The Physiological And Psychological Signs Of Stress That Many People Ignore

Stress should feel obvious–right? But it’s not. If you don’t know the physiological signs of stress, you may not pause to recognize how overwhelmed you feel. “It’s common for people to not realize they are stressed out,” says Jeffrey Borenstein, CEO of Brain and Behavior Research Foundation.

To confirm whether you’re stressed, you need to know the symptoms of stress. You’ll want to check your skin, sleep habits, and bowel movements, among other signs. Learn the physiological and psychological indications of stress to solve your symptoms.

You Suffer Through Frequent Headaches

Someone with a headache takes Ibuprofen
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BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

During a 2015 study published in Cephalalgia, researchers examined over 5,000 participants and how they reacted to stress. They discovered that the more stressed people feel, the more headaches they experience. Headache intensity also increased with stress, with 14% of participants suffering from migraines.

In The Journal of Headache and Pain, another study noted that 44.8% of patients with chronic headaches experienced pain during or after a stressful event. During busy times, people may drink less water or not sleep enough, both of which can result in headaches. If you’re experiencing more frequent or stronger headaches, it might be time to examine your emotions.

You Get Sick More Often

Man with Rhinitis blows his nose
BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images
BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images

Stress hits your immune system. In 2010, researchers analyzed 27 studies and wrote their conclusions in Psychosomatic Medicine. They found that people with high stress levels have a higher chance of developing respiratory infections. Another study in the journal Age stated that stressed participants experienced a weakened immune response to the flu vaccine.

According to Simple Psychology, the stress hormone corticosteroid can lower the number of lymphocytes in the immune system. In other words, stress prevents our immune system from working efficiently. That’s why people tend to become sick during or after stressful periods.

You Struggle To Remember

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Unsplash/@lindyjbaker

In 2018, researchers published the results of a study that they had been conducting since 1948. The Framingham Heart Study followed residents of Framingham, Massachusetts, and their reactions to stress. They concluded that people with the highest levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) experienced the most memory loss, putting them at risk for dementia.

According to psychologist Jeffrey Rossman, chronic stress may shrink your hippocampus over time. The hippocampus controls your short-term memory, and damage to the hippocampus can make you struggle with memory loss. In most cases, overcoming your stress will return your memory.

You Frequently Feel Bored

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Unsplash/@joshrh19

Feeling bored may sound like the opposite of stress, but recent research suggests that they may be connected. In 2012, researchers at the University of Toronto explored how the environment affects boredom. They found that stressful environments are more likely to trigger boredom.

“We know when people are stressed, it makes it harder to focus and pay attention at a very basic, fundamental level,” explains John Eastwood, a professor of psychology and co-author of the study. Eastwood says that the more stimuli we have, the less attention we can afford. As a result, we don’t feel engaged or entertained.

Lack Of Sleep

Model yawns while she's unable to sleep
BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images
BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images

Stress pushes your body into fight-or-flight mode. If you can’t relax, then you won’t be able to sleep well. In one 2005 study, researchers found that participants who worked longer, more stressful workdays slept less on those nights. Another study in a 2014 issue of Sleep stated that stress “is a significant risk factor for incident insomnia.”

While stress may cause insomnia, other conditions such as asthma and chronic pain can also contribute. According to the National Sleep Foundation, anxiety-rooted insomnia may cause muscle tension, feeling overstimulated, and being unable to “turn off” your thoughts.

Stress Messes With The Digestive System

Woman suffering from abdominal pain.
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

When people feel stress, the gut is one of the first bodily systems to suffer. In an interview with SELF, gastroenterologist Dr. Kyle Staller said that patients often experienced constipation and diarrhea during stress. “Your gastrointestinal tract has many nerves and is a nervous system organ much like the brain,” he explained. “The brain can impact what’s going on in the gastrointestinal tract, and vice versa.”

In 2009, researchers examined 18 studies and wrote about the results in Digestion. They concluded that stress increased digestive symptoms such as diarrhea, constipation, and exacerbated inflammatory bowel disease (IBS). If you’re suffering through bowel irregularity, stress may be to blame.

You Get More Acne

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Unsplash/@scottwebb

Having more acne than normal is a visible sign of stress. In 2007, researchers examined 94 teenagers during moments of stress. They found that the more stressed the teenagers became, the more acne they had. A 2003 study in Archives of Dermatology seconded this finding.

Stressed people tend to mindlessly touch their face, which spreads bacteria and worsens acne. If someone has little time, they may not wash their face as often as they regularly do. Hormonal shifts and excess oil production can also occur during periods of intense stress.

