Between the hectic schedule of holiday parties, trying to get all that work finished before your days off and finding the perfect gift for everyone on your list (without totally breaking the bank), the holidays can quickly turn from a time of cheer to a six-week stress-a-thon.
Because there's hardly a minute to yourself in the next few weeks, you might not realize just how stretched to the max you truly are -- until something happens to remind you.
We don't just mean you find yourself reaching for your favorite comfort food or breaking out in hives. And not feeling so frazzled you forget where you put the keys or cry at the drop of a hat, either. (Although, fun fact, there's a good reason that happens when you're stressed: Emotional tears contain stress hormones, thereby flushing them out of the body and helping you feel better.) Those are all legitimate signs you're stressed out -- but you probably already know that.
The eight surprising signs below are things you might mistakenly chalk up to some other health problem or brush off as nothing to worry about. In reality, you might want to listen a little closer to what your body's trying to tell you.
Doing so can save your life. Chronic stress increases your risk for a host of health problems, including high blood pressure, heart attacks, stroke and depression, to name a few. While chilling out is often easier said than done, there are (thank goodness) a few simple relaxation strategies to keep in mind, like breathing exercises, visualization exercises and even spending time with a furry friend. Listening to music or reading a book can help, too.
While you're finding the relaxation trick that works for you, keep an eye out for these sneaky symptoms of stress.
Weird And/Or Recurring Dreams
"Unfortunately, the stress we deal with during the day <a href="http://www.doctoroz.com/videos/5-most-common-stress-dreams">tends to follow us to bed at night and plays out in our dreams</a>," Lauri Quinn Loewenberg, author of <em>Dream On It -- Unlock Your Dreams, Change Your Life</em>, wrote for DoctorOz.com. Maybe you don't realize you're burning the candle at both ends until that dream comes back where you miss your bus or your house is on fire, two of the five most common stress dreams, according to Loewenberg. However, these dreams might help you pinpoint what exactly is stressing you out -- and can <a href="http://www.fitnessmagazine.com/health/stress-relief/stress-busters/signs-of-stress/?page=5">help you work through why you're feeling that way</a>, Fitness magazine reports.
That "I could use a massage" feeling isn't just about a brief oasis from the real (read: stressful) world. Turns out, <a href="http://www.womansday.com/health-fitness/stress-management/9-surprising-symptoms-of-stress-104938">stress causes us to tense our muscles</a> and can even trigger muscle spasms, leaving us in some serious pain, <em>Woman's Day</em> reported.
Speaking of spasms -- ever had a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/31/why-do-my-eyelids-twitch_n_1844041.html">funny eye twitch</a>? Stress could be to blame. While there's not exactly hard evidence to prove it, many people who complain of a twitch also say they're tired or stressed.
A number of people grind their teeth in their sleep -- or "chew over the day's stressors," Debbie Mandel, author of A<em>ddicted to Stress: A Woman’s 7-Step Program to Reclaim Joy and Spontaneity in Life</em>, told <em>Fitness</em>. Others may simply clench their jaw while awake and stressed, often without realizing it. But both can lead to pain -- and <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/Health/story?id=5661148&page=1#.ULeQxdPjmD0">grinding can even crack teeth</a>. Your dentist can tell you if there's visible damage and set you up with a mouth guard to prevent further stress-induced wear and tear.
Changes In Your Menstrual Cycle
Women may experience late or missed periods due to stress. Some may even experience a condition know as <a href="http://www.everydayhealth.com/pms/managing-stress-during-pms.aspx">secondary amenorrhea</a>, when the cycle seems to completely stop, according to Everyday Health. Other stressed women may find their periods continue on a regular schedule -- but feel far worse. Stress can make <a href="http://www.fitnessmagazine.com/health/stress-relief/stress-busters/signs-of-stress/?page=4">cramps up to twice as painful</a>, according to <em>Fitness</em>.
Losing Hair Or Going Gray
You've probably heard someone say stress is turning them gray -- but it turns out we're <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/18/gray-hair-stress-beauty-myths_n_1885646.html">more likely to <em>lose</em> hair when stressed</a>, HuffPost Style reported. However, if you are already genetically predisposed to going gray, traumatic events and periods of intense stress could speed up the process. The Mayo Clinic explains that stress can cause white blood cells to <a href="http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/stress-and-hair-loss/AN01442">attack the hair follicle</a> and stop growth, and it may also put hair follicles into a "resting phase," so hairs fall out during washing or combing. Others experience <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/31/trichotillomania-disorder-olivia-munn_n_1723757.html">trichotillomania</a> when stressed or anxious, which gives them an irresistible urge to pull out hair on the scalp or other areas, like eyebrows and eyelashes.
An Upset Stomach
Stress can mess with your stomach in ways as simple as a bout of the butterflies. But it can also cause more serious reactions, including <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001292/">irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS</a>. While the link between stress and gastro problems is not entirely understood, it seems to <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001292/">make the intestines more sensitive and contract more</a>, according to the A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia.
Stress lowers our immune system, leaving us at risk for frequent colds. One study found that the people who reported high levels of stress were <a href="http://www.forbes.com/2010/05/17/stress-symptoms-health-forbes-woman-well-being-exercise_slide_3.html">twice as likely to catch a cold</a>. The stress hormone cortisol seems to turn down the volume on the body's inflammatory response, Health.com reported, to "free up energy" to fight off whatever the threat that's causing the stress. "Stressed people's immune cells become less sensitive to cortisol," Sheldon Cohen, Ph.D., the study's author and a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, told Health.com. "They're unable to regulate the inflammatory response, and therefore, when they're exposed to a virus, they're more likely to develop a cold."