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8 Weird Symptoms You Didn’t Know Were Linked to Stress

Need help coming to terms with stress or figuring out how to handle it? Here are some weird stress symptoms you need to know about first.

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You may think you’ve got your stress levels under control. After all, you don’t suffer from insomnia, a racing heart,  tension headaches, or any of the other classic signs of stress. But stress can also cause lesser-known symptoms, according to The American Institute of Stress. Here are eight unusual signs you might need to de-stress. (Check out nature’s best stress soothers.)

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You can’t keep your eyes open

Have you ever been so overwhelmed that you find yourself taking a nap? It’s possible you’re simply exhausted, but it’s also possible that you’re experiencing stress-based fatigue, the body’s urge to try to shut down stress through rest. According to a large 2015 survey by the American Psychological Association, 32 percent of people experiencing stress reported fatigue as a symptom.

Extreme tiredness can manifest through three essential forms: Stress-based fatigue can feel emotional, similar to how you feel spent after an intense argument with a friend; it can be physical, like how worn out your body feels after a long run; and it can be cognitive, similar to how your energy fades after a marathon meeting at work.

Napping can be healthy in many cases, but if you find yourself snoozing every time you feel stressed, it’s important to see the difference between a rejuvenating cat nap and using sleep as a psychologically unproductive crutch. One symptom of depression is oversleeping, so if your fatigue feels like more of an ongoing form of mental distress then seeking therapy might help. Otherwise, enjoy the benefits of rest every once in a while. (Here are 8 things that get way harder to deal with when you’re stressed.)

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You’re a ball of emotions

When you’re experiencing many emotions at once—rage, frustration, loneliness, fear—this can feel like an onslaught to your system. Perhaps your chest feels heavy, your thoughts are racing, and you can’t focus on the moment. You might be riddled with worry about the future or stuck on pain from the past. This is referred to as flooding. Everyday life is full of emotional experiences, but emotions that feel impossible to manage, such as frustration that arises in a heated, unprecedented argument with a spouse, falls into the flooded category. “Flooding is the amount of emotional reactivity someone is experiencing in any given moment that feels beyond what they have the capacity to respond to effectively,” says Arielle Schwartz, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in Boulder, Colorado. The antidote is to focus on the here and now. (Here are 33 ways to make managing stress much easier.)

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You’re frozen

In some stressful situations, fear can immobilize us, in what is known as a freeze response. This manifests as a sense of stiffness, restricted breathing, and feeling stuck in some part of the body. In the case of serious threats such as a physical attack or during a natural disaster, our body might go into what’s known as dissociation, an attempt to block out the reality of life-threatening risks. The freeze response doesn’t just show up in extreme circumstances, but also in cases where we perceive a sense of helplessness either due to our age (think of a child who is still learning how to cope with the world) or our state of mind (perhaps we are in recovery from trauma or have undeveloped emotional resources). (Here are 11 steps you should take to heal from a traumatic experience.)

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You go with the flow

Another less-recognized stress response is fawning, a desire to cooperate or submit oneself to one’s threat or captor, says Curtis Reisinger, PhD, chief of the division of psychiatry and psychological services at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Manhasset, New York. This variation of appeasement is rooted in an evolutionary response. Think about a robbery: we may react by complying with the requests of the person who can do us harm. In an emotionally fraught sense, fawning is similar, although the threat may be lower.

Traditionally, the word fawn means to show affection or attempt to gain favor in a situation through exaggerated flattery. If you get into an argument with a loved one, you might withhold your true emotions to avoid conflict. This could be an example of responding to stress through fawning. In a watered-down sense, fawning can be likened to people-pleasing, a behavior some of us are all too familiar with. (These are the 10 ways to reduce stress that actually backfire.)

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You feel like you might faint

If an episode of stress is accompanied by a dizzy fog that blurs vision or induces nausea, there’s a good chance that the faint response is taking place. Dr. Schwartz says that in cases of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the result of long-lasting stressors that are particularly intense, many people experiencing faint-like symptoms report experiences that left them in a state of needing to shut down in order to survive.

“Many learn to disconnect from emotions and needs,” she says. She attributes a sense of learned helplessness to this stress response that can remain even after the circumstances of the intense stressors have passed. For this, she recommends a type of psychotherapy known as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), which is also a treatment for PTSD.

A review of studies published in 2017 in Frontiers in Psychology suggests that EMDR therapy could also help treat trauma-associated symptoms in patients with comorbid psychiatric disorders such as psychosis, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, substance use disorders, and chronic back pain. (This is the most stressed out city in America.)

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Your body aches

Ever wake up feeling sore like you ran a marathon the day before, but, um, you didn’t actually make it to the gym? Sure it’s common to feel like you need to walk around after sitting for too long or need to get in a good stretch from everyday tension and stiffness yet in many cases, body aches are physical manifestations of stress. “Headaches, low back pain, muscle aches, and gastrointestinal symptoms are the most common,” says David Clarke, MD, president of the Psychophysiologic Disorders Association. “But many more are possible—often several at once.” If you find yourself having with lingering body aches you may be facing health-jeopardizing stress that may benefit from therapy. (Here are 5 ways not to be that annoying sick person at the gym.)

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You clench your teeth

Excessive teeth clinching is significantly associated with neuroticism and being an extrovert, suggests a study published in 2017 in the Journal of Dentistry. Teeth grinding can lead to headaches, jaw pain, facial soreness and overall tooth sensitivity. Long-term teeth grinding of the stress-induced variety can result in flattened, chipped, or loose teeth. Teeth grinding or clenching commonly occurs during rest so it’s easy to be unaware that it’s happening. Regular dental visits can help you keep abreast of this response. Since feeling this pressure in your mouth can be a sign of pressure in your life, assessing what is contributing to your stress and then reevaluating your life makes a huge difference. (Here are 15 5-second strategies for shutting down stress ASAP.)

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You eat your feelings

We’ve all heard of stress eating. At that moment when we’re reaching for Doritos after a tough work call or heading out for fro-yo after a tiff with a significant other, it can be really hard to slow down and acknowledge that we’re eating eat for emotional reasons instead of physical hunger. Of course, the act of eating is bound to have emotions attached to it, especially since it is a form of pleasure and connection with others, yet when we look to food for comfort from life’s demands, it can lead to unwanted weight gain and other health risks. Elizabeth Trattner, AP, an advanced practitioner specializing in integrative medicine, says that physiologically speaking, stress manifests in the form of weight gain around the trunk of the body; the neck, head, and shoulders are also at risk. The good news is that there are resources for how to stop emotional eating and the even better news is that our diets can help us in the stress-management department if we eat stress-reducing foods. Next, check out these stress “facts” that psychologists want you to stop believing. 

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Medically reviewed by Ashley Matskevich, MD, on June 18, 2020