to dismiss very valid feelings. To some extent it’s true - we all experience stress at some point in our lives, but it can affect all of us in very different ways. Most of the time it doesn't look like the TV vision of stress. There’s no tearing your hair out and shouting. Instead, stress can affect you in all sorts of strange ways that you might not think are stress-related at all. Since the only way to deal with the symptoms is to address the underlying stress, it's important to understand what physical issues you're experiencing could be caused by stress. 

Why Does Stress Cause Physical Symptoms? 

Whenever we experience stress, or are in a stressful situation, our brain believes we are in danger. It’s an old impulse, and one that’s kept the human race alive for so long. Our brains essentially send an SOS to our hypothalamus (the command centre for the body), which floods our body with hormones to get it ready to fight, flee, freeze or fawn. It’s a biological response that we have no control over, and it happens every time we feel stressed.

There are 5 main hormones released in these situations, and they all do different things:

Cortisol: The most well-known stress hormone, its sole purpose is to help the body respond to stress. It does this by increasing blood sugar levels, boosting energy production and supressing non-essential body functions like digestion, reproduction and immunity.

Adrenaline: Released in large amounts to bring on the ‘fight or flight’ response. It increases your heart rate and blood pressure, boosts energy production and increases blood flow to the muscles so that you’re ‘ready to go’.

Noradrenaline: A cousin to adrenaline, noradrenaline increases heart rate and blood pressure, boosts alertness and vigilance, and helps you metabolise dopamine quickly.

Dopamine: What’s the ‘happy’ hormone doing here? Well, this is one that scientists are still researching! But what we do know is that dopamine is released during the stress response, and they think it helps us adapt to environmental stimuli during stressful situations.

Vasopressin: This hormone helps regulate blood pressure and water metabolism in the body. It constricts the vessels in your body to increase blood pressure, and signals the kidneys to reabsorb more water from your urine to prevent dehydration during times of stress.

If you’re stressed for a long time, then these hormone levels will always be higher than normal. That in itself can cause some more long-term physical health issues.

The Physical Signs of Stress

With all of those hormones coursing through your body, it’s not just your brain that feels the effects. Your body has a very physical reaction to stress, and this can manifest in a lot of different ways. And some of them might look like they have nothing to do with stress! So, here are some common physical signs of stress that you might want to look out for.


Low Energy & Insomnia: It seems odd that stress should cause low energy, especially when all those stress responses are designed to hype us up to deal with the situation. But the stresses of the modern world mean that fatigue and disruptions in our sleep are common. Insomnia is incredibly common when people are under stress because our brains just can’t shut off the flow of ‘awake and wary’ hormones, which in turn leads to low energy and even depression.

Headaches: Your brain is a big swirling bowl of chemicals, and all of them are carefully balanced. When one or several go out of whack, it can trigger other events in the brain. Scientists have noticed that the release of stress hormones tends to activate pain pathways, creating what we call ‘tension headaches’. So if you get headaches a lot, especially across the forehead, sides or back of your head, then stress may be to blame. 

Dry Mouth: One of the weird side effects of stress is a decrease in saliva production. This means you’ll always have a bit of a dry mouth, and might even have trouble swallowing because of it. So if you’re drinking more water just because your mouth always feels dry, take it as a sign.

Upset Stomach: Diarrhoea, constipation, nausea, heartburn, indigestion, bloating – any type of stomach upset or digestive issue can be linked to stress. It’s because your stress response sends that fight or flight message to your gut and intestines, causing them to either rush to push waste out, or to cramp up to ‘hold it in’. there’s a big connection between your gut and your brain, so you can usually rely on your digestive system to give you clues about what’s happening in your brain. 

Aches and pains in muscles: That big release of adrenaline sends your muscles into ‘ready’ mode, which often means ‘tense’. Stay in this state for too long and you’ll get aches, pains, stiffness and soreness. You can get this almost anywhere in your body, but the most common places are in your neck, back and shoulders.

Frequent colds: One of the things cortisol does is supress anything that’s non-essential or immediate survival. You know, things like your immune system? If you’re stressed a lot, then your immune system will always be suppressed, which means you’ll catch colds, coughs and other illnesses much more easily. Feel like you’re always sick? Stress might be the reason.

Jaw clenching and teeth grinding: Particularly at night. Lots of people will unconsciously clench their jaw throughout the day and night, or grid their teeth in their sleep. If you wake up in the morning with a tense jaw or are having sudden tooth pains, you may be more stressed than you thought.

Hair loss: Hair falls out naturally all the time - it’s part of the natural cycle. It grows, rests a bit, and then falls out to make room for new hair. Stress disrupts the cycle and makes more hair enter the resting phase at once, which can lead to more noticeable hair loss as more falls out at once.

Low sex drive: Hormonal changes can throw all sorts of things out of whack, including your sex drive. Low libido, erectile dysfunction, irregular and even missed periods can all be signs of stress.

Fertility problems: I know, sounds weird, right? But it’s all down to that pesky cortisol again. If you’re chronically stressed, then your body always has an elevated cortisol level, which will suppress a lot of your body’s natural but non-essential functions – including reproduction. No stress can’t cause infertility, but it can interfere with a woman’s ability to get pregnant and make things harder. That’s why fertility specialists recommend getting on top of your stress and managing it properly as one of the first treatments. 

So you see, stress isn’t just a mental problem. It’s also a physical one, and something that can have a very real and profound impact on your life. And the only way to improve things is to learn how to manage your stress properly. Diet and exercise, spending time outdoors and making time for things you love are all good places to start, but the best thing you can do for yourself is to learn positive coping mechanisms. Because life is stressful! So knowing how to manage it and stop the negative effects is essential to a happy, healthy life.

At Melp we help people of all ages and from all backgrounds deal with stress in a healthy way. Whether that’s working within workplaces with management to reduce stress, going into schools and designing stress education programmes and resources for students, or giving this wonderful MELP app where customers can access to stress management resources like guided meditation, hypnotherapy, yoga and even recipes to help support a stressed gut. So get going today and start to reduce your stress.