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Stress Symptoms, Signs, and Causes

The Effects of Stress Overload and What You Can Do About It

Stress Symptoms, Signs, & Causes In This Article

Modern life is full of hassles, deadlines, frustrations, and demands. For many people, stress is so commonplace that it has become a way of life. Stress isn’t always bad. In small doses, it can help you perform under pressure and motivate you to do your best. But when you’re constantly running in emergency mode, your mind and body pay the price. You can protect yourself by recognizing the signs and symptoms of stress and taking steps to reduce its harmful effects.

What is stress?

Stress is a normal physical response to events that make you feel threatened or upset your balance in some way. When you sense danger—whether it’s real or imagined—the body's defenses kick into high gear in a rapid, automatic mobilization process known as the “fight-or-flight” response.

This response is the body’s way of protecting you. When working properly, it helps you 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 a certain point, stress stops being helpful and starts causing major damage to your health, your mood, your productivity, your relationships, and your quality of life.

How your body responds to stress

The latest research into the brain shows that, as mammals, we have three ways of regulating our nervous system and responding to stress:

  • Social engagement or social communication is our most evolved strategy for keeping ourselves feeling calm and safe. Since the face and heart are wired together in the brain, socially interacting with another person—making eye contact, listening in an attentive way, talking—can calm you down and put the brakes on defensive responses like “fight-or-flight.” Social engagement is how you clear up misunderstandings, ask others for help or forgiveness, and calmly handle daily interactions. When using social engagement, involuntary body functions such as breathing, blood pressure, heartbeat, and digestion work healthily and the body is able to repair and grow new cells uninterrupted.
  • Mobilization, otherwise known as the fight-or-flight response. When social engagement isn’t an appropriate response and 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. Once the danger has passed, your nervous system then calms the body, slowing heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and winding back down to its normal balance.
  • Immobilization. This is the least evolved response to stress and used by the body only when social engagement and mobilization have failed. Immobilization is associated with people who have experienced trauma and find themselves “stuck,” unable to move on. You become frozen, your nervous system shuts down, and you can’t do anything. In extreme, life-threatening situations, you may even faint or lose consciousness, enabling you to survive high levels of physical pain. However, until you’re able to arouse the body to a mobilization or fight-or-flight response, your nervous system may be unable to return to its pre-stress state of balance.

When stress becomes a problem

Ideally, we’d respond to stress most of the time using social engagement. While mobilization or fight-or-flight can protect us from danger, the body does a poor job of distinguishing between threatening experiences and minor, daily stressors. If you’re stressed over an argument with a friend, a traffic jam, or a mountain of bills, for example, the 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 or, in cases of trauma or immobilization, never fully return to a normal balance after a stressful situation, it can take a toll on your wellbeing and cause serious health problems.

How do you respond to stress?

It's important to learn how to recognize when your stress levels are out of control. The most dangerous thing about stress is how easily it can creep up on you. You get used to it. It starts to feel familiar, even normal. You don't notice how much it's affecting you, even as it takes a heavy toll.

The signs and symptoms of stress overload can be almost anything. Stress affects the mind, body, and behavior in many ways, and everyone experiences stress differently. Not only can overwhelming stress lead to serious mental and physical health problems, it can also take a toll on your relationships at home, work, and school.

Stress doesn’t always look stressful

Internally, we all respond to the fight-or-flight stress response the same: blood pressure rises, the heart pumps faster, and muscles constrict. When stressed, our bodies work hard and drain our immune system. Externally, however, people tend to respond to stress in different ways:

  • In “fight” mode you may appear overexcited. You tend to become angry, agitated, keyed up, overly emotional, or unable to sit still.
  • In “flight” mode you appear underexcited. You may pull away, space out, show very little energy or emotion, or become depressed.

Similarly, with the immobilization or frozen stress response, your external appearance may also be very different from what’s going on inside. On the surface, you look paralyzed but inside you’re extremely agitated and feel “stuck,” unable to do anything to help yourself.

Signs and symptoms of stress overload

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.

Stress Warning Signs and Symptoms
Cognitive Symptoms Emotional Symptoms
  • Memory problems
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Poor judgment
  • Seeing only the negative
  • Anxious or racing thoughts
  • Constant worrying
  • Moodiness
  • Irritability or short temper
  • Agitation, inability to relax
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Sense of loneliness and isolation
  • Depression or general unhappiness
Physical Symptoms Behavioral Symptoms
  • Aches and pains
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Nausea, dizziness
  • Chest pain, rapid heartbeat
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Frequent colds
  • 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)

Keep in mind that the signs and symptoms of stress can also be caused by other psychological or medical problems. If you’re experiencing any of the warning signs of stress, it’s important to see a doctor for a full evaluation. Your doctor can help you determine whether or not your symptoms are stress-related.

How much stress is too much?

Because of the widespread damage stress can cause, it's important to know your own limit. But just how much stress is "too much" differs from person to person. We're all different. Some people are able to roll with the punches, while others seem to crumble in the face of far smaller obstacles or frustrations. Some people even seem to thrive on the excitement and challenge of a high-stress lifestyle.

