Stress: Symptoms & Signs

Medically Reviewed on 9/10/2019

Stress is emotional or physical tension. Stress typically causes the "fight or flight" response, a complex reaction of neurologic and endocrinologic systems that produces some characteristic symptoms.

Signs and symptoms of stress can be emotional or physical. Emotional symptoms can include becoming easily agitated, feeling frustrated, feeling overwhelmed, mood changes, feeling like you are losing control, having difficulty relaxing and quieting your mind, feeling bad about yourself (low self-esteem), loneliness, depression, and low energy. Physical symptoms associated with stress can include headaches, upset stomach, diarrhea, constipation, nausea, aches, pains, tense muscles, chest pain and rapid heartbeat, insomnia, frequent colds and infections, loss of sexual desire and/or ability, nervousness and shaking, and clenched jaw and grinding teeth.

Causes of stress

A number of conditions, including physical, mental, or emotional factors, can cause stress.

Symptoms and signs of stress

Excess stress can manifest itself in a variety of emotional, behavioral, and even physical symptoms, and the symptoms of stress vary enormously among different individuals.

Common somatic (physical) symptoms often reported by those experiencing excess stress include

Symptoms of many preexisting medical conditions can also worsen during times of stress. Emotional and behavioral symptoms that can accompany excess stress include

  • nervousness,
  • anxiety,
  • changes in eating habits including overeating or undereating (leading to weight gain or loss),
  • loss of enthusiasm or energy, and
  • mood changes, like irritability and depression.

Of course, none of these signs or symptoms means for certain that there is an elevated stress level since all of these symptoms can be caused by other medical and/or psychological conditions.

It is also known that people under stress have a greater tendency to engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as excessive use or abuse of alcohol and drugs, cigarette smoking, and making poor exercise and nutritional choices, than their less-stressed counterparts. These unhealthy behaviors can further increase the severity of symptoms related to stress, often leading to a "vicious cycle" of symptoms and unhealthy behaviors.

The experience of stress is highly individualized. What constitutes overwhelming stress for one person may not be perceived as stress by another. Likewise, the symptoms and signs of poorly managed stress will be different for each person.

Other Causes of Stress Symptoms and Signs

  • Aches and Pains
  • Becoming Easily Agitated
  • Chest Pain
  • Constipation
  • Depression
  • Diarrhea
  • Difficulty Relaxing
  • Feeling Frustrated
  • Feeling Like You Are Losing Control
  • Feeling Overwhelmed
  • Frequent Colds and Infections
  • Grinding Teeth
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Loneliness
  • Loss of Sexual Desire
  • Low Energy
  • Low Self-Esteem
  • Mood Changes
  • Nausea
  • Nervousness
  • Rapid Heartbeat
  • Shaking
  • Tense Muscles
  • Upset Stomach

REFERENCE:

Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.

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Medically Reviewed on 9/10/2019
References
Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.