Maybe it’s your demanding boss, morning gridlock, or relationship problems with a friend or family member. Whatever the cause, it’s likely you experience some level of stress on a daily basis.
But while some day-to-day stress is normal (and can even be a good thing if it motivates you), chronic, overwhelming stress can have a negative impact on your physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. Knowing how to spot the signs and symptoms that you’re under too much stress can help you stay aware and address the issues before they harm your health.
You might be overly stressed without even knowing it. Maybe you have certain physical symptoms and blame it on an illness or other condition. But the truth is, stress itself can cause problems in your organs, tissues, and just about every system in your body.
Depending on how you handle stress, you might have symptoms that affect everything from your hormones to your heart, and more.
Some of the physical signs that your stress levels are too high include:
Pain or tension in your head, chest, stomach, or muscles. Your muscles tend to tense up when you’re stressed, and over time this can cause headaches, migraines, or musculoskeletal problems.
Digestive problems. These can include diarrhea and constipation, or nausea and vomiting. Stress can affect how quickly food moves through your system and the way your intestines absorb nutrients.
Reproductive issues. Stress can cause changes to your sex drive, problems with irregular or painful periods in women, or impotence and problems with sperm production in men. Whether you’re a man or a woman, you might also feel reduced sexual desire when you’re under too much stress.
Changes to your heart rate and blood pressure. When you’re overwhelmed with stress, your body goes into “fight-or-flight” mode, which triggers your adrenal glands to release the hormones cortisol and adrenaline. These can make your heart beat faster and your blood pressure rise.
This usually happens when there’s a momentary stressor, and the effects pass once it’s over. For example, you might find your heart racing if you’re late for a meeting, but then it calms down once you’re there. However, over time, too many episodes of this kind of acute stress can cause inflammation in your arteries, which could be a contributing factor to heart attacks.
Mental and Emotional Signs
Stress can also affect how you think and feel, making it tough to get through your normal responsibilities and make rational decisions. In some cases, this kind of stress can impact behavior in other ways, and some people turn to drugs, alcohol, tobacco, or other harmful substances to cope with their feelings.
Excessive stress may also affect your appetite, causing you to eat more or less than usual, and it may affect or eliminate your motivation to exercise and stay fit. Additionally, the feelings you get when you’re stressed may make you feel like withdrawing from friends and family and isolating yourself.
Some of the psychological and emotional signs that you’re stressed out include:
- Depression or anxiety
- Anger, irritability, or restlessness
- Feeling overwhelmed, unmotivated, or unfocused
- Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
- Racing thoughts or constant worry
- Problems with your memory or concentration
- Making bad decisions
When to Get Help
If you’re struggling with stress and don’t know how to cope, you may want to seek help from a specialist. Your primary care doctor can be a good starting point. They can help you figure out if the signs and symptoms you’re experiencing are from a medical issue or an anxiety disorder.
They can also refer you to a mental health expert and provide you with additional resources and tools.
Some of the signs it’s time to get help:
- Your work or school performance is suffering
- You’re using alcohol, drugs, or tobacco to deal with your stress
- Your eating or sleeping habits change significantly
- You’re behaving in ways that are dangerous to yourself, including self-mutilation
- You have irrational fears and anxiety
- You have trouble getting through your daily responsibilities
- You’re withdrawing from friends and family
- You think about suicide or hurting other people
If your stress has gotten to the point that you’re thinking of hurting yourself or someone else, go to the nearest emergency room or call 911. You can also call one of the free suicide prevention helplines, including the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
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