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Stress Symptoms, Signs, and Causes

Understanding Stress Responses and Reducing the Harmful Effects

Stress Symptoms, Signs, & Causes In This Article

Stress isn’t always bad. Stress within your comfort zone can help you perform under pressure and motivate you to do your best. But when stress becomes overwhelming, it can damage your health, your mood, your productivity, your relationships, and your quality of life.

You can protect yourself by recognizing the signs and symptoms of stress overload and taking steps to reduce its harmful effects.

What is stress?

Stress is your body’s way of responding to any kind of demand or threat.  Under stress your body releases chemicals that give you the added strength and energy you need to protect yourself, but it can also shut down your ability to think, feel and act and your body's ability to repair itself. When you feel threatened for any reason – realistic or not—your body's defenses kick into high gear in a rapid, automatic process known as the “fight or flight” response (in rarer, traumatic instances the body may even “freeze”).

These responses are your body’s way of protecting you. When working properly, stress helps you stay focused, energetic, and alert. In emergency situations, these responses can save your life. 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.

When stress becomes a serious problem

Since your autonomic nervous system doesn’t distinguish between daily stressors and life-threatening events, if you’re stressed over an argument with a friend, a traffic jam, or a mountain of bills, your body can still react as if you’re facing a life-or-death situation. When you repeatedly experience the fight or flight stress response in your daily life, it can raise blood pressure, suppress the immune system, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, speed up the aging process and leave you vulnerable to a host of mental and emotional problems.

What is the new perspective on stress responses?

The latest research, over the past twenty years, strongly suggests that we have three ways of responding to anything that our autonomic nervous system perceives as threatening.

Mobilization (fight-or-flight). When we need (or think we need) to either defend ourselves or run away from danger, the body prepares for mobilization. A flood of stress hormones including adrenaline and cortisol are released to 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—preparing you to either fight or flee from the danger at hand. At the same time, the body functions not needed for fight or flight—such as the digestive and immune systems—stop working and the repair or growth of body tissues slows. In time, your autonomic nervous system then calms the body, slowing heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and winding back down to its normal balance.

Immobilization (freeze). Immobilization is associated with immediate life-threatening danger. People who have had some sort of trauma can find themselves “stuck”—in a reflexively enraged, panic-stricken or otherwise dysfunctional state—and are unable to move on. In life-threatening situations this kind of immobilization can be beneficial. You may faint or lose consciousness, enabling you to survive high levels of physical pain. The immobilization response works well for reptiles but, for humans, can be slow to recover and is especially damaging physically and emotionally.

Social engagement is our nervous systems most evolved way of overriding fight or flight responses. Our vagus nerve connects the brain to sensory receptors in the ear, eye face and heart. Social interaction—making eye contact, listening in an attentive way, talking in a relaxed way, can instantly calm you down and put the brakes on “fight-or-flight.” Only mammals can override threats to safety and security by using the social engagement pathway of the autonomic nervous system.

What causes you to go beyond your stress comfort level?

What causes your stress overload depends, at least in part, on your perception of it. Something that's stressful to you may not faze someone else; they may even enjoy it.

Everyone experiences stress differently

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.

Richard doesn’t hesitate to send food back or complain about bad service when eating out, while his wife, Miranda, finds it much too stressful to complain.

Events such as getting married, buying a house, going to college, or receiving a promotion can be stressful to you, You can also 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
  • Pessimism
  • Negative self-talk
  • Unrealistic expectations/Perfectionism
  • Rigid thinking, lack of flexibility
  • All-or-nothing attitude

What determines your ability to manage stress?

Your ability to tolerate stress depends on many factors, including the quality of your relationships, your life experiences, your emotional intelligence, and genetics.

What influences your stress comfort zone?

  • Your support network – A strong network of supportive friends and family members can be an enormous buffer against life’s stressors. On the flip side, the more lonely and isolated you are, the greater your vulnerability to stress.
  • Your sense of control – It may be easier to take stress in your stride if you have confidence in yourself and your ability to influence events and persevere through challenges. If you feel like things are out of your control, you’re likely to have less tolerance for stress.
  • Your attitude and outlook – Optimistic people are often more stress-hardy. They tend to embrace challenges, have a strong sense of humor, and accept that change is a part of life. Your ability to deal with your emotions – You’re extremely vulnerable to stress if you don’t know how to calm and soothe yourself when you’re feeling sad, angry, or overwhelmed by a situation. The ability to bring your emotions into balance helps you bounce back from adversity and is a skill that can be learned at any age.
  • 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 traumatic than if you were expecting to bounce back immediately.

