10 signs your stress levels are out of control

Stress is an unavoidable part of all our lives, and chances are, you know when you're feeling the pressure. You know the signs, the ones that start right before a big presentation at work or in the moments before you're going to be getting news that's either incredibly good or incredibly bad. But what happens when that stress builds and builds, until we don't get to step away? What happens when we find ourselves caught in a vicious cycle, with stress becoming such a part of everyday life that it starts to get almost unbearable?

There are a number of signs that your stress levels are just going out of control, and some of them are things that you might not even connect to stress.

You're grinding your teeth

It's called bruxism, and most people who do it, do it in their sleep. According to a study financed by the Intramural Research Program of the NIH and the National Institute on Aging, the likelihood of someone grinding their teeth is directly related to things like emotional stability and stress. Surprisingly, it's not just a human correlation, either, and the same findings have been confirmed in rats.

In the study, 470 women completed both a dental history survey (with 385 of them going through a full dental exam), along with a personality assessment. They found that those volunteers who scored high on scales for either objectivity, sociability, or emotional stability were much, much less likely to also grind their teeth. According to the Mayo Clinic, bruxism isn't exactly understood, but they also link it to things like emotional stress, anxiety, anger, frustration, or a highly competitive nature. They also say that for some, it's a coping strategy that helps focus attention into an outlet that, in the end, can be damaging not only to your teeth, but to your jaw.

If you're not sure whether or not you're grinding your teeth at night, the NHS says that some people might develop complications they notice when they're awake. That includes things like persistent headaches and earaches, along with jaw pain. Those that are prone to grinding their teeth at night might also find themselves clenching their teeth regularly throughout the day, although it's more rare to actually grind your teeth during the day. (Only about 20 percent of reported cases do.) They also say as much as 70 percent of cases are directly related to stress.

You're having trouble learning something new

We've all been there. We're trying to learn something new, and we just can't seem to concentrate. Whether it's from the pressure to perform or some other kind of outside stressor, there's a very real and very biological reason that stress might seem to interfere with your ability to learn and remember.

Researchers from the UC Irvine School of Medicine looked at exactly what goes on in the brain during times of short-term stress (that's stress that lasts just a few hours). They found that acute stress releases a molecule called corticotropin, which interferes with the process of learning. Learning (and memory) happens in a part of the brain called the synapses, and when corticotropin is released it interferes with the synapses' ability to communicate and collect memories: i.e., learning. The stress molecule actually destroys the structures responsible for allowing us to learn new things, and the structures only re-grow when the stress hormone is removed.

Long-term stress has been found to have some pretty disturbing effects on other parts of the brain, too. In a study by the Arizona State University and funded by the National Institutes of Health, it was found that the area of the brain that's instrumental in our ability to learn (the hippocampus) is particularly sensitive to the presence of a compound released by the body in response to stressful situations. Glucocorticoids are released as a vital part of the flight-or-fight stress response, and on one hand, they've allowed us to survive. On the other hand, though, chronic stress and the long-term, repeated release of these molecules has been shown to compromise the structure of the hippocampus and make it more likely that those structures that allow us to learn can suffer damage. It's thought that those same structures can also recover, but prolonged stress hormones can restructure the brain for an incredibly long time, effecting us for months and even years.

You're developing auditory and verbal hallucinations

Exploding head syndrome sounds terrifying, and in the moment it happens, it can be. It's the technical term for hearing a deafening sound — usually compared to a gunshot or clap of thunder — when you're just drifting off to sleep. While there's no physical pain associated with it, it can cause all kinds of problems that even include increased anxiety around the time you're supposed to be falling asleep. It happens to women more than men, and it's more common among people over 50 years old. It's also been linked to high stress levels, although we're not entirely sure just why it happens to some people.

In a study done by researchers from the University of Vienna and the University of Dunham, the presence of verbal hallucinations was also linked to high levels of stress and anxiety. It's defined as hearing "alien" voices that say any number of things, most often related to a person's biggest stressors. According to surveys completed by volunteers, verbal hallucinations increased during times of increased stress and anxiety, and many reported that emotional distress existed before the hallucinations and wasn't caused by them. Many reported heightened levels of stress and anxiety immediately before and during the hallucinations, and for some, they add to feelings of stress, social anxiety, and depression.

Your allergy attacks are more severe

If you suffer from allergies, chances are good you know not only the warning signs, but what you're in for. According to a study by The Ohio State University, if you're experiencing an allergy attack that's more severe than you're used to, part of that might be due to your stress levels.

