Symptoms of stress are important signs that you should slow down. Recognizing stress symptoms early is essentially the first step to prevent burnout or disease. So how do you know when you're under stress? What are the signals of your body that let you know that it is time to slam the breaks?

Stress prepares you for dealing with problems

You will probably know symptoms of acute, or sudden, stress. Faster breathing, a faster heartbeat, sweating, and trembling of your legs are all manifestations of acute stress. These reactions are triggered by the sympathetic nervous system. They help you to deal with threats, and have been conserved during evolution. You can find them in all sorts of animals, from fish and amphibians to reptiles, birds and mammals. The stress reactions give you extra energy, needed to fight the cause of stress (a predator in nature or a demanding boss at work, for example), or to run away from it. Collectively, these stress reactions are known as the “fight-or-flight response”. In nature, the flight-or-fight response can make the difference between life and death!

Stress is a normal reaction to danger, and is found in all vertebrate animals and humans. The fish in the photo will be stressed, but it is too late for it to elicit a fight or flight response to get away from the heron........

Stress is thus first and foremost a good thing. But stress becomes something bad when it lasts too long. This usually happens when stress is caused by persistent psychosocial pressure. This can arise for instance when someone is constantly being bullied at work, or when workload and demands from bosses are too high. The body will at first react with the flight-or-fight response, in an attempt to deal with the stress. Unfortunately, when the stress persists and becomes chronic, these reactions do more harm than good. They will affect the body and brain, and pose serious threats to health.

It is important that you are able to know when you are in a state of chronic stress, so that you can take appropriate actions to overcome the stress. The body gives quite a few signals of chronic stress that you can recognize. The problem is, however, that each symptom of chronic stress can also occur in other conditions. They are thus not specific for stress. But when you see that you have a combination of symptoms, you have a strong indication that you are under too much stress.

Symptoms of chronic stress

Symptoms of stress can be divided over four categories: physical symptoms, cognitive symptoms, emotional symptoms, and behavioral symptoms.

Physical symptoms

Feeling tired is one of the symptoms of stress. This is because stress hormones keep you in a state of alert during the night and keep you awake. On top of that, dealing with stressors (the things that cause stress) consumes a lot of energy.
  • Low energy. You may feel tired, exhausted even, having difficulty getting out of bed in the morning or set yourself to do the tasks you are supposed to do. At work, at home, or at the sports school or in church. This is because the stress reactions have depleted you of your energy stores in the body. Also, hormones that are being released during stress may affect your brain, so that you feel less motivated.
  • Headaches. Headaches are more likely to occur when you are stressed. Migraines and tension-type headaches can be triggered by stress.
  • Teeth grinding (bruxism). Most people are unaware of doing it, but stress can evoke teeth grinding and jaw clenching. This can wear down the teeth over time, and some people get facial pains and headaches.
  • Digestive problems. The brain has an important influence over the stomach and intestines. During stress, the brain sends signals to the digestive system, so that the transit of food is accelerated. To make the transit faster, the muscles surrounding the intestines will contract more, which causes cramps and aching. The consequence of the acceleration is that less water will be absorbed from the colon, which can cause diarrhea.
  • Dry mouth. During intense stress or anxiety, acid reflux from the stomach may be enhanced, especially in those that already have reflux problems. The acid can affect the salivary glands, so that less saliva will be produced. Also, when people have stress, they often breathe through the mount. This dries the mouth and is a common cause of a lack of saliva. A lack of salive may evoke difficulty swallowing.
  • Tension and aching of muscles. The fight-or-flight reactions prepare the muscles for immediate action. They will stay in stand-by mode, ready to contract. Also, muscles might be contracted so that you are unable to move or take action. In animals, this is known as freezing behavior. It serves to wait until the threat goes away. This can be useful to hide from a predator.
  • Cardiovascular problems. The stress reactions take a heavy toll on the heart. They will try to accelerate heartbeat and increase blood pressure to deliver oxytocin to the muscles, needed for immediate action. You might feel pain on the chest.
  • Decreased libido. Reduced interest in sexual activity is a very common symptom of chronic stress. It is caused by hormonal changes, and reduced motivation to seek pleasure. This is caused by alterations in the brain.
  • Sweaty or cold hands and feet. These symptoms arise because of nervousness, and are the consequence of an adrenaline rush in the blood. It is part of the fight-or-flight reactions.
  • Insomnia. Sleep disturbances are common in those suffering from chronic stress. The stress reactions keep you in a state of alarm and wakefulness.
  • Increased frequency of colds and infections. Chronic stress leads to reduced immunity. The body will thus have reduced capacity to fight invading bacteria and viruses. The effects of stress on the immune system are under intense scientific research. It has turned out that not all aspects of the immune system are affected by stress, but the most commonly held view is that stress weakens immunity. The stress reactions will allocate most of the body’s energy resources to those systems that are required to overcome the stress. Investment processes such as growth and development, immunity, and reproduction are scaled down during stress, and can be reactivated once the stress is over.

