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Stress' Physical Toll On Women

Emotions can have powerful physical effects. Add up the physical and psychological components, and the little stresses of a woman's day-to-day life can add up to a big physical burden.

As The Early Show medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay reports in the first part of a series on women and stress, it often results in physical symptoms.

The physical effects of stress are designed to help us act quickly when we are confronted with so-called "fight or flight" situations. Strong hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released to prime the body to react quickly.

Some of the immediate physical effects of stress are quicker heart rates, higher blood pressure and faster breathing rates. High stress may even result in shortness of breath, dizziness or palpitations.

Chronically stressed-out women are at a higher risk for problems later in life, particularly heart disease. Stress can also make underlying conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure more difficult to control.

Some women hold stress in their upper back and neck areas, causing muscles in those areas to tense up.

The increased tension from stress can cause headaches, joint pain, back pain, muscle aches and teeth grinding, which in itself can lead to headaches and Temporo-Mandibular Joint (TMJ) pain.

Thee physical effects of stress can also rebound to impact mental well-being. Symptoms of premenstrual syndrome and menopause have been reported to worsen with stress.

Other common problems resulting from chronic stress are insomnia, fatigue and memory loss. If a person is constantly worried and unable to sleep, it can lead to a vicious cycle. Insomnia from stress causes yet more stress because you're now also worried about not getting enough sleep. Trying harder to fall asleep in turn causes even more stress.

The digestive system is also commonly affected by chronic stress. Stress-related symptoms may include heartburn, stomach cramps, nausea, constipation or diarrhea. Loss of appetite can also sometimes be a result of stress for a woman. Others might eat more when stressed, and gain weight.

So, how can you tell is a physical problem is caused by stress? Everybody is different in the way they respond to stress, Senay says. If you suffer from an ailment that might be stress-related, ask your doctor to diagnose the problem. It's important to make sure your symptoms aren't caused by a more obvious trigger, such as a headache or cough caused by a cold. Once other causes are ruled out, you can focus on your symptoms and the best strategy for stress relief.

Next in the series: a look at some strategies to manage stress.

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