Simple strategies can reduce the headaches, upset stomach, and shortness of breath that may be triggered by emotional stress.
You’ve had headaches on and off, or possibly nausea, or muscle pain. It could be emotions, rather than a physical illness, driving your symptoms.
Blame your autonomic nervous system. This is a system in your body that you don’t consciously control, but that regulates things like your heart rate, breathing, urination, and sexual function. It’s also the system that reacts when you are under a physical threat. The autonomic nervous system produces your fight-or-flight response, which is designed to help you defend yourself or run away from danger.
When you are under stress or anxious, this system kicks into action, and physical symptoms can appear — headaches, nausea, shortness of breath, shakiness, or stomach pain. “Doctors see it all the time — patients with real pain or other symptoms, but nothing is physically wrong with them,” says Dr. Arthur Barsky, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
In today’s world, with the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic toll, many people may be noticing new physical symptoms without realizing what’s causing them. “This is a terribly stressful time,” says Dr. Barsky. “There is stress about what our lives are like, the ominous threat of getting the virus and getting sick. It’s already clear that the pandemic is heightening anxiety and sense of stress.”
For some people, this situation is the start of a vicious cycle. “Anxiety and stress themselves produce these physical symptoms, and on top of that your reaction to those symptoms can make them worse. The more you focus on them, the more alarmed you become, and the more intense your symptoms become,” says Dr. Barsky. “It can get really out of control and become so uncomfortable that you might not be able to do much more than sit and worry.”