What are the symptoms of stress? And how do you know when your stress symptoms mean you need further help? Dr Roger Henderson, GP and stress expert, has the answers.
What do we mean by stress?
There are probably as many definitions of stress as there are causes, since stress means different things to different people. Some thrive on the adrenaline of a frantic lifestyle and constant crises, while others feel tense at the slightest deviation from their routine.
Most people fall between these two extremes, but the irony is that we all need stress to function normally. Stress gets us out of bed in the morning and through the day, and a stress-free life would be too dull to contemplate. But when feelings of tension, pressure or strain begin to affect the quality of our lives it is time to take a quick “stress MOT” and see what you can do to repair the damage.
Good and bad stress
Short bursts of stress are not dangerous. In fact, we are designed to cope with these. We do so with what is known as the “fight or flight” reaction. Adrenaline and other stress-related hormones are released into our body to allow us to deal with the immediate problem or – as in the days when we used to hunt our own food – run away as quickly as possible.
Longer-term or chronic stress, however, is a slightly different problem and, although it never kills anyone as such, it is probably a risk factor for developing heart problems in later life. It also undoubtedly contributes to other health problems, such as insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome, skin rash and migraines, if it is allowed to continue unchecked.
The exact reasons for this remain unclear but it seems that the pace of life in the 21st century now means that many people find it increasingly difficult to “switch off” from their stresses, and so feel unwell as a result.
The symptoms of stress
There are hundreds of signs and symptoms of stress, but, as a doctor, the commonest ones I see include:
• Not being able to sleep properly
• Poor concentration and increased irritability
• Drinking excess caffeine or alcohol, and/or smoking more
• An inability to make decisions, and feeling increasingly frustrated by this
• Palpitations of the heart, a ‘lump’ in the throat or stomach, dry mouth and slight tremor of the hands
• Always feeling that something needs to be done, and that you cannot simply sit and relax
More worrying stress symptoms
These symptoms may be severe, especially if anxiety is present (sufferers may genuinely believe they are about to die), but more worrying symptoms – which you should consult your doctor about – are:
• Chest pain, radiating into the neck or arm. This pain may feel like a ‘crushing’ or heavy sensation and may be brought on by exertion or exercise.
• An inability to swallow food properly, especially bread or meat – it feels like food sticks in the gullet.
• Weight loss or alteration in the normal bowel habit (such as constipation or diarrhoea).
• A rapid or erratic pulse rate for no obvious reason, which may occur when relaxed or at rest.
• Feelings of self-harm or suicidal thoughts.
Deciding when your stress symptoms mean you need help
Everyone has different stress threshold, but most people need further help when some or all of the following occur:
• Life no longer feels enjoyable – it is a constant struggle to feel on top of things.
• Relationships are put at risk because of the symptoms of stress.
• Irritability and anger/frustration are present every day.
• Alcohol or cigarette intake increases radically.
• A previously normal sex drive is diminished.
• Feelings of self-loathing develop and lack of self-worth.
Stress affects us all but by recognising where our individual stresses comes from, and then following some simple tips we can all improve our physical and mental health.