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I Can't Hide What Stress Does To My Body

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I have never been good at hiding my true feelings. Way before there was Resting B*tch Face, there was Resting Dith Face. And the same is very true for my anxiety and stress which have been with me as long as that nickname has. Now many people feel super anxious or super stressful a lot of the time, but they are really good at hiding it or they have a special private time when they just let loose and get it all out or maybe only share their worries with one friend or a therapist.

Growing up I don't think I ever figured out how to really channel my anxiety into something healthy so I would pick and rip and bite my fingers until they were bloody stumps. If I wasn't just letting them bleed, then they were covered in Band-Aids or white medical tape because honestly sometimes Band-Aids just didn't cut it. Of course, this didn't exactly fly under the radar at school. Teachers actually discussed the problem with me (I attended one of those tiny private schools where it is kind of their job to notice everyone which can be great but also not so great.) So when teachers weren't worrying about me I was definitely getting some stares from other kids in the class. Though I would maybe have a few good days were I wasn't picking much (probably during the summer) for the most part this was an ongoing everyday thing that stuck with me all the way through college, grad school and into the workforce.

As a financial reporter I was often super stressed with deadlines and though it was so embarrassing and juvenile to do something like this, I would rip my fingers up so badly that blood would be on my keyboard. Trying to cover that up or explain what the Band-aids were for was tiresome. Even if I was feeling less stressed I would often just need to keep on a bandage so I wouldn't pick thus constantly reminding me and everyone else at work that I had an issue.

But the fingers didn't come close to the stress induced shingles. Yes, you don't have to be a Louisa May Alcott character to get shingles. Twenty somethings in the year 2011 can still get shingles. It had been a particularly hard quarter and my new boss didn't exactly put me at ease. I thought I had woken up one day with a weird spider bite and though I was somewhat excited at the thought that I was maybe going through my Spiderman (well Spiderwoman) metamorphosis when the computer screen started hurting my eyes and my whole left side became stiff I realized this was something not as fun. A few painful days and a quick diagnosis later I was home with the shingles and before long my whole office knew of my ailment. Now I was known as the young woman who was so stressed she was not only ripping up her fingers but had also developed shingles. Stress doesn't actually cause shingles but it can cause your immune system to weaken which then makes you more susceptible to shingles.

Eventually a few years later when I was in a work environment that allowed for a better work life balance I found that rigorous exercise was a huge way to relieve my stress. The finger damage eventually receded and only happens occasionally now (and more out of boredom.)

For a while, it finally felt like I had my stress under control and then came the teeth. I've had bad acid reflux since I was a kid, but again it really acts up when I am stressed. So after a particularly bad summer in which my diet wasn't exactly great for acid reflux I began experiencing horrible jaw and teeth pain in the fall. After a very long visit with my dentist, I was informed that not only did I have 8 cavities, but because my acid reflux was so bad it had literally taken all the enamel off of my teeth and my front teeth were actually starting to chip. Yeah, it's pretty hard to explain that one to people. Luckily Demi Moore helped me out a little as she recently revealed her teeth had actually started falling out because of stress. Well, at least I'm in good company.

Clearly, I am not one of those people who can put on a happy face when I am a ball of anxiety inside. My body literally won't let me do it. Sometimes I wish I could be more private about my stress and anxiety, but at the same time because in comes out in these ways I have a clear signal that lets me know when I need a hard stop. I have learned, clearly the hard way, to tell the people I work with that I need to take a break or dial it back when I start to see my body hitting its breaking point. It will be so much more productive and healthy in the long run. 

Read more from Your Brain on Work, Levo's new series on our emotions, feelings, thoughts, mental health and states of mind as we navigate our careers. If you have a story you'd like to share, drop us a line at

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@Meredith Lepore⁠, thank you for sharing. I gave myself a stress-induced hiatal hernia last summer (along with a flare up this summer) that came with a whole slew of problems including insane acid reflux. My very real and very serious physical issues occur internally and it's a struggle because they're easy to hide (and ignore and wait too long to deal with). Let's keep the conversation going!

@Meredith Lepore⁠ I, too, developed shingles after a stressful two weeks of preparing for an exam when I was 17. (Because it was on my face, I thought it was acne at first.) Thank you for telling your story. Managing stress is all the more difficult when there is no hiding it. Support is everything!

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