Your Appetite Lowers And Then Increases

Young Japanese girl eating a snack outside a convenience store at night.
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Getty Images

Stress can either increase your appetite or decrease it. How does this happen? According to Harvard Health, stress activates the hormone epinephrine that triggers your fight-or-flight response. In the short term, this hormone puts eating on hold. If stress doesn’t end, though, cortisol levels will continue to rise, which increases cravings.

A 2006 study in Nutrition Research found that 38% of stressed participants had a lower appetite, while 62% ate more. In a 2009 study, 129 participants who felt stressed reported eating without being hungry. If you’re aware of your appetite increase, you can work to prevent unhealthy weight loss and gain.

You May Feel More Sluggish Than Usual

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As the brain processes emotions, it uses a lot of energy. So it makes sense that the more intense the emotion, the less energy you have. In 2011, a study in BMC Research Notes looked into 2,483 people with fatigue. They concluded that energy levels decreased with higher stress.

People who feel overwhelmed may drink less water, eat unhealthily, or not catch enough sleep. All of these actions can contribute to persistent fatigue. When the body processes stress, it consumes more vitamin B and magnesium, both of which supply the body with vitality.

You Experience More Neck Pain

Woman suffering from cervical pain
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BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Stress tells our muscles to tense up. According to the American Psychological Association, tensing up is the body’s way of guarding against injury and pain. It’s a natural reaction to stress’s fight-or-flight reflex. This tension can make already-aching areas, such as your neck, hurt much more.

“As stress goes up, I definitely see more patients with neck pain,” says Dr. Robert Gotlin, director of orthopedic and sports rehabilitation at Beth Israel Medical Center. In an interview with SELF, Dr. Gotlin added that stress doesn’t cause neck pain; it worsens the pain. If an aching joint suddenly hurts more, you may be feeling stressed.

You Struggle To Concentrate

A woman moves to comfort a co-worker who is slumped over her desk in despair, circa 1940.
FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

If you’re stressed, you may struggle to pay attention or make decisions. A scientific review in EXCLI Journal concluded that prolonged stress lowers cognitive function. Because your brain is already juggling intense emotions, it doesn’t have space to focus on projects or brainstorm ideas.

Oddly enough, stress can improve your concentration for a short period of time. According to Colorado Christian University, the adrenaline rush heightens your senses for a period of time. But the longer you’re stressed, the more energy your brain uses, leaving little energy left for concentration.

A Prolonged, Vague Dizziness

1980s DEPRESSED WOMAN HOLDING HER HAND AT HER TEMPLE
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ClassicStock/Getty Images

As stress raises our heart rate, it can also quicken our breathing. When someone takes shallow breaths for a while, they begin to feel dizzy from the lack of oxygen. This is a common symptom of stress, according to researchers at the University of Melbourne. The Melbourne School of Health Sciences calls the symptoms “vague, persistent sensations of dizziness.”

During a 2018 study in the Journal of Audiology and Otology, participants felt increasingly dizzy when they experienced emotional distress. This symptom wasn’t limited to stress but also stemmed from anxiety and anger. Researchers at Melbourne recommend that you practice slow, deep breathing if you feel dizzy from stress.

Raised Heart Rate And Blood Pressure

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When we’re stressed, our heart rate quickens. The American Heart Association explains that adrenaline and cortisol increase heart rate and constrict the blood vessels. These physiological changes prepare the body for a flight-or-fight response.

Fortunately, blood pressure returns to normal after stress goes away. During a 2001 study published in the Journal of Music Therapy, participants’ stress-induced blood pressure returned to normal after they listened to calming music. While most people can’t feel blood pressure, they can feel their heart rate. If you consistently feel an elevated heart rate, stress may be to blame.

You Feel Anxious

Teacher Rania Mirza says graduating Grade 8 students can feel anxiety about leaving their school and moving on to High School.
Randy Risling/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Randy Risling/Toronto Star via Getty Images

While stress and anxiety are not the same thing, they tend to go together. Anxiety is a reaction to stress where someone worries about a potential future. According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, 40% of Americans struggle with persistent stress and anxiety in their daily lives.

Consistent stress gradually increases anxiety. In 2011, researchers from Brown University discovered that people with chronic stress experience increased panic over time. If your anxiety interferes with everyday life, you may have an anxiety disorder. Talk to a doctor or psychiatrist about your symptoms.

Stress May Trigger Excessive Sweating

Sweat is seen on the forehead of German rowing athlete Christine Huth
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BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images

Regular sweat cools the body down in a hot environment. While feeling stressed, the body releases a different kind of sweat from the apocrine glands. According to Dr. Kathirae Severson of Piedmont Physicians Mountainside, this sweat appears milkier and doesn’t evaporate as quickly. As it sits on the skin, the sweat accumulates bacteria, which produces body odor.

