What are the symptoms of stress?

Common symptoms of too much stress include:

  • anger
  • anxiety
  • apathy
  • back pain
  • chest pain or tightness
  • colitis
  • depression
  • headaches
  • heart palpitations
  • hives
  • irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • impotence
  • inability to relax
  • inability to concentrate
  • insomnia
  • irregular menstrual periods
  • loss of sexual function
  • loss of sexual desire
  • mood swings
  • neck pain
  • no energy
  • rapid pulse
  • rashes
  • short temper
  • short-term memory loss
  • weight gain or loss
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Stress symptoms vary greatly from one person to the next, but in addition to feeling pressured or overwhelmed, other symptoms include physical complaints such as stomachaches, headaches, and diarrhea. Some people have problems getting along with others when they are highly stressed.  You might notice changes in behavior at home such as temper outbursts, unexplained anger, or crying for no reason. In addition, you might have regression or behavior that is not age-appropriate. Sleep patterns change under great stress and may cause nightmares or sleeping too much or too little. You may notice your personality taking on a change as you become more withdrawn or suddenly need more attention.

Talk to a close friend or significant other about your behavior. See if they have noticed a difference in your personality or how you are handling stress. Then see your doctor or mental health expert to talk about your life and ways to make changes in how you manage life’s stressors.

Stress affects all aspects of normal human physiology and may impact one’s life in a myriad of ways, including the emotions, behaviors, thinking ability and physical health. Because different people handle stress differently, symptoms of stress vary widely, and symptoms may be vague and mimic those caused by other medical conditions.

Emotional symptoms of stress include:

  • Anxiety, nervousness, agitation, restlessness, feeling overwhelmed
  • Irritability, anger, frustration, difficulty relaxing, constant worrying
  • Feeling moody, sad, lonely, worthless, depressed, pessimistic or negative
  • Procrastinating, lacking motivation, feeling forgetful and disorganized, having poor judgment
  • Inability to focus, loss of focus, inattention at school or work, racing thoughts
  • Social withdrawal, avoiding others or public places, frequent or wild mood swings
  • Insomnia, difficulty with sleep, or non-restful or recuperative sleep
  • Impotence, loss of sexual desire, diminished sexual drive, having low self-esteem
  • Changes in appetite, either over-eating or under-eating, not eating or eating too much
  • Tobacco use, drug or alcohol abuse

Physical symptoms of stress include:

  • Neck ache, back pain, muscle spasms, aches, pains and muscle tension
  • Chest pain, palpitations, and racing of the heart or rapid heartbeat
  • Sudden onset of shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, anxiety attacks and panic attacks
  • Light-headedness, faintness, dizziness, low energy and fatigue, and problems with punctuality
  • Upset stomach, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, heartburn, stomach pain, belching and flatulence
  • Frequent colds and infections, herpes sores, cold sores, fever blisters, rashes, itching or hives
  • Headaches, migraines, ringing in the ear, shaking and tremors, cold or sweaty hands and feet
  • Frequent blushing and sweating, cold or sweaty hands and feet
  • Dry mouth, difficulty swallowing, jaw-clenching, teeth-grinding and jaw pain
  • Stuttering or stammering, nail biting, fidgeting, or pacing, obsessive or compulsive behavior

If you are suffering from stress, you may be experiencing a variety of symptoms that feel severe enough to prompt you to see a healthcare professional. These include:

  • headaches
  • frequent upset stomach, indigestion, gas pain, diarrhea or appetite changes
  • feeling as though you could cry
  • muscular tension
  • tightness in your chest and a feeling as though you can't catch your breath
  • feeling nervous or sad
  • irritability and anger
  • having problems at work or in your normal relationships
  • sleep disturbance: either insomnia or hypersomnia (inability to sleep or sleeping too much)
  • apathy (lack of interest, motivation or energy)
  • mental or physical fatigue
  • frequent illness
  • hives or skin rashes
  • tooth grinding
  • feeling faint or dizzy
  • ringing in the ears
  • disruptions in your menstrual cycle or unusually severe PMS or menopausal symptoms

Physical signs of stress include frequent headaches, difficulty sleeping, sore and stiff muscles, nausea or upset stomach, diarrhea or constipation, a general sense of fatigue and increased susceptibility to illness. Mental symptoms of stress include an inability to concentrate, confusion, indecisiveness and loss of your sense of humor. On an emotional level, stress can make us anxious, nervous, irritable, quick to anger, impatient and depressed. Behaviors indicative of stress include fidgeting, pacing or restlessness. However, you can also feel sluggish or avoid work because it seems too daunting.

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Most people can recognize the symptoms of stress: tension, feeling overwhelmed, anxiety, anger, frustration and weight fluctuations due to increase or decrease in appetite. We also have physical reactions to stress: for some, it's neck tension and stomach distress; for others it's headaches, back spasms, sleeping difficulty, reduced libido and constant fatigue.

Chronic stress can lead not only to the symptoms above but also to more acute and chronic problems, such as heart disease and hypertension.

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There are physical, emotional and relational symptoms. Physical symptoms can be headaches, back pain, GI problems, (diarrhea, upset stomach, reflux), trouble sleeping, weight loss or weight gain, or chronic fatigue. Emotional symptoms can be depression, moodiness, overreactions, anxiety or anger and tantrums. Relational symptoms are withdrawal from friends and family, anger/tantrums, overreactions or more arguments.

Signs that you are most likely under stress that is detrimental to your well-being include:

  • Anxiety, fear, worry
  • Insomnia or fatigue
  • Depression, anger, irritated
  • Negativity, poor concentration, forgetfulness
  • Relationship problems
  • Stiff neck
  • Back pain
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Weight gain or loss

Long-term continuous activation of stress-response system disrupts almost all body’s processes. Physiological conditions/symptoms that result from continuous stress may include:

Digestive System

  • Stomachache
  • Diarrhea
  • Ulcers

Immune System

  • Suppresses immune system—increases susceptibility to colds and infections
  • Infections = Inflammation: Chronic systemic inflammation contributes to development of many degenerative diseases

Nervous System

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Panic attacks
  • Dementia
  • Chronic cortisol = brain structural damage
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Loss of sex drive

Cardiovascular System

  • Increase HR and BP
  • Increased blood triglycerides
  • Increases risk of heart attacks and stroke
Dr. William B. Salt, MD

The symptoms of stress ape other symptoms. Stress may be behind your headache, stomachache, lack of energy, and lower productivity. Its symptoms affect your thought processes, feelings, behaviors, and all of your body parts. You may not recognize the source of the problem, but you need to identify stress related issues in your life and take steps to deal with them.

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Pay attention to your body. Learn to recognize these symptoms of stress.

Behavioral symptoms:

  • sleeping too little or too much
  • nightmares
  • nervous habits like nail-biting or foot-tapping
  • decreased sex drive
  • teeth grinding
  • irritability or impatience
  • crying over minor incidents
  • dreading going to work or other activities

Physical symptoms:

  • migraine or tension headaches
  • digestive problems like heartburn or diarrhea
  • shallow breathing or sighing
  • cold or sweaty palms
  • muscular tension and aches in the jaw, neck, back or shoulders

Symptoms of stress are widespread: headache, illness and infection, being overweight, and more.

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Symptoms of stress can be nearly any biological or psychological reaction to a stressor, says Elissa Epel, PhD, associate professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. In this video, she explains.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.