Health: Simple two signs your stress levels are out of control

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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.

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