Stress Symptoms, Signs, and Causes
Recognizing the Harmful Effects of Stress and What You Can Do About It
Stress within your comfort zone can help you perform under pressure, motivate you to do your best, even keep you safe when danger looms. But when stress becomes overwhelming, it can damage your mood and relationships, and lead to a host of serious mental and physical health problems. The trouble is that modern life is so full of frustrations, deadlines, and demands that many of us don’t even realize how stressed we are. By recognizing the symptoms and causes of stress, you can take the first steps to reducing its harmful effects and improving your quality of life.
What is stress?
Stress is your body’s way of responding to any kind of demand or threat. When you feel threatened, your nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which rouse the body for emergency action. Your heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and your senses become sharper. These physical changes increase your strength and stamina, speed your reaction time, and enhance your focus. This is known as “fight or flight” or the mobilization stress response and is your body’s way of protecting you. There is also a “freeze” or immobilization response that occurs if we become traumatized.
When stress is within your comfort zone, it can help you to stay focused, energetic, and alert. In emergency situations, stress can save your life—giving you extra strength to defend yourself, for example, or spurring you to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident. Stress can also help you rise to meet challenges. Stress is what keeps you on your toes during a presentation at work, sharpens your concentration when you’re attempting the game-winning free throw, or drives you to study for an exam when you'd rather be watching TV. But beyond your comfort zone, stress stops being helpful and can start causing major damage to your mind and body.
The body’s three responses to stress overload
When you need (or think you need) to defend yourself or run away from danger, your body prepares for mobilization. The nervous system rouses for emergency action—preparing you to either fight or flee from the danger at hand.
If mobilization fails, the body freezes instead, a response known as immobilization. In extreme, life-threatening situations, you may even lose consciousness, enabling you to survive high levels of physical pain. This can leave you traumatized or unable to move on.
The effects of chronic stress
The body’s nervous system often does a poor job of distinguishing between daily stressors and life-threatening events. If you’re stressed over an argument with a friend, a traffic jam on your commute, or a mountain of bills, for example, your body can still react as if you’re facing a life-or-death situation.
When you repeatedly experience the mobilization or fight-or-flight stress response in your daily life, it can lead to serious health problems. Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in your body. It can shut down your immune system, upset your digestive and reproductive systems, raise blood pressure, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, speed up the aging process and leave you vulnerable to many mental and physical health problems.
Health problems caused or exacerbated by stress include:
- Depression and anxiety
- Weight problems
- Auto immune diseases
- Skin conditions, such as eczema
- Reproductive issues
- Pain of any kind
- Heart disease
- Digestive problems
- Sleep problems
- Cognitive and memory problems
Signs and symptoms of chronic stress or stress overload
The following table lists some of the common warning signs and symptoms of chronic stress. The more signs and symptoms you notice in yourself, the closer you may be to stress overload.
Causes of stress
The situations and pressures that cause stress are known as stressors. We usually think of stressors as being negative, such as an exhausting work schedule or a rocky relationship. However, anything that puts high demands on you can be stressful. This includes positive events such as getting married, buying a house, going to college, or receiving a promotion.
Of course, not all stress is caused by external factors. Stress can also be internal or self-generated, when you worry excessively about something that may or may not happen, or have irrational, pessimistic thoughts about life.
Common external causes of stress
- Major life changes
- Work or school
- Relationship difficulties
- Financial problems
- Being too busy
- Children and family
Common internal causes of stress
- Chronic worry
- Rigid thinking, lack of flexibility
- Negative self-talk
- Unrealistic expectations/Perfectionism
- All-or-nothing attitude
Stress tolerance: How much stress is too much?
We're all different. Some people seem to be able to roll with life’s punches, while others tend to crumble in the face of small obstacles or frustrations. Some people even thrive on the excitement of a high-stress lifestyle. For example, your morning commute may make you anxious and tense because you worry that traffic will make you late. Others, however, may find the trip relaxing because they allow more time and enjoy listening to music while they drive.
