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Stress: Symptoms to Look For

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 30, 2020

What Is Stress?

Stress happens when an emotional or physical stimulus makes you feel frustrated, mad, or anxious. Sometimes stress is a good thing. Hormones our body puts out when we’re stressed give us energy to stay alert in dangerous situations and when doing challenging things like interviewing for a job. However, too much stress can have negative consequences for your health.

Stress and anxiety are related but different things. Stress comes from an event that is happening now. Anxiety comes from something that already happened or may happen in the future.

There are two main types of stress. Acute stress comes from an easily resolved stressor. For example, if you’re driving and a cat runs into the road, that’s stressful, but the stress is gone once you slam on the brakes and avoid an accident. Chronic stress comes from more complex problems like long-term financial struggle or ongoing relationship conflict.

Even though stress is an emotional issue, it can cause physical side effects. Some of the side effects include:

Stress can also make existing health conditions like heart disease or cancer worse, and may exacerbate substance abuse problems or other compulsive behaviors like gambling

Signs of Stress

It can be hard for some people to know when they’re stressed, in part because we live in a society that sometimes tells us overworking is normal, or even something to be proud of, while stress is seen as a sign of weakness. Ever since doctors and psychiatrists began to study stress, they’ve encountered people who don’t know or can’t admit when they’re stressed out.

If you have trouble knowing or admitting when you’re stressed, your body will still tell you. Keep a lookout for the following symptoms:

Undereating or Overeating

Eating too much or too little is a common sign of stress. When we’re stressed, our adrenal glands put out cortisol — the hormone that helps your body go into fight or flight mode. This can cause you to crave unhealthy foods with lots of salt, sugar, and fat, because your brain thinks your body needs extra energy to fight off impending danger. 

However, stress can also slow down your metabolism, causing a lack of appetite. In one study, people who had recently had a stressful event burned more than 100 fewer calories than those who hadn't.

Irritability

Irritability is an emotional state in which you’re prone to feeling angry or frustrated. When you’re irritable, you may feel your reactions are over the top, but can’t seem to control them. 

It’s normal to feel irritable when stressed. If your irritability starts to affect your life significantly, you may want to reach out to a therapist or medical professional for support.

Digestive Problems

Stress can have an effect on your digestive system. It can affect your gut biome — the microorganisms that keep your digestion balanced — due to the nervous system’s strong connection to the digestive system. Experts believe that stress early in life may disrupt the nervous system, leading to a greater likelihood of digestive disorders later on. 

Stress may also cause heartburn. First, it can cause you to consume heartburn-inducing foods — or alcohol, which can also cause heartburn. Second, stress itself can increase the frequency of heartburn episodes no matter what you eat.

People who are stressed out may have more:

Weakened Immune System

Stress may lead to a greater frequency of viral and bacterial infections by causing your body to produce fewer lymphocytes — the important germ-fighting cells of the immune system. People who are stressed may also turn to activities that further lower their immune functions, like drinking alcohol and doing illicit drugs.

Other side effects of stress, like lack of sleep or undereating, may also have a negative effect on the immune system, leading to more illnesses. 

Dealing With Stress

It can be hard to come up with ways to feel less stressed out. Adding something new to our routines to make our lives less stressful can, unfortunately, be a stressful change. Still, your body will thank you for reducing sources of stress in your life and finding ways to recover.

Here are some steps you can take today to reduce stress:

Practice Self-Care

For one person, self-care might look like taking a long, hot bath and reading a good book. For someone else, it might look like waking up early and going for a jog. Common self-care tactics many people can benefit from include:

  • Eating healthy foods
  • Getting regular exercise
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Taking a break when you’re feeling stressed

Reach Out

You don’t have to deal with stress alone. Reach out to a trusted person in your life who will listen to you and offer support. This person might be a family member, friend, neighbor, community leader, or clergy member.

If things feel overwhelming, getting professional help is also a good idea. You can work with a counselor, therapist, or psychologist to find coping mechanisms to help you deal with stress. 

Limit Drug, Alcohol, and Caffeine Use

While drugs and alcohol may seem to help symptoms of stress in the short term, they can actually lead to more stress in the long term. Using substances may only mask the issue at hand and prevent you from dealing with it. 

Stimulants like caffeine may also temporarily make you feel better, but there is often an energetic crash and lower mood after the high, which can lead to more stress. 

Show Sources

SOURCES:

American Psychological Association: “Stress Effects on the Body.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Coping With Stress.”

Cleveland Clinic: “How Stress Can Make You Eat More — Or Not At All.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Stress.”

Emotion Review: “Building a Definition of Irritability From Academic Definitions and Lay Descriptions.”

Help Guide: “Stress Management.”

Simply Psychology: “Stress, Illness and the Immune System.”

Stress in Post-War Britain, 1945–85: “Chapter 4 WORKING TOO HARD: EXPERIENCES OF WORRY AND STRESS IN POST-WAR BRITAIN.”

Sutter Health: “10 Simple Ways to Cope with Stress.”

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