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

Things that influence your stress tolerance level

  • 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 stressed are you? Take this quiz to find out

Stress Test

In the last month, how often have you:

Never

Almost Never
(1)

Some-times
(2)

Fairly Often
(3)

Very Often
(4)

1. Been upset because of something that happened unexpectedly?

2. Felt that you were unable to control the important things in your life?

3. Felt nervous and "stressed"?

4. Felt unsure about your ability to handle your personal problems?

5. Felt that things weren’t going your way?

6. Found that you could not cope with all the things that you had to do?

7. Been unable to control irritations in your life?

8. Felt that you weren’t on top of things?

9. Been angered because of things that were outside of your control?

10. Felt difficulties were piling up so high that you could not overcome them?

Please answer all the questions

Score:

Interpreting the score:

Score

Your stress level

0 to 10

Below average. Congratulations, you seem to be handling life’s stressors well at the moment.

11 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.

15 to 18

Medium-High. You may not realize how much stress is already affecting your mood, productivity, and relationships.

19 +

High. You’re experiencing high levels of stress. The higher your score, the more damage stress is doing to your mind, body, and behavior.

Next Step

Read Stress Management.

This questionnaire is not intended to replace professional diagnosis.
Adapted from: Perceived Stress Scale – Sheldon Cohen

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 or forces you to adjust 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 self-generated, for example, when you worry excessively about something that may or may not happen, or have irrational, pessimistic thoughts about life.

What causes stress 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. 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 than enough time and enjoy listening to music while they drive.

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's stressful for you?

What's stressful for you may be quite different from what's stressful to someone else. For example:

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.

Effects of chronic stress

Since the body doesn’t distinguish between physical and psychological threats—daily stressors, threatening situations, or life-or-death events—it can be continually triggering the "fight-orflight" stress response. This results in chronic stress that can lead to serious health problems.

Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in your body. It can raise blood pressure, suppress the immune system, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, contribute to infertility, and speed up the aging process. Long-term stress can even leave you vulnerable to a host of mental and emotional problems.

Many health problems are caused or exacerbated by stress, including:

  • Pain of any kind
  • Heart disease
  • Digestive problems
  • Sleep problems
  • Depression
  • Weight problems
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Skin conditions, such as eczema

Dealing with stress and its symptoms

While unchecked stress is undeniably damaging, you have more control over your stress levels than you might think. Unfortunately, many people cope with stress in ways that only compound the problem. You might 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 relieve stress by lashing out at other people. However, there are many healthier ways to cope with stress and its symptoms.

Since everyone has a unique response to stress, there is no “one size fits all” solution to dealing with it. No single method works for everyone or in every situation, so experiment with different techniques and strategies. Focus on what makes you feel calm and in control.

Learn how to manage stress

You may feel like the stress in your life is out of your control, but you can always control the way you respond. Managing stress is all about taking charge: taking charge of your thoughts, your emotions, your schedule, your environment, and the way you deal with problems. 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 continually 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). This kind of 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” and enable you to put other stress management techniques to use, including social engagement. Mindful exercise can even help repair trauma sustained to the nervous system.
  • Engage socially by talking to a trusted friend face to face. 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 itself. 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

In addition to regular exercise, there are other healthy lifestyle choices you can make to help you better cope with the symptoms of stress.

  • 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.

Take a 5-step program to help relieve stress and bring your life into balance

Helpguide’s free online program can help you relieve stress and replace old emotional habits with healthier ways of thinking, feeling, behaving, and relating to others. By mastering two core skills you’ll have the confidence to face stressful challenges, knowing that you’ll always be able to rapidly bring yourself back into balance:

  • Quick stress relief. The best way to reduce stress quickly and reliably is by using your senses—what you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch—or through movement. By smelling a specific scent, listening to a favorite piece of music, or hugging a pet, for example, you can quickly relax and focus yourself. Not everyone responds in the same way but you can experiment to discover the sensory experience that works best for you.
  • Harnessing the power of emotions. Life doesn’t have to feel like a rollercoaster ride with extreme ups and downs. Once you’re aware of your emotions—even the painful ones you normally try to avoid or bottle up—the easier it is to understand your own motivations, stop saying or doing things you later regret, and smooth out the ride.

More help for stress

Stress Ad

Stress management and relief

Mindfulness and relaxation techniques

Resources and references

General information about stress

Stress: How to Cope Better With Life's Challenges – Covers the causes and symptoms of stress, how it affects your health, and what you can do to manage it better. (FamilyDoctor.org)

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)

Causes and effects of stress

Causes of Stress – Looks at both internal and external stressors that can trigger the stress reaction. (Stress Management for Health Course)

Causes of Stress – Explore the common causes of stress, including fear, uncertainty, major life changes, and an overloaded work schedule. (Changing Minds)

Stress in kids and 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: Melinda Smith, M.A., Robert Segal, M.A., and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. Last updated: July 2015.