Social distancing, lockdowns, growing unemployment, and economic uncertainty have led to an increase in the need for mental health treatment.

Twenty-five percent of adults say their biggest stressors this year have been social distancing and loneliness.

Forty-eight percent say they hide their feelings if they’re suffering from stress. Here’s how stress ‘quietly’ affects your health and what you can do about it.

What Is ‘Quiet Stress’?

When we think of stress, we envision shouting, loud outbursts, swearing, and anger. These signs of stress are pretty apparent. But over half of Californians say they’ve suffered from quiet stress this year. That is, there were no loud outbursts, no visible expressions of anger, and no signs of tension. 

Instead, their stressful feelings have been kept hidden. People under quiet stress will underreact vs. overreact, and there’s a down side. 

Quiet stress may sound benign, but it can be the source of many ailments that you may not readily associate with stress, such as heart disease, lowered immunity, and addiction.

The Effects of Quiet Stress

If stress is chronic, it can quietly erode your health. Here are some signs that you may be living with quiet stress.

INCREASED HAIR LOSS  One type of hair loss is called ‘telogen effluvium’ and is known to occur after chronic stress, a shock, or traumatic event. Hair loss typically occurs about three months after the stressful event and may last about six months.

Hair loss is usually on the top of the scalp, and characterized by an increase in hair shedding. It’s most noticeable when washing and brushing the hair, or you may find more hairs on your pillow and floor.

The good news is… the hair loss is temporary and this hair will usually grow back after the stress is gone. The challenge is getting rid of the stress, so the hair loss doesn’t continue and become a chronic condition.

The Fix: Acupressure for stress and anxiety

  1. Sit back in a comfortable position.
  2. Place your right thumb or forefinger between your eyebrows.
  3. Apply pressure in a circular motion on this point for 5 to 10 minutes. The pressure should be gentle and shouldn’t cause discomfort.
Apply pressure in a circular motion to the acupoint with your right thumb.
Apply pressure in a circular motion to the acupoint with your forefinger.

You can do acupressure on this point (a.k.a. the Third Eye) several times a day, or as needed for your symptom to go away.

ABDOMINAL FAT (even if you’re not overweight)  Stress changes the levels of cortisol (stress hormone) that’s secreted in the body, and it’s been found to be associated with abdominal fat.

A Yale University study studied non-overweight women who reported more life stress found that they consistently secreted more cortisol and accumulated excess abdominal fat, a.k.a. “stress belly”.

Both men and women are vulnerable to the effects of stress belly. Excess weight is almost always stored at the abdomen on men anyway, whereas pre-menopausal women will tend to store fat at the hips until menopause when sex hormones change.

Abdominal fat stored centrally is embedded around the organs, which is why it’s so dangerous compared to fat stored in the hips and thighs. This kind of fat is a risk factor for heart disease, diabetes, and other diseases. See Belly fat linked to Dementia, Cancer, and More

The Fix: Exercise regularly, such as walking outside 30 minutes daily, is one of the best ways to calm down and combat chronic stress. The walking will lift your mood, boost your energy, and burn some calories.

Walking outdoors will connect you with Nature, which has been shown to have a calming effect — that is, if you walk without talking and texting on your phone. 

Practice a healthy lifestyle, which includes getting adequate exercise, relaxation, and sleep. See How to De-Stress During the Pandemic

ERRATIC SLEEP PATTERN  People can often have difficulty falling or staying asleep when under stress, particularly when grieving or under intense work strain. A good night’s sleep is essential to decrease stress and reduce levels of cortisol.

The Fix: Practice good sleep hygiene. Here’s how:

1. Maintain a consistent sleep schedule.

2. Exercise regularly.

3. Avoid fluid intake before bed and food, caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine late in the day.

In particular, limit stimulants like caffeine to the morning because if you’re a regular coffee drinker, your body may never fully clear the caffeine from your body. See Why Caffeine Has Long-Lasting Effects

Lavender essential oil + good sleep hygiene have been shown to improve sleep quality

4.  Establish some bedtime rituals to help you relax before you go to bed.

  • Diffuse lavender essential oil an hour or so before going to bed. You can also rub one to two drops on your pillow. To avoid staining your pillowcase, add the drops to a handkerchief or washcloth and place it over your pillow.
  • Take a hot shower or soak in the bath before bedtime.

5. Create a good sleeping environment.

  • Power down your digital devices.
  • Keep your bedroom dark, cool, and quiet. 
  • De-clutter your sleep space. Clutter is often a reflection of the state of your mind. Calm what’s going on inside your head. Get rid of ‘stuff’ to simplify and reduce the havoc in your life.
  • Wear ear plugs to block out noise.
  • Wear a sleep mask. When the brain senses complete darkness, it produces and releases melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland in the brain and regulates sleep and wakefulness. 

NOTE: Melatonin production and its release increase when it is dark and decrease when it is light.

Melatonin production declines with age, which could explain why older adults may have more difficulty sleeping while adding to your inability to sleep when you’re stressed. See How Much Sleep is Too Little…and Too Much?

Karen’s Fit Tip: Address the stress. You can incorporate these “fixes”, but for long-lasting effects, try to resolve the source of your stress. 

Stay tuned! Coming up next week…more on the health effects of quiet stress and more fixes.


Karen Owoc

Karen Owoc is a certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist specializing in cardiology. Her back-to-basics, science-based approach to longevity, nutrition, and muscle health has made her the go-to source for health seekers and medical professionals alike. Karen's best-selling book on functional longevity, Athletes in Aprons: The Nutrition Playbook to Break 100 and her transformative perspective have reshaped and mended many minds, hearts, and spirits.

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