Musings about life Practical Advice

Tension, tightness, and twitches: Five physical signs you may be stressed

As runners and ultrarunners, we get quite adept at learning how to listen to our bodies in training (to avoid injury) and ignore our bodies in racing (to get to the finish line!). But how good are we at listening to our body while going about our day-to-day business?

I can say with certainty that I am terrible at this and I think I always have been. I tend to take a ‘race’ approach to life rather than a more sensible training approach, and I don’t realize I’m stretching myself beyond my limits until I crash and burn – hard. As a kid, I used to pop out of my bunk bed, which I shared with my slumbering older sister, the moment my eyes opened for the first time.  I was eager to get a start on the day and accomplish all of the very important things that a four or five year old should – like gluing bottle caps on cardboard decorated with glitter paint (creating important art installations), pouring my own bowl of rice krispies (honing my culinary talents) or spying on the raccoons on the neighbour’s roof next door (engaging in important wildlife research).  It was not uncommon to see me run around the house at 5 or 6am, even on weekends.

Never taking a nap!
I’m never taking a nap, ya!

 Then around 3pm, my crankiness would begin to creep out.  My mom would look at me at say hopefully, “time for a nap? I think you’re tired.” But I always refused to believe her.  My eyes would narrow and I would cross my arms in defiance.  Tired, bah! What does she know. I still have to race around the yard on my tricycle and eat my afternoon snack. Naps are for wimps!  Yes, I was a nightmare. Queue sympathy for my mother. As I continued to ignore the clear signs of fatigue, the day would inevitably end in some kind of exhausted tantrum when my tiny kid brain finally gave up.

So fast-forward to present day. I’ve recognized that I’ve been maybe ‘a bit down’ or ‘a bit stressed’ lately, but I thought I was coping rather famously. I was still focused on accomplishing all of the very important things that a 30 year old should.  So when I started getting pounding headaches and weird dreams, I just ignored it. I was doing just fine.  But then a couple of days ago, my chest really started to hurt. Every time I breathed in, I felt like I had a pain right in my heart. Hmm. Maybe this was something to worry about.

I went to the doctors early the next morning inside the compound. They sent me for ECG tests, which of course they had to do three times because they ALL came out abnormal. (Side note: some of you may have experienced this as well because if you’re an endurance athlete, you’ll likely have weird heart test results as a result of having an enlarged heart!). So then they sent me for blood work to figure out if I was in heart failure. Yeah, I knew I wasn’t, but it still wasn’t exactly comforting!

We’re still not really sure what it is, but it turns out that it is probably just stress. There I was in the doctor’s office and he tells me “I think you’re just stressed.”  My eyes narrowed and I crossed my arms. Stressed, bah! What does he know…  But upon reflection, he may be right.

I didn’t think stress could manifest itself in such a tangible physical pain like that, but I’ve looked into it a bit and it seems it actually pretty common. In fact, our bodies have pretty amazing ways of telling us we are stressed, even when we don’t want to listen.  We can ignore our feelings as much as we want, but at some point, our feelings will come out in physical ways.  Here is a short list of a few physical signs that you may be stressed out:

1.       Chest pains

Given that this is what I’ve been feeling, I’ll start here.  Of course, chest pain can be a sign of a real physical problem or illness, but in otherwise healthy people, it can be a sign of emotional stress.  There is even something called “broken heart syndrome” (can you believe it?!).  According to the Mayo Clinic, people who have suffered through the death of a loved one or an emotional breakup may experience sudden chest pain or even think they are having a heart attack. In broken heart syndrome, “a part of your heart temporarily enlarges and doesn’t pump well, while the remainder of the heart functions normally or with even more forceful contractions.”  Thankfully, the symptoms usually go away in about a week.


2.       Tight muscles


Stress can also lead us to tense up our muscles without noticing it, causing tightness and even muscle spasms.  This can include jaw pain (clenching), back pain, and tension headaches. 

3.       Eye twitches

It has happened to all of us before – the dreaded eye twitch. It can be triggered by stress or extreme fatigue, but in my experience, it usually comes on at the most awkward and inconvenient of times. Like when you are giving an important presentation, meeting someone new or trying to put on mascara. Ha!

4.       Upset stomach

One of the most annoying symptoms of stress can be stomach problems. We’re talking about diarrhea, constipation,  acid stomach and yes, gas. Gee, that’s just what we need when we’re stressed out, eh? Uncontrollable flatulence. Well, if you weren’t stressed before, you will be now!

5.       Weird dreams or recurring nightmares

This isn’t really a physical symptom, but it is definitely a real one that I’m sure more than a few of you have experienced.  Often when we don’t want to deal with things in our waking hours, our brains try to sort it out while we are sleeping.  If we are stressed out, this can often produce some strange dreams.  I have one horrible dream in which I find out that it is just days before my grade 11 calculus test with Mr. Capron and I haven’t studied. I have to somehow teach myself the entire course in a matter of hours and it is terrifying.  It has been 15 years since I was actually studying calculus in high school, but there have been times when the dream was so vivid that I have actually woken up and started searching for my textbooks before I realize it was all just a nightmare.

If you’ve been experiencing any of these symptoms (and there are others!), stop for a minute and ask yourself – am I stressed?  If so, do yourself a favour and be kind to your body and your brain. Go for a run, do yoga, try to get to bed earlier, cut out alcohol and caffeine for a while, or read a good book. If you keep on ignoring your physical symptoms, you will only make things worse. Every once in a while, we all could use a nap (see Mom? I’m finally listening!).

Have you had a similar experience? What do you do to reduce stress? I’d love to hear about it! And if you have a chance, I’d be grateful if you’d click here to nominate my blog for top fitness blog of the year on Breaking Muscle (just post in the comments section!).

Sources: Mayo Clinic, Livestrong , Medline plus , American Psychological Association ,, Shape

1 comment on “Tension, tightness, and twitches: Five physical signs you may be stressed

  1. Great blog as always. A friend of mine suffered from Broken Heart Syndrome approximately a year after her husband died. My mother suffered a heart attack almost exactly a year after the death of my father and she had always been fine.

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