In the International Journal of Cosmetic Science, researchers reported that teenagers with high stress produced more sweat and body odor. That’s why some people tend to sweat before giving a presentation or entering a job interview.

Increased Acid Reflux

A man preparing to go to sleep in his bed, clenches his fist while experiencing heartburn at night, 1980.
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Tom Kelley/Getty Images

While stressed, people may feel more heartburn from increased acid reflux. In 2009, a study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology found that thousands of participants experienced more acid reflux while stressed. In particular, they reported more symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Why does this happen? During a 2007 study, researchers noticed that stressed participants felt more symptoms but had no more stomach acid than before. According to some scientists, stress stops the production of prostaglandins, substances that protect the stomach lining from acid. With less production, people may feel more prone to acid reflux.

You Feel Lonely

A single fan sits in the stands before the college football game between the UTSA Roadrunners and the Arizona State Sun Devils
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Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

People who are stressed may turn down social obligations since they feel overwhelmed. But recent research suggests that hormonal changes may promote a feeling of loneliness. In 2019, a study in Archives and Gerontology and Geriatrics explained that stress hormones could trigger feelings of loneliness.

According to Biomedicine and Pharmacotherapy, stress hormones such as adrenaline can alter the receptors in neurotransmitters. This can make a person feel more alone, which lends them more stress–and the cycle continues. Prolonged loneliness can even change your brain structure over time, according to 2015 research by the University of Chicago.

A Feeling Of Powerlessness

A woman covers her face during a difficult day managing as a mother and working full time
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

When someone feels overwhelmed, but can’t fix the problem right away, they may feel powerless. In the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, one study links this feeling to a physiological response. They found that female workers who felt powerless also had intense stress symptoms such as high blood pressure and a quick heart rate.

The American Psychological Association claims that employees such as waitresses, medical professionals, editors, and secretaries often experience powerlessness as a symptom of stress. They describe this symptom as a feeling of hopelessness and believing that nothing can be done.

Chronic Pain Becomes Worse

Bob Sprankle who is suffering from chronic lower abdominal pain related to a hernia surgery  squeezes a tiny plush ball to control his pain
Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images
Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

While chronic pain doesn’t always begin with stress, it grows worse with stress. Studies suggest that the stress hormone, cortisol, heightens chronic pain. A 2013 study in Brain found that participants with chronic back pain also had enough cortisol to indicate sustained, prolonged stress.

While this study demonstrates an association between chronic pain and stress, it doesn’t illustrate a cause. If you suffer from undiagnosed chronic pain, see a doctor. If you already suffer from chronic pain, and your symptoms suddenly become worse, then stress may be the culprit.

A Decreased Libido

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Hemant Chawla/The The India Today Group via Getty Images

Prolonged stress may result in a lower sex drive. During a 2009 study in the International Journal of Clinical Practice, 50% of the 339 participants experienced less arousal and sexual satisfaction during periods of stress. Stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine may conflict with sex hormones, resulting in a lowered libido.

According to one study in The Journal of Sex Medicine, distraction can also inhibit sexual performance. Women in the high-stress group reported feeling more distracted while watching an erotic film than women in the low-stress group.

You Experience Tremors

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Haydn West – PA Images
Haydn West – PA Images

Tremors and involuntary shaking movements are another symptom of stress. This can occur in one or more parts of the body, but typically occurs in the hands, arms, head, vocal cords and legs. Although shaking caused by stress isn’t dangerous or deadly, it can be very uncomfortable, and often times, embarrassing.

The shaking is due to the muscles in your body prepping for fight or flight, due to stress. Tremors caused by anxiety are called psychogenic tremors.

You Hear A Ringing Noise

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Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A constant slight buzzing noise in your head is called tinnitus, and it affects a surprising amount of people. A study performed at Minia University in Egypt reported that 75% of the tinnitus patients they observed were under mild-to-moderate or severe-to-extreme stress levels. A study by S. Herbert found that 53.6% of people with tinnitus reported that it began during a stressful time in their life.

Another study also found a strong correlation between the level of stress and the severity of tinnitus. The louder the noise gets, understandably, the more bothered people are.

Increased Irritability

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Fairfax Media via Getty Images
Fairfax Media via Getty Images

An increased irritability or becoming frustrated more easily is also a symptom of stress, and one that also tends to build on itself. While irritability is a common emotion, it’s escalated in people who are experiencing a higher than normal amount of stress.

When we’re going through a stressful life event, it’s more difficult to manage emotions, and we become more easily overwhelmed. People who are stressed can be less tolerant of things and people that usually wouldn’t irritate them.

