Is This Stress or a Stroke?

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on July 03, 2014
3 min read

Are you stressed out? Is your head throbbing, and you just don’t feel right? Worried you’re having a stroke? You’re probably not.

Anxiety, migraines, blood sugar changes, and lots of other things can make you feel weak and funny -- and they’re much more likely.

But call 911 right away if any of these suddenly happen to you:

  • A terrible headache, worse than you’ve ever had before
  • Weakness on one side of your body
  • Trouble walking, talking, or understanding things
  • Vision loss in one or both eyes

They’re all warning signs of a stroke. Don’t wait to call 911.

“Every stroke survivor had different symptoms, but the one thing that is common is the suddenness of the symptoms,” says National Stroke Association spokeswoman Clair Diones.

You know your body better than anyone else, says another stroke expert.

“If you are worried, you should probably get it checked out," says Michael Rippee, MD, assistant professor of neurology at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

Take a deep breath and try not to worry if you’re feeling off. A lot of things can mimic stroke symptoms.

Stress is one of them. “Everybody’s body deals with it differently,” Rippee says. He’s treated people who’ve had changes in their vision and speech that were actually caused by stress and anxiety.

Or, Rippee says, it could be:

  • Migraine headaches. Migraines can look like a stroke. They can affect your vision and make you feel weak. If you have migraines, you have a higher risk of having a stroke, so watch your symptoms closely. If you have any of the warning signs, get medical attention right away.
  • High blood pressure. If your blood pressure is high, it can cause headaches, feelings of weakness, and vision problems. This is what you might hear a doctor call “uncontrolled hypertension.” It’s also a major risk factor for stroke. For most people, normal blood pressure is a top number of 120 or less and a bottom number of 80 or less.
  • Anxiety. It could make you feel numb around the mouth or fingertips.
  • Changes in blood sugar. Too little or too much can cause vision problems, especially if you have diabetes and aren’t taking your medication, like insulin, or if you took too much. It could also cause you to feel confused, similar to a stroke.

If you have a dull headache that you’ve had before, or if it feels like a tight band around your head, that's probably a tension headache.

“If you have a headache that’s moderate to severe and out of character completely, that’s something to be concerned about,” Rippee says.

Some people describe pain from a stroke as the worst headache of your life, he said. If that happens, you should call 911.

An easy way to recognize the warning signs of stroke is to think F.A.S.T.

  • F - Face. Can you, or the person having the symptoms, smile? Does one side of the face droop?
  • A - Arms. Can you, or the person having the symptoms, raise both arms? Does one drift downward?
  • S - Speech. Can you, or the person having the symptoms, repeat a single phase? Is the speech slurred or strange?
  • T - Time. If you see any of these symptoms, call 911 immediately.

“Stroke is an emergency, and it’s important that you get to the hospital,” Diones says. “We want you to call 911 if you are having symptoms. Even if it turns out you aren’t having a stroke, you could be having other health issues. It’s still important to work with your health care provider and be assessed and get the help you need.”

There’s also something that Rippee says is just as serious as a stroke but harder to diagnose: a ministroke, called a transient ischemic attack or TIA. Symptoms are similar to a stroke but can go away quickly, often by the time someone sees a doctor. It can be a warning sign that you're heading for a more serious stroke, so take action to stop that before it starts.