Stress: Signs and Symptoms, Causes and Effects

Learn to recognize stress symptoms and to learn to identify the situations that evoke them.

When these symptoms persist, you are at risk for serious health problems because stress can exhaust your immune system.

What is stress?

The stress response of the body is meant to protect and support us. To maintain stability or homeostasis, the body is constantly adjusting to its surroundings. When a physical or mental event threatens this equilibrium, we react to it. This process is often referred to as the „fight or flight response.” We prepare for physical action in order to confront or flee a threat.

Our ancestors responded to stressful ordeals in this fashion. Millions of years later, when you face a situation that you perceive as challenging, your body automatically goes into overdrive, engaging the stress response. Immediately, you release the same hormones that enabled cave people to move and think faster, hit harder, see better, hear more acutely, and jump higher than they could only seconds earlier. Like theirs, your heartbeat speeds up; your blood pressure increases; your breathing quickens. Most modern stresses, however, do not call for either fight or flight. Our experience of stress is generally related to how we respond to an event, not to the event itself.

When is stress a warning signal?

When it is part of a natural reaction to challenge or danger, the body’s response is called positive stress. However, when you feel out of control or under intense pressure, you may experience the physical, emotional, or relational symptoms brought on by negative stress. These are the signs of stress that you need to recognize and control.

It is important to remain attentive to negative stress symptoms and to learn to identify the situations that evoke them. When these symptoms persist, you are at risk for serious health problems because stress can exhaust your immune system. Recent research demonstrates that 90% of illness is stress-related.

What are the symptoms of stress?

Physical symptoms can be caused by other illnesses, so it is important to have a medical doctor treat conditions such as ulcers, compressed disks, or other physical disorders. Remember, however, that the body and mind are not separate entities. The physical problems outlined below may result from or be exacerbated by stress:

sleep disturbances
back, shoulder or neck pain
tension or migraine headaches
upset or acid stomach, cramps, heartburn, gas, irritable bowel syndrome
constipation, diarrhea
weight gain or loss, eating disorders
hair loss
muscle tension
high blood pressure
irregular heartbeat, palpitations
asthma or shortness of breath
chest pain
sweaty palms or hands
cold hands or feet
skin problems (hives, eczema, psoriasis, tics, itching)
periodontal disease, jaw pain
reproductive problems
immune system suppression: more colds, flu, infections
growth inhibition

Emotional symptoms

Like physical signs, emotional symptoms such as anxiety or depression can mask conditions other than stress. It is important to find out whether they are stress-related or not. In either case, the following emotional symptoms are uncomfortable and can affect your performance at work or play, your physical health, or your relationships with others.

nervousness, anxiety
depression, moodiness
irritability, frustration
memory problems
lack of concentration

Relational symptoms

The antisocial behavior displayed in stressful situations can cause the rapid deterioration of relationships with family, friends, co-workers, or even strangers. A person under stress may manifest signs such as:

increased arguments
isolation from social activities
conflict with co-workers or employers
frequent job changes
road rage
domestic or workplace violence
Severe stress reactions that persist for long periods of time and recur without warning after a traumatic event or even after an intense experience such as an accident, hospitalization, or loss, may become a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) requiring professional assistance to overcome.