Symptoms of stress can be physical or emotional and mental
Stress symptoms arise as a result of feeling under stress – when the situation you are in is too difficult or overwhelming for you to cope mentally. This is also sometimes referred to as being under pressure. Symptoms of stress are closely related to the symptoms of anxiety .
This page describes the stress symptoms you can expect. It will help you to recognise if you are under stress. You will see that stress can give rise to a wide variety of symptoms – both mental and physical.
As stress is a common problem, many people will be familiar with the symptoms described on this page. Many will want to know how they can help themselves - follow the links for stress treatments and stress self-help.
Many different factors can contribute to stress including current situations, stress tolerance levels, personalities and past experiences. Feeling stressed is not unusual and is experienced by nearly everyone at some point in their lives.
Stress can give a positive outcome for some eg. speeding up reaction times to squeeze on the bicycle brakes just in time to avoid running onto the road in front of a car. However, if not dealt with effectively, stress may be damaging, causing ill-health, troubled relationships, low mood and affecting everyday life activities.
The mental and emotional symptoms of stress
Stress can give rise to a wide variety of mental or emotional symptoms. These may be grouped and described in 3 key areas:
- How you are feeling. People suffering from stress may feel moody, short-tempered or irritated by small things. They may experience symptoms such as agitation or anxiety, feel worried or low in mood, continuously uptight, overwhelmed or lonely. In some cases, people may also lose their confidence and self-esteem
- How you are thinking. If you suffer from stress, your mind can race from one subject to another and you may have difficulty concentrating. Other stress symptoms include becoming more forgetful, exhibiting poor judgement, feeling more pessimistic or negative than usual
- How you are behaving. Drinking or smoking more to help you relax can be symptoms of stress. You may have difficulty sleeping, or find that your sleep becomes disturbed. Other behavioural stress symptoms include biting of nails or twitching. Stress can also change your eating habits – either eating more or eating less.
The physical symptoms of stress
The main physical symptoms of stress are:
- Heart pounding faster
- Muscles tightening/feeling tense
- Blood pressure rising
- Breathing quickens
- Senses become sharper
- Needing the toilet frequently to empty bladder/bowels
In general, these are symptoms of acute or sudden stress. As described in our page on what is stress?, these changes prepare the body to either fight or flee from the danger that prompted the stress symptoms.
The physical changes in the body help the body to protect itself from the danger it has become aware of by increasing strength and stamina, speed of reactions and helping with the mind focus on the situation. Most people will have experienced some of these symptoms. One example is if you have just narrowly avoided an accident.
In addition, physical symptoms of stress can also be experienced with positive stress – such as having to go onto a stage to receive a prize or award.
Stress that gives us problems is however, negative. This stress affects our body over a longer period of time giving rise to other physical symptoms such as:
- vague aches and pains
- gastrointestinal problems including diarrhoea, constipation and nausea
- chest pain
- loss of sex drive
- weakened immune system leading to recurrent colds or other infections
Illnesses caused by stress
Stress often comes about gradually and the mental and emotional stress symptoms described above are usually the first signs indicating that one is not coping. It is important that these stress symptoms are recognised early and dealt with.
Over a period of time, stress can cause a number of illnesses. These include:
- Depression: This is more than feeling low or moody. Depression can lead to feelings of extreme helplessness, despair or loss of self-confidence and can last a long time
- Anxiety or panic attacks: Stress and anxiety often go hand-in-hand. Feelings of worry or fear can become severe enough to lead to episodes of anxiety or panic attacks.
- Insomnia / difficulty sleeping: Stress causes worry, making it difficult for the mind to settle down enough so that you fall asleep
- Circulatory disorders: Stress can give rise to high blood pressure and if prolonged, the consequence is an increase tendency for strokes and heart attacks.
- Digestive problems: Such as stomach ulcers or the irritable bowel syndrome
- Inflammation: Stress increases the levels of cortisol in the body, disturbing the normal healing process of the body in various ways, leading to a variety of problems from delayed wound healing, asthma and joint pain.