Researchers found that not only were initial allergic reactions worse in people experiencing high levels of stress, but they also found those reactions tended to last longer and remain much worse. The study looked at volunteers who had a medical history of various allergies, and then compared the body's response to allergens at times of low stress and high stress. People who underwent the tests (which involved not only exposure to allergens, but high-stress activities like reading aloud and giving a 10-minute speech) and were more stressed about their situation had reactions that were twice as bad as those people who weren't stressed. The high-stress group also continued to have an allergic reaction for several days, while the non-stress group recovered faster.

In a presentation to the American Psychological Association, the study's authors said they linked the body's increased reactions to the production of a stress hormone called catecholamines, along with increased levels of a protein called interleukin-6. The protein is related to one of the body's common responses to allergies: inflammation. The longer the stressor is in place, the more the body reacts and the longer — and more powerful — an allergic reaction will be.

Overeating and weight gain

Stress has a strange relationship with our eating habits. According to the Harvard Medical School, short-term stress shuts down our desire to eat due to the release of a hormone called corticotropin. That, along with the release of epinephrine, kick-starts our fight-or-flight response and pushes aside anything that's going to get in the way of that, including our desire to eat.

Usually, our stress responses disappear when the stressor disappears. But if that stressor doesn't go away, our body reacts in a different way with the release of cortisol. Instead of suppressing every urge that's not considered vital to our immediate survival, cortisol increases our motivation. That, unfortunately, increases our motivation to eat, too, and the higher our cortisol levels get, the more motivated we are.

Even as cortisol is pushing us toward food, it's been found that we (that is, moreso women than men) tend to turn to certain types of food. We call them comfort foods, and they're the ones that are usually high in fat and sugar content. Biologically, comfort food is exactly that. Harvard suggests foods high in fat and sugar actually act on the brain to counteract some of the worst feelings of stress, providing a relief that's only temporary. In 2007, a British study also found that our tendency to eat and gain weight when we're stressed varies by the individual, too, as people who produce more cortisol are more likely to stress eat. Ultimately, prolonged stress grooms us to seek out food-related relief, and that compounds into weight gain — especially when combined with other effects of stress, like a lack of interest in exercise, insomnia, and a tendency to drink more alcohol when we do partake.

You're sighing a lot

We all sigh, and we actually do it more regularly than we think (you're going to do it a few times just while reading this section, in fact). Scientists know that some emotional states, like stress, result in us sighing more often… they're just not sure why.

In 2016, researchers from the Stanford University School of Medicine took a huge step in decoding why we sigh as a part of our regular breathing. It's estimated we sigh about a dozen times in an hour, and we're usually not aware that we're doing it. They found that it all has to do with tiny sacs that line the surface of our lungs, called alveoli. These sacs control the absorption of oxygen and the release of carbon dioxide, and sometimes they collapse. A sigh reinflates the sacs, keeping things moving as needed. It's a basic biological function that's linked to a set of neurons and peptides in the brain, and science suggests that without sighing, our lungs would slowly collapse completely… but what they still don't know is why people sigh more when they're stressed.

The study's authors confirm the link, and they also suggest it might have something to do with the brain's release of neuropeptides triggering not just an emotional release, but a respiratory one, too. They're not sure, though, but they do say that there's a definite link between high stress levels and more frequent sighs.

You've got a case of the dropsies

You've probably heard the stories about someone visiting a museum, stumbling, and accidentally destroying a priceless treasure. At home, you might be doing the same thing on a smaller scale. Suddenly unable to to put your coffee down without knocking it over, or dropping more things that you're holding onto? According to Dr. Charles B. Swanik of the University of Delaware, there's usually two things at work here. One is how distracted we are at that particular moment, and the other is stress.

Stress and distraction go hand-in-hand, and according to Dr. Swanik, stress makes it next to impossible to concentrate on what's going on around you like you could if you weren't thinking about whatever is causing your stress. Too much stress actually causes things like a loss of peripheral vision, and it can also change what's going on in your muscles. If you're stressed, you're tense, and if you're tense, then your brain isn't necessarily going to get the reaction it's expecting when it tells, say, your hand to reach out and grab that cup of coffee. While your brain might be giving instructions based on your normal resting state, if stress is making your muscles tight and tense you're going to be suffering from a case of the clumsies when your brain and your body start crossing signals.