What’s stressful for you?
Karen is terrified of getting up in front of people to perform or speak, while her best friend, Nina, lives for the spotlight.
Phil thrives under pressure and performs best when he has a tight deadline, while his co-worker. Matt shuts down when work demands escalate.
Anita enjoys helping her elderly parents. Her sister, Constance, helps out as well but finds the demands of caretaking very stressful.
Factors that influence your stress tolerance
Your resiliency to stress depends on many factors, but there are steps you can take to improve your tolerance and handle more setbacks and challenges without becoming overwhelmed by stress.
Emotional awareness. Many of us are so used to being overloaded with stress that we don't even notice it anymore. Feeling stressed feels normal. But awareness of what you’re feeling, physically and emotionally, can have a profound effect on both your stress tolerance and how you go about reducing stress. Having the emotional awareness to recognize when you’re stressed and then being able to calm and soothe yourself can increase your tolerance to stress and help you bounce back from adversity. It’s a skill that can be learned at any age with HelpGuide’s free emotional intelligence toolkit.
The quality of your relationships and support network. Social engagement has always been a human being’s most evolved response to life’s stressors. So it’s no surprise that people with a strong network of friends and family—with whom they’re comfortable sharing emotions—are better able to tolerate stress. On the flip side, the more lonely and isolated you are, the less opportunity you have for social engagement and the greater your vulnerability to stress.
Physical activity. Regular exercise can lift your mood and serve as a distraction to your worries, allowing you to find some quiet time and break out of the cycle of negative thoughts that feed stress and anxiety.
Diet. The food you eat can improve or worsen your mood and affect your ability to cope with life’s stressors. Eating a diet full of processed and convenience food, refined carbohydrates, and sugary snacks can worsen symptoms of stress while eating a diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, high-quality protein, and healthy fats, especially omega-3 fatty acids, can help you better cope with life’s ups and downs.
Other factors that influence your stress tolerance
Your sense of control – It’s easier to take stress in your stride if you have confidence in your ability to influence events and persevere through challenges. This is why hardship or persistent money worries can be major stressors for so many of us. If you feel like things are out of your control, you’re likely to have less tolerance for stress.
Your attitude and outlook – Hopeful people are often more stress-hardy. They tend to embrace challenges, have a stronger sense of humor, and accept change as an inevitable part of life.
Your knowledge and preparation – The more you know about a stressful situation, including how long it will last and what to expect, the easier it is to cope. For example, if you go into surgery with a realistic picture of what to expect post-op, a painful recovery will be less stressful than if you were expecting to bounce back immediately.
How stressed are you? Take this quiz to find out
Interpreting the score:
Your stress level
0 to 10
Below average. Congratulations, you seem to be handling life’s stressors well at the moment.
12 to 14
Average. Your life is far from stress-free so now is the time to learn how to reduce your stress to healthier levels.
16 to 18
Medium-High.You may not realize how much stress is already affecting your mood, productivity, and relationships.
High. You’re experiencing high levels of stress. The higher your score, the more damage stress is doing to your mind, body, and behavior.
Read Stress Management.
This questionnaire is not intended to replace professional diagnosis.
Improving your ability to handle stress
Whether you’re trying to build your tolerance to stress or cope with its symptoms, you have much more control over stress than you might think. Unfortunately, many of us try to deal with stress in ways that only compound the problem. We drink too much to unwind at the end of a stressful day, fill up on comfort food, zone out in front of the TV for hours, use pills to relax, or lash out at other people. However, there are many healthier and more effective ways to cope with stress and its symptoms.