Speech Becomes Rapid Or Mumbled

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Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

When you’re experiencing stress, it’s very difficult to remain calm. This can lead to racing thoughts and increased breathing, which in turn, can affect your speech and conversational skills. If you have an overwhelming to-do list racing through your mind, your speech can come out as fast as your thought pattern.

This could also mean that when you’re talking to someone, your sentences become jumbled as you’re trying to keep the conversation going as quickly as your thought process.

Increased Smoking

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STANLEY CHOU/AFP/Getty Images
STANLEY CHOU/AFP/Getty Images

“Self-medication” is the term used to describe someone who smokes cigarettes as a way to manage their stress. For many, it offers both a physical and mental stimulation that they believe may help them relax in the moment. This is because nicotine causes an immediate sense of relaxation.

However, studies have shown that smoking actually increases anxiety and tension, mostly due in part to the withdrawal symptoms and craving that take place not long after someone smoked a cigarette. Tracking your smoking habits along with your stress level will help you identify if you may be self-medicating.

Difficulty Making Decisions

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Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Anyone who has ever tried to make a decision while under stress knows just how much more difficult it can be. The more stressed you are, the riskier certain decisions appear. According to studies, a person’s inability to make decisions doesn’t create more stress. Instead, stress has an acute effect on, “valuation, learning, and risk-taking.”

In a report published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, it was theorized that “stress exposure influences basic neural circuits involved in reward processing and learning, while also biasing decisions towards habit and modulating our propensity to engage in risk-taking.”

You’re Running To The Bathroom More Often

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Victor Fraile/Corbis via Getty Images
Victor Fraile/Corbis via Getty Images

On average, people urinate four to eight times a day. More than that is considered frequent urination, and this may be due to stress. While there are many reasons that you might feel the urge to urinate more often (pregnancy and prostate problems are also factors) stress also plays a role.

Stress incontinence most often occurs in women, although men experience it too. Because the bladder is closely tied to the fear system, it can be triggered when you’re under stress. Ashwini Nadkarni, an associate psychiatrist with Brigham and an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School told HuffPost, “When you feel anxious, your body’s fear response can be triggered, overwhelming your bladder’s mechanisms for retaining urine, causing you to want to urinate.”

You Experience Hives Or Rashes

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BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

While most of us experience some form of mild stress daily, it’s the extreme stress that really has an impact on the body, as we’ve learned. Another physical sign of stress is an outbreak of hives, also known as a stress rash.

These raised, red-colored spots or welts vary in size and can pop up anywhere on the body. They’re very uncomfortable and can feel very itchy. If you experience hives or rashes during a period of stress, Timothy J. Legg, PhD, CRNP recommends that patients use a nonprescription antihistamine, taking a cool bath, or using a cold compress.

Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior

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BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images
BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images

Anyone who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder knows that being stressed can worsen symptoms. This stress can be caused by several traumatic factors including natural disasters, divorce, or the death of a loved one. While stress can increase obsessive-compulsive symptoms, it is important to note that it cannot cause the disorder.

It is not always a traumatic event that can worsen symptoms. Sometimes obsessive behavior can be triggered by the birth of a sibling or a marriage. Happy moments in life that bring new responsibilities adding to already full daily routines.

Crying Spells

crysing-spell-stress
MICHELE EVE SANDBERG/AFP/Getty Images
MICHELE EVE SANDBERG/AFP/Getty Images

A 2016 study by Frontiers in Psychology found a link between crying tendencies in adults and how it related to their sense of safety and attachment and connection to others. It also found that while some people found stress relief through crying, others didn’t.

While crying is a normal reaction to human emotion, unexpected crying spells are a sign of stress that can be closely attributed to the other stress symptoms you’re experiencing, like insomnia and fatigue.

Weight Gain Or Loss

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Photofusion/Keith Morris/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Photofusion/Keith Morris/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Just like your appetite may increase or decrease with stress, so might your waist size. When a person is stressed, their “hormonal system of checks and balances” might promote weight gain. As “fight or flight” instincts decrease, cortisone levels can remain high, leading to an increase in appetite.

Aside from biologically induced appetite increases, many people who are stressed might turn to food for pleasure. This can be seen as a way to fulfill psychological needs as the world spirals into chaos around you. If you’re stressed to a point where it is affecting your weight, you might want to consider positive lifestyle changes to lower your stress.

You Grind Your Teeth More Often

Woman grinds her teeth and presses her hands against her head
Twitter/@Bupadentalcare
Twitter/@Bupadentalcare

Clenching your jaw or grinding your teeth is a bad habit that is oftentimes stress-induced. A normal act occasionally, excessive grinding is a sure sign of anxiety and can lead to further stress-induced symptoms such as headaches.

