10 Symptoms of Stress That Are Often Overlooked
Are you cramming for a test? Starting a new job? About to take off on a month-long European vacation? Overwhelming feelings of anxiety, panic, chaos, and irritability likely accompany these big moments, making it hard to savor the excitement, and making it easy to dwell in the dreadfulness. These symptoms of stress might seem normal and unavoidable, but they shouldn't be overlooked.
Stress is inevitable in both the good and bad times of our everyday lives. A little bit can be beneficial, but it is easy to get submerged in a sea of stress and allow it to take a toll on both the body and mind. While the goal shouldn’t be to completely eliminate stress (that would be impossible), we can certainly find ways to minimize the chaos when possible and take time to practice a bit of R&R in between our daily stressors. However, the first step is actually recognizing that you’re stressed (which can be easier said than done) Here are 10 symptoms of stress that are often overlooked.
- Stress is defined as the body’s fight or flight reaction to feeling threatened or under pressure, and it can be triggered by a variety of events.
- Symptoms of stress are displayed mentally, physically, and through our actions and behaviors.
- Ways to decrease stress include practicing mindfulness, meditation, eating healthy, and getting a restful night of sleep.
What is stress?
I am confident that we’re all familiar with the idea of stress. Some of us may be a little too familiar with it (calling myself out here!) However, if you want (or need) a formal introduction, stress is defined as the body’s fight or flight reaction to feeling threatened or under pressure. Often, it is triggered by new or unexpected experiences, moments that intimidate our sense of self, or when we feel out of control in a situation.
More than just an emotion, stress is a carefully engineered physical response that progresses throughout your entire body. Looking at the short-term, stress can be a good thing. It can act as a motivator; it is designed to provide us with a quick little burst of energy or alertness that we require to do our best.
Unfortunately, when activated for too long or too often, this fight or flight response not only impacts the brain but wreaks havoc on many of the other organs and cells throughout the body. Our adrenal glands release stress hormones cortisol, epinephrine (AKA adrenaline), and norepinephrine. The physical impact that these hormones have on your body can, over time, lead to an increased risk of having a heart attack or a stroke.
One study from 2015 highlighted that 59% of adults reported experiencing high levels of perceived stress. So, if you’re feeling worn down or exhausted from stress, you are not alone! Despite most (and by most, I mean all) of us being in this together, our individual reactions and coping mechanisms to stress all vary. Coping mechanisms can be molded by genetics, personality, early-life events, and social and economic circumstances. This rings true for symptoms of stress as well: it can look different for everybody.
10 symptoms of stress
Ultimately, stress has a direct impact on our minds, bodies, and behaviors. Regardless of your habitual coping response to stress, having a grip on the telltale signs can help tremendously in managing your stress, finding the additional capacity to cope with everyday life stressors, and potentially avoiding more serious problems in the future.
Because stress is an emotion, the natural gut reaction to understanding symptoms of stress is to think of the mental ones. Mental reactions to stress include:
- Feelings of anxiety (in the American Psychological Association’s 2017 survey on stress in America, 36% of people reported that stress makes them feel more anxious or nervous.)
- Difficulty concentrating
- The inability to enjoy yourself
- Feeling irritable and angry
- Feeling neglected by family and friends
These feelings, along with the aforementioned stress hormones, display themselves physically in symptoms that are often noticeable but can be difficult to attribute to stress. The physical symptoms of stress include:
- Indigestion, constipation, or heartburn
- Difficulty sleeping
- Changes to your menstrual cycle
- Low libido
- Rashes and itchy skin
Of course, many of these symptoms are often symptoms of other non-stress-related issues. So how do you know if stress is causing your symptoms?
Dr. Arthur Barsky, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, offers some strategies to determine if your symptoms are stress-related. He first recommends simply stopping and assessing what you feel is going on with your body. Examining your experiences and identifying whether they relate to alarming situations can help to identify the triggers. It is both important and helpful to notice precursors of stress symptoms. If your symptoms follow a stressful situation, it is possible that these situations and emotions caused the reactions.
Next, Dr. Barsky highlights the importance of distracting yourself. If you have an inkling that stress and anxiety may be the root of your problems, taking your mind off of things in any way possible can be a helpful tool. This includes keeping yourself busy by reading a book, doing laundry, exercising, cleaning, or looking at old photos. Keep in mind that distractions look different for everyone; try out different activities to discover what brings you peace.
How to decrease stress
I think it’s pretty clear that, despite being necessary and completely normal sometimes, stress isn’t always fun to deal with, especially for the long haul. It’s important to make a conscious and healthy effort to mitigate and minimize your symptoms of stress before it starts a downward spiral.
Here are a few ways to manage stress in a healthy way:
- Stay active.
Exercise and movement won’t eliminate your stress completely, but it helps to minimize emotional intensity, clear your thoughts, and get some endorphins flowing. Any type of exercise is useful, as long as it suits you, it is enjoyable, and you do enough of it.
- Take a minute.
When life starts to get busy, we often experience a “snowball effect.” Busyness attracts busyness. Sometimes, the best thing you can do is take a minute (or many minutes) to press pause and take time for yourself.
- Eat healthily.
Fueling your body with junk foods during an already stressful time is a straight shot to ill health and additional stress. Eating a well-balanced and nutritious diet containing plenty of fruits and veggies will work to keep your mind and body happy and healthy.
- Be mindful.
Take time to regularly acknowledge how much you get done Every. Single. Day. and how much of it requires your mind, body, and soul to get done can help to develop a sense of gratitude for yourself. Truly understanding the impact that stress has on emotional and physical wellbeing can help to interrupt the stress cycle and prioritize your health and happiness just that much more.
Additionally, ensure that you are being kind and patient with yourself and the situation, building and sustaining healthy relationships, and most importantly, making an effort to recognize when the stress is becoming a problem.
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for professional help. Everyone experiences stress, and it looks different for every individual. If you find that stress is impacting your everyday life, it can be helpful to reach out to a professional who can better advise on treatment and provide additional help.
Written by Morgan Taylor