Stress symptoms: How to recognize and manage stress early

Whether it’s because of work, school, big changes, or other life issues, stress can be hard to shake—especially if you don’t really know it’s there. Stress is pervasive, and can build slowly from a small kernel to a huge weight on your shoulders. If you don’t regularly employ stress management techniques, you may not have learned to recognize signs of stress in your mind and body.

There are many ways stress can take a toll on your body. It can cause anything from mental disquiet to physical aches and pains. By learning to recognize how stress affects you, you can react to warning signs and work to effectively decrease your stress, rather than letting it build and continue to cause harm.

What Are 5 Warning Signs of Stress?

Stress is the body’s response to pressure—usually when a person’s demands outweigh their resources. Because of this, stress can be subtle at first, building in pressure over time. Five of the most common initial signs of stress are: 

  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Fear and worry
  • Impatience, restlessness, or irritability; feeling tightly-wound
  • Muscle tension/pain
  • Social withdrawal

Though these are some of the most common signs, there are many more, and stress can present itself very differently in everyone, depending on their personality and tendencies.

What Does Extreme Stress Feel Like?

As previously stated, people can experience stress very differently. However, it usually continues to increase in pressure over time, and once it reaches extreme levels, such as with chronic stress or acute stress disorder, it can have very detrimental effects on one’s physical and mental health. 

You might have trouble remembering everyday things, experience muscle spasms or joint pain due to tensing your muscles, or even start getting headaches or have trouble sleeping. Chronic stress can also cause you to feel irritable and easily overwhelmed, keeping you on edge for far longer than your mind is meant to be.

Stress is essentially meant to alert the body of impending danger or instability. This can be applied to massive projects or assignments that feel like too much, but at its root, it is meant to protect us in life-or-death situations, which is why it activates our fight or flight reflexes. When someone experiences chronic—or extreme—stress, it hurts the body and mind, because it requires fight or flight to be active for an unsustainable amount of time. 

What Are 4 Signs of Stress Overload?

Chronic stress symptoms look much like regular stress symptoms, but they can often be more intense and be even more debilitating. If you feel overloaded by stress, such as with chronic stress, your symptoms may also tend toward anxiousness, since you’re likely worried about what’s happening and the demands you feel are too high to meet. That being said, four signs of chronic stress are:

Can Stress Cause Weird Symptoms?

Since stress can affect nearly every system in the body, it can tend to cause symptoms that seem strange or don’t make immediate sense, especially if you don’t know that stress is the source. It can cause certain feelings or physical pains to crop up seemingly out of nowhere, which is why knowing which ones consistently come up for you can help you identify your stress early on. 

Some of the strange, subtle, or confusing symptoms people frequently experience due to stress are: 

  • Panic attacks
  • Nightmares
  • Excessive doubt
  • Racing thoughts
  • Impulsive buying
  • Experiencing minor accidents due to confusion or disorganization
  • Forgetful, avoids making decisions
  • Perceived overreactions, such as acting with excessive defensiveness, hostility, or frustration
  • Unexplained health concerns like jaw pain, stomach issues, headaches, and muscle pain
  • Crying spells

Stress can cause all these symptoms and more. Through effective stress management, though, anyone can lessen the toll that continuous stress can take.

What Does Stress Do to Your Body? Physical Symptoms of Stress

Stress affects nearly every system in our body, so it can have serious adverse effects on the body, both in the short and long term. Physical symptoms of stress can appear in each of these systems:

  • Central nervous and endocrine system: Stress is heavily present in this system, since this is the one that oversees the “fight or flight” response. Though stress can be managed, the best way to relieve its effects here is to remove the “threat” or source of stress.
  • Respiratory and cardiovascular systems: Here, stress can cause increased heart rate and blood pressure, as well as an increased risk of heart attack or stroke.
  • Digestive system: These symptoms will likely be the ones most immediately felt in the body, such as heartburn or acid reflux, diarrhea, constipation, nausea, vomiting, or stomach pain. Stress can also increase the risk of developing an ulcer.

The lasting physical effects of stress is a large part of why stress management is so important. It not only protects your mental well-being, but your body’s well-being and health.

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Can Stress Symptoms Look Different in Men and Women?

Yes, specifically in a social sense. Women, generally speaking, are more likely to find value in their ability to form relationships and are more likely to reach out to others to process feelings when experiencing stress, so their symptoms may often stay away from social outbursts and may be more internally focused. For example, women are more likely than men to experience sleep disruption and changes in their eating habits. Women that have periods may also notice pain as well as irregularities in frequency and increased intensity. 

However men, generally speaking, are more likely to value their performance and are more likely to participate in physical activities when experiencing stress, and are also more likely than women to repress their feelings. Therefore, men may have a more social response to stress, perhaps taking it out by leaving/withdrawing or acting irritable or aggressive. Men who experience stress may also experience drops in testosterone levels.

Can Too Much Stress Make You Sick?

Yes, stress can make—and keep—you sick. Just like many of the systems in the body, stress can have detrimental effects on the immune system, causing it to struggle with keeping sickness away as well as recovering from sickness as quickly as it usually does.

Chronic stress can also cause stomach pain and discomfort as well as nausea, making you feel sick.

How Do I Know If Stress Is Killing Me?

Stress can be hard on the mind and body, but it should never get to the point of causing lethal harm. If your life feels severely inhibited and negatively affected by your stress levels, it’s best to contact your primary care provider and to consider seeing a mental health professional to help you process and create a plan to relieve your stress.

What Is the Best Medicine for Stress? Healthy Ways to Treat Stress

There are a number of ways to relieve and reduce stress. Some of the common ways include:

  • Regular physical activity
  • Practicing relaxation techniques
  • Participating in hobbies
  • Interacting with positive social influences such as friends or loved ones
  • Listening to calming music
  • Playing with pets
  • Consuming calming teas or supplements

Ultimately, though, the only true way to get rid of your stress is to remove the stressor. Whether that means that what you’re facing is over, or you’ve found a way to make what’s on your plate more manageable, the high demands you feel required to meet must, at some point, be decreased to get rid of stress completely.

Feeling certain amounts of stress now again can be good, even helpful. However, when the demands of your stress become too much and feel like they are not sustainable, it’s time to rethink the situation and find ways to cope in order to take care of yourself.

Table of contents

What Are 5 Warning Signs of Stress?

What Does Extreme Stress Feel Like?

Can Stress Cause Weird Symptoms?

What Does Stress Do to Your Body? Physical Symptoms of Stress

Can Stress Symptoms Look Different in Men and Women?

Can Too Much Stress Make You Sick?

How Do I Know If Stress Is Killing Me?

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Laura Harris, LCMHC in Durham, NC

Laura Harris, LCMHC

Laura Harris is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor (LCMHC). She specializes in anger, anxiety, depression, stress management, coping strategies development, and problem-solving skills.

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Theresa Welsh, LPC

Theresa Welsh is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a passion for providing the utmost quality of services to individuals and couples struggling with relationship issues, depression, anxiety, abuse, ADHD, stress, family conflict, life transitions, grief, and more.

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Hannah is a Junior Copywriter at Thriveworks. She received her bachelor’s degree in English: Creative Writing with a minor in Spanish from Seattle Pacific University. Previously, Hannah has worked in copywriting positions in the car insurance and trucking sectors doing blog-style and journalistic writing and editing.

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