How well do you handle stress in your life?

  1. I have people I confide in when I’m feeling under pressure who make me feel better.
  2. I feel comfortable expressing how I feel when something is bothering me.
  3. In general, I feel in control of my life and confident in my ability to handle what comes my way.
  4. I find reasons to laugh and feel grateful, even when going through difficulties.
  5. No matter how busy I am, I make it a priority to sleep, exercise, and eat right.
  6. I’m able to calm myself down when I start to feel overwhelmed.

Each “yes” answer represents an important stress coping skill. Each “no” represents an area to work on to become more resilient.

Signs and symptoms of stress outside your comfort zone

The following table lists some of the common warning signs and symptoms of stress. The more signs and symptoms you notice in yourself, the closer you may be to stress overload.

Cognitive Symptoms
  • Memory problems
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Poor judgment
  • Seeing only the negative
  • Anxious or racing thoughts
  • Constant worrying
Emotional Symptoms
  • Moodiness
  • Irritability or short temper
  • Agitation, inability to relax
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Sense of loneliness and isolation
  • Depression or general unhappiness
Physical Symptoms
  • Aches and pains
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Nausea, dizziness
  • Chest pain, rapid heartbeat
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Frequent colds
Behavioral Symptoms
  • Eating more or less
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Isolating yourself from others
  • Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
  • Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax
  • Nervous habits (e.g. nail biting, pacing)

Dealing with stress and its symptoms

While unchecked stress is undeniably damaging, you have more control than you might think. Unfortunately, many people cope with stress in ways that only compound the problem. They drink too much to unwind at the end of a stressful day, fill up on comfort food, zone out in front of the TV or computer for hours, use pills to relax, or lash out at other people. There are many healthier ways to cope with stressors.

Learn how to manage stress

Stress management involves changing the stressful situation when you can, changing your reaction when you can’t, taking care of yourself, and making time for rest and relaxation.

Get moving. Physical activity plays a key role in managing stress. Activities that require moving both your arms and your legs are particularly effective. 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). Focused movement helps to get your nervous system back into balance. If you’ve been traumatized or experienced the immobilization stress response, getting active can help you to become "unstuck."

Engage socially Face to face talk- the simple act of looking at a friendly face and opening up can release hormones that reduce stress even if you’re still unable to alter the stressful situation. Opening up is not a sign of weakness and it won’t make you a burden to others. In fact, most friends will be flattered that you trust them enough to confide in them, and it will only strengthen your bond.

Lifestyle changes to deal with the symptoms of stress

Toolkit Header
  • Quickly recognize and reduce stress in any setting or situation
  • Face and deal with anxiety, depression, and other uncomfortable feelings
  • Repair wounded feelings and damaged relationships

Learn more »

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 stress response.

Eat a healthy diet. Well-nourished bodies are better prepared to cope with stress. Start your day with a healthy breakfast, reduce your caffeine and sugar intake, and cut back on alcohol and nicotine.

Get plenty of sleep. Feeling tired can increase stress by causing you to think irrationally. Keep your cool by getting a good night’s sleep.

Toolkit Header
  • Quickly recognize and reduce stress in any setting or situation
  • Face and deal with anxiety, depression, and other uncomfortable feelings
  • Repair wounded feelings and damaged relationships

Learn more »

More help for stress

Stress Help Center: Protect yourself by learning how to recognize the signs and symptoms of stress overload and take steps to reduce its harmful effects.

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)

Stress in kids nad teens

Childhood Stress – Clearly lays out what causes stress in children and what parents can do about the problem. (KidsHealth)

Teen Stress – Article geared for teenagers describes the causes, symptoms, and effects of stress in young adults. Includes tips for keeping it under control. (TeenHealth)

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

“I just want to share with you how much comfort I felt from your article. I'm currently trying to be as ‘pharmaceutical free’ as possible for my stress and anxiety, after a failed month-long attempt at meds that only made all my symptoms worse. I feel hopeful that what I'm now doing is what's best for me. Your site has some great information, and strategies that I greatly appreciate!” ~ Washington

Authors: Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., Melinda Smith, M.A., Robert Segal, M.A., and Lawrence Robinson. Last updated: August 2015.