Strangely, stress-related clumsiness might not be restricted only to you. In 2015, the University of Notre Dame Australia released the results of a study that looked at clumsiness in 2,900 children between the ages of 10 and 17, and compared that to stress levels reported by their mothers. Their findings suggested that children born to mothers experiencing stressful life events were more clumsy than other children.

You're developing any number of skin issues

There's a lot that's not understood about how our skin reflects what's going on inside us, and there's actually an entire field of study dedicated to it. It's called psychodermatology, and according to Harvard Medical School and experts from Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, many skin problems and complaints have a psychological component. There's a technical term for skin problems that are made worse by stress (and other emotions), too: psychophysiological.

According to Mark Mummert of the University of North Texas Health Science Center, the hormones and substances released by a body in a state of stress can impact the skin in a huge number of ways. If you're in a state of high stress, physical wounds and damage to your skin will heal more slowly than they normally would. Highly stressed people are likely to find their skin is more sensitive to painful stimuli like hot and cold, and stress might also make conditions like psoriasis, acne, rashes, rosacea, and eczema worse. Hair loss and the skin condition alopecia has also been linked to high-stress periods in life, particularly those that have to deal with an upheaval in family relationships. You might also find yourself suffering from chronic dry skin, too, as stress hormones have been found to negatively impact the skin's natural moisture balance.

You might also find that you're feeling abnormally itchy, and that can be a sign of high stress levels, too. According to a 2013 study in Experimental Dermatology, some of the chemicals released by the limbic system when it's under stress can impact the brain's ability and perception to detect itching. It's thought that chronic stress interferes with receptors in the brain, making us susceptible to chronic itch.

You have more bad dreams than good

The idea that bad dreams and persistent nightmares are a sign of stress in your waking life might sound a bit cliche, but it's absolutely true. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, only between two and eight percent of adults have nightmares, and it's been found that most of these nightmares are, in one way or another, an extension of the thoughts that occupy your waking hours.

At one time, it was thought that experiencing traumatic events in nightmares served as something of an emotional release for your brain. According to studies cited by Scientific American, that might not be the case at all. They found that people who experienced regular nightmares were more likely to suffer from anxiety while they were awake, and when researchers tried to use exposure to disturbing images to encourage study volunteers to have nightmares, they found those who had bad dreams were more impacted by things like stress and anxiety in their waking moments.

According to clinical psychologist Dr. Michael Nadorff, anxious and stressed people are more likely to wake up in the middle of a bad dream, cementing it in memory, while other people might not wake and might simply forget their stress dreams. It's also not unheard of for people to experience bad dreams so often that it starts to interfere with their daily life, and there's a name for that: Nightmare Disorder. It used to be called Dream Anxiety Disorder, and it's more common in girls and women. While nightmares typically get less and less common as we get older, frequent nightmares have been linked to a high, chronic state of stress.

You feel like gambling

Gambling can take a number of forms, and it doesn't just mean hitting the casino. It might include things like scratch-off or lottery tickets, and some studies have found that for those who are prone to gambling (or who have a gambling problem), stress can make those urges worse.

According to Know the Odds, a national non-profit dedicated to helping spread awareness about problem gambling, stress can be a major trigger in turning back to old habits. Gambling can present a way to destress, and Recovery Ranch, a Tennessee-based treatment facility for addiction, took a look at just what kind of impact stress had on gambling habits. The study took 347 volunteers (including 229 women) and asked them about things like stress levels and the methods used to manage their emotions. They found those who reported high levels of stress also connected the use of electronic gambling machines with feelings of avoidance and used it as a coping strategy, and while the correlation between gambling and stress isn't entirely understood, it does suggest those who are prone to gambling might be even more likely to do so when they're highly stressed.

When you're suffering from chronic stress

While some stress is good, if you're suffering from these symptoms it may indicate the stress in your life is becoming a problem that's interfering with your ability to function. If that's the case, what do you do?

The American Psychological Association says that some things that can help include setting limits on what demands you're placing on yourself, sharing your feelings with close friends or family members, and reminding yourself to try to keep a positive outlook wherever possible. They also suggest making a commitment to a single activity that will improve your overall health, like taking a short walk on your lunch break or cutting out that second cup of coffee in the morning. They also suggest trying some relaxation techniques to help you get a better night's sleep, and also say that if stress is interfering with your daily life, psychologists can give you any number of techniques to help it all become more manageable.

Recommended