This is something you can do right now to help yourself start to feel better: exercise. Activities that require moving both your arms and your legs are particularly effective at managing stress. Rhythmic exercises such as walking, running, swimming, dancing, and aerobic classes are good choices, especially if you exercise mindfully (focusing your attention on the physical sensations you experience as you move). If you’ve been traumatized or experienced the immobilization stress response, mindfully exercising in this way can help you to become "unstuck" and move on. Read: How to Start Exercising and Stick to It
Connect to others
The simple act of talking face to face with another human can trigger hormones that relieve stress when you're feeling uncomfortable, unsure, or unsafe. Even just a brief exchange of kind words or a friendly look from another human being can help calm and soothe your nervous system. Being helpful and friendly to others delivers stress-reducing pleasure as well as providing great opportunities to expand your social network. Read: How to Make Good Friends
Engage your senses
Another fast way to relieve stress is by engaging one or more of your senses—sight, sound, taste, smell, touch, or movement. The key is to find the sensory input that works for you. Does listening to an uplifting song make you feel calm? Or smelling ground coffee? Or maybe petting an animal works quickly to make you feel centered? Everyone responds to sensory input a little differently, so experiment to find what works best for you. Read: Stress Relief in the Moment
Set aside relaxation time
Relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, and deep breathing activate the body’s relaxation response, a state of restfulness that is the opposite of the fight or flight or mobilization stress response. Read: Relaxation Techniques for Stress Relief
Eat a healthy diet
Eating a healthy diet isn’t about eating bland food, adhering to strict dietary limitations, or depriving yourself of the foods you love. But by re-examining your existing diet and experimenting with new ways of eating that promote mental health, you can find an eating plan that not only helps to relieve stress, but also boosts your energy, improves your outlook, and stabilizes your mood. Read: Healthy Eating
Get your rest
Feeling tired can increase stress by causing you to think irrationally. At the same time, chronic stress can disrupt your sleep. Whether you’re having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at night, there are plenty of ways to improve your sleep so you feel less stressed and more productive and emotionally balanced. Read: How to Sleep Better
If you need powerful social and emotional skills that effectively reduce stress, read FEELING LOVED.
More help for stress
- Stress Management: How to Reduce, Prevent, and Cope with Stress
- Relaxation Techniques for Stress: Finding the Relaxation Exercises That Work for You
- Stress Relief in the Moment: Using Your Senses to Quickly Change Your Response to Stress
Resources and references
General information about stress
Signs and Symptoms of Stress – Learn about the physical, psychological, behavioral, and work-related signs and symptoms of stress. (Stress Management for Health Course)
Understanding and Dealing with Stress – This course, prepared by a West Virginia-based organization that works with disabled people, presents a wealth of information on stress and its signs and symptoms. (Mountain State Centers for Independent Living)
The Different Kinds of Stress – Describes the different types of stress, including each one’s symptoms and how to treat them. (American Psychological Association)
New perspective on stress
The Polyvagal Theory for Treating Trauma – Teleseminar transcript of Dr. Stephen Porges explaining how Polyvagal Theory changes our understanding of the body’s response to stress and trauma. (StephenPorges.com)
Polyvagal Theory, Sensory Challenge and Gut Emotions – An overview of Polyvagal Theory and how the nervous system employs a hierarchy of strategies to regulate itself and to keep us calm in the face of stress. (Sott.net)
A Beginner's Guide to Polyvagal Theory (PDF) – A simple explanation of how the autonomic nervous system responds to stress. (debdanalcsw.com)
Stress in kids and teens
Childhood Stress – Clearly lays out what causes stress in children and what parents can do about the problem. (Nemours Foundation)
Teen Stress – Article geared for teenagers describes the causes, symptoms, and effects of stress in young adults. Includes tips for keeping it under control. (Nemours Foundation)
What other readers are saying
“I've been suffering with chronic stress/anxiety for some time and did not realize the impact and damage it has on my body (mentally, emotionally and physically) until recently . . . The symptoms, such as muscle pain, negative thoughts, irrational fear, insomnia, all became unbearable but thank God I found your site. All of your articles are extremely helpful and informative. Your expert advice and tips on dealing with stress are great help for me.” ~ Canada
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