One solution to grinding your teeth is to wear a mouth guard. While this won’t relieve your stress or anxiety, it will protect your teeth from wearing down your teeth and damaging them. If your teeth are ground down enough it can damage implants, crowns, and bridges, ultimately leading your dentist to give you dentures.

Your Hair Grays

Middle-aged men and grey hair sit in an audience.
Annette Riedl/picture alliance via Getty Images
Annette Riedl/picture alliance via Getty Images

The reason we get gray hair is because over time we produce less melanin in our bodies. Some people will never lose their youthful looks, while others are genetically predisposed to go gray. For those people, too much stress can cause premature graying as well as general thinning.

To help revitalize your locks, it is recommended that you ask your doctor about taking a B vitamin or biotin. While both of these supplements can be bought over-the-counter, you should always consult a professional first before beginning any kind of treatment.

You Impulse Buy

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Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Stress can influence you to make more impulse purchases. According to psychologist Ian Zimmerman of Psychology Today, impulse buyers tend to experience less happiness. Purchases temporarily increase a purchaser’s mood, which can provide a brief relief from the stress.

Dr. Zimmerman adds that people with high anxiety and stress struggle to control their emotions. A 2016 study in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease found that stressed students are more prone to impulsive disorders. When our minds are full of responsibilities, we may not consider the long-term consequences of our actions.

You May Feel Paranoid

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Unsplash/@elgassier

Paranoia is feeling anxiety over a perceived threat. While paranoia is often associated with a mental disorder, it is actually a symptom of other emotions, according to Mental Health America. A study in Suspiciousness noted that people with chronic stress are at higher risk for paranoia.

Stress-induced paranoia may keep people on edge. You may worry about possible outcomes or interpret events in a negative way. If these thoughts spiral, or if you’re struggling to assuage these thoughts, see a mental professional.

Activities That Once Interested You No Longer Do

A woman stares, distressed, at her phone
Robert Alexander/Getty Images
Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Prolonged stress can leave you feeling empty during activities that you once found enjoyable or engaging. People who suffer from chronic stress tend to experience “burnout.” This makes people lose motivation to work, and oftentimes, they develop a pessimistic attitude.

Psychologist Sherrie Bourg Carter explains that chronic stress leads to burnout. The result leaves people feeling little accomplishment from their actions, and often feeling ineffective. Be aware that loss of interest is also a symptom of depression. If you consistently lack motivation and interest, talk to a professional about your symptoms.

Feeling Excess Guilt

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Unsplash/@twinsfisch

While there is such a thing as “positive guilt,” it’s out of the ordinary to carry excess guilt, which can also be a sign of stress. Guilt can be a terrible burden, which we experience when we feel like we let someone down.

During a period of high stress, people can be overwhelmed with tasks, and can therefore feel like you’re dropping the ball on something, which can lead to a feeling of excess guilt. When you’re stressed, you feel it more, because your perception is that you have no control over the situation and you feel guilty that it’s unmanageable.

You Have A Rapid Pulse

The EPI Life mobile phone comes complete with mini electrocardiogram and takes a user's pulse when he or she presses their fingers on a receptor.
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Stress is the opposite of calm, and as you’ve read, the body’s reaction can feel like an earthquake within yourself. An increased or rapid heartbeat is another sign of stress that may feel completely overwhelming and out of your control.

A normal heart rate beats 60 to 100 times per minute. A heartbeat greater than 100 beats per minute is considered a rapid or fast heartbeat. This is one that you can check at home, by feeling your pulse and counting the beats per minute. It’s good to know your baseline to have something to measure against.

Your Mouth Feels Dry (Frequently)

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Unsplash/@taniamed28

A dry mouth, or the feeling that there’s not enough saliva in your mouth, is another sign of stress. It’s true that everyone can experience dry mouth every once in a while, but you’ll notice this more when you’re nervous or under stress.

According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, sip on water when you can and avoid drinks with caffeine or alcohol. You can also chew sugarless gum to increase saliva production.

You Have Trouble Swallowing

People drink coffee inside Pellegrini's Espresso Bar
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Michael Dodge/Getty Images

Much like experiencing tremors, the body can react to stress with a tightening in the throat. Your throat is another area of muscle that can experience increased tension when you’re stressed, much like the fight or flight reaction that you may feel in other muscles, or around your bladder.

Feeling a tightness in your throat during a period of high stress can also impact your ability to stick to a normal eating schedule. Lightly massaging the muscles around the throat and neck can offer a bit of relief.