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“Our heart rates increase during times of stress to give the body the energy it needs to deal with an impending challenge or threat,” says George Slavich, PhD, director of the Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research at UCLA. “Sometimes these threats are real, such as an oncoming car, but they can also be imagined, like thinking about a difficult conversation with your boss.”
Chronic stress can lead to a host of health problems, so it’s important to do your best to keep your mind from running too wild. Try being what Slavich calls a “thought investigator.” “Draw three columns on a piece of paper: In the first column, list all the evidence that supports the negative thought; then in the second column, list all of the evidence that does not support the negative thought as you have written it,” says Slavich. “Finally, in the third column, rewrite the negative thought in a more balanced way, based on your evidence for and against it.” This simple exercise can help ground you and slow down a racing mind and heart.
Surprising fact: Your gut is actually a part of your nervous system, which is why anxiety and other thoughts can influence how it feels. “When we become stressed, we feel a contraction in the stomach, which can cause nausea or even [what we sometimes call] butterflies,” says Elisha Goldstein, PhD, founder of The Center for Mindful Living and meditation teacher for Meditation Studio. It can also disrupt the way your gastrointestinal tract functions. “Digestion is not seen as essential in a stressful situation, so the body diverts resources elsewhere,” he explains. “This slows digestion and blood flow and oxygen to the gut, which can trigger stomach pain and aggravate symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.”
Sudden breakout? A surge in stress hormones can disrupt our skin’s protective barrier and rev up oil production, leading to acne, rosacea, and eczema, and may even interfere with wound healing. “The stress hormone cortisol stimulates the body’s sebaceous glands, increasing skin oil, which then serves as food to acne-causing bacteria and promotes inflammation,” says Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research at the Department of Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. To calm stressed-out skin, try cooling compresses and clay masks to absorb excess oil.
Deep breath! Being late does not necessarily mean you’re pregnant. Big, scary life events cause fluctuations in sex hormones that can delay your menstrual cycle. The reason may be evolutionary. “It all goes back to survival,” says Heidi Hanna, PhD, author of The Sharp Solution and Stressaholic. “A pregnancy could be detrimental in times of stress, so your body suppresses the sex hormones it needs to signal ovulation and instead converts them into stress hormones that can be used to protect you from the impending threat.” That said, if you haven’t had a period in three months and pregnancy tests are negative, schedule a doctor’s visit to rule out any other health issues.
There’s nothing like armpit stains to make a work event or date even more stressful than it already is. “Sweating from hot weather tends to activate sweat glands called eccrine glands that are all over the body,” says Ramsey Markus, MD, associate professor of dermatology at Baylor College of Medicine. Stress can do that too, but it also activates apocrine glands, which most often develop in hairy areas such your armpits and groin. And if you’ve noticed stress sweat smells worse than what you emit after a run, you’re onto something. Whereas sweat generated by activity is 99% water, the sweat that comes out in anxiety-provoking situations is about 80% water and 20% lipids and protein, which bacteria then interact with to produce a distinct scent.