Cognitive symptoms

Do you check your telephone for emails, facebook, or whatsapp message while working? You may be under stress! A lack of focus and falling prey to distraction are symptoms of stress.
  • Chronically stressed people seem to worry constantly, thinking about the problems that cause the stress. Sometimes they don’t realize consciously that their worries are related to those problems. They might just feel they are worrying all the time. This is a symptom that is related to anxiety.
  • Racing thoughts. Stress keeps the brain alert, so that thinking just doesn’t stop.
  • Forgetfulness. Stress can cause forgetfulness, confusion and concentration problems.
  • Disorganization. Chronically stressed people often have difficulties focusing on one topic, and tend to think about many things at the same time.
  • Poor judgment. Research on decision making has shown that our brains are wired to be more reactionary under stress. This means that chronically stressed people rely on binary choice-making. They will thus limit the options available to them. They will reach premature conclusions, and are not open to more and better options. Simplifying the options is a reflex to fight off stress and anxiety.
  • Being pessimistic. Negative thoughts have been shown to become more important during chronic stress. “This can’t be done”, “This is impossible” and the likes are frequent thoughts when you are chronically stressed, as you will fail to see all the options available to you.

Emotional symptoms

Stressed people tend to be more fearful and anxious than people who are calm and relaxed.
  • Feeling anxious. According to some, anxiety can be seen as an emotional stress reaction. Indeed, long-term stress and increased anxiety often occur together. In the brain, the structures that control fear and anxiety are functionally connected with the system that controls the physiological stress symptoms.
  • Feeling of losing control. Related to anxiety is the loss of being in control. Chronically stressed people often feel overwhelmed, as they cannot take control over circumstances that stress them, like the amount of work, or tensions in a relationship. A loss of control causes anxiety, and regaining control diminishes anxiety.
  • Low self-esteem. Some feel that they have failed at doing what they were supposed to do. This can be an efficient and appreciated collaborator in a company, or being a good husband or wife. The pressure they are under to achieve their goals will cause stress, making it even  more difficult to live up to the expectations of others and one-self.
  • Social withdrawal. Avoiding others may be related to low self-esteem. This reflects how the stressed person thinks that he or she is being perceived by others.
  • Mood swings. Frustration and agitation are common symptoms of long-term stress. The stress hormones play a role in bringing them about.
  • Inability to relax. Stress will make it more difficult to calm your mind, as your brain will be kept in alarm mode. This makes it possible to take action to deal with the stress, but will at the same time prevent you from being calm or getting to sleep.

Behavioral symptoms

Searching comfort in smoking can be a sign that you are suffering from chronic stress. Like increased alcohol consumtion or the eating of high-calory, unhealthy, food, this may provide some stress relief in the very short term, but makes coping with stress in fact more difficult.
  • Avoiding responsibilities. When people feel that they have reached the limits of what they can take on, they will have more difficulties declining new commitments. This is good, as this will help to reduce stress.
  • Changes in eating habits. Chronic stress can either stimulate or reduce appetite. Stimulation of appetite usually means the intake of palatable (or pleasure) foods such as chocolate. Reduction of appetite may be related to the fight-or-flight reactions, in which energy in the form of glucose is liberated from the liver. This gives the energy that is necessary to deal with the stress, without the need of having to eat first.
  • Increased use of alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs. Substances of abuse affect the brain. While these substances may help deal with stress in the short term, they can contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression on the long-term, and makes dealing with stress much more difficult.
  • Nervous behavior. Pacing, nail biting, fidgeting, etc.

Once again, not all symptoms will occur in everyone or in every stressful situation. Nor are these symptoms specific to stress. We advice to keep a diary when stress symptoms present themselves, in which you write down under which circumstances you experience stress, and how stress manifests itself. Other tips are  to consult your doctor if you notice some of the stress symptoms in yourself, and to talk about stress with family members, friends, or colleagues at work.

In the section "Recognizing stress" we will get into more detail of the many ways stress manifests itself. Here are already 10 articles that will help you to recognize stress, not only in yourself but also in others.

  1. Stress headaches
  2. How stress leads to overeating and obesity
  3. Excessive worrying and anxiety as symptoms of stress
  4. The racing heart: how adrenaline sets your heart in overdrive during stress
  5. Accelerated breathing as a symptom of acute stress
  6. A stressor a day takes your pleasure away
  7. Drinking alcohol to reduce stress is the worst thing you can do and here is why
  8. Stress keeps you alert, making you lose sleep
  9. Do you recognize this sneaky warning sign of stress?
  10. How to recognize stress in others