Symptoms of stress: what you need to know

Most of us show symptoms of stress from time to time – we all experience challenges and overcoming them is just part of day-to-day life, which, indeed, would be dull without them. But when stressful situations don’t let up, or we feel out of control and unable to cope with them, the symptoms of stress can stop us living a well-balanced life, damage our health or those close to us.

information about the symptoms of stress

Understanding and coping with the symptoms of stress

There are lots of ways of coping with stress, and if you want to find out more you can take our stress tests, which will help you work out how high your stress levels are and help you find treatments suitable for your stress symptoms, personality and lifestyle.

You can also read about treatments and therapies that can help in our A-Z of treatments.

But if you are suffering from a lot of the symptoms of stress on a regular basis, or a few of them all the time, you should see your doctor. Some of them may be due to an underlying physical or mental condition for which you need medical or specialist help, and which should not go untreated. Worrying that stress symptoms are signs of a serious illness can make you feel more stressed – another reason for seeing your doctor.

Some of the symptoms below may also just be bad habits that you’ve got into and nothing to worry about – unless, that is, you want to stop and can’t.

The symptoms of stress vary from person to person, and can show up in different ways. They can, however, be divided broadly into three types:

1. Physical symptoms, when our body reacts in ways we can’t control.

2. Emotional symptoms, when we have upsetting feelings or thoughts that we can’t control.

3. Behavioural symptoms, when we start acting in ways that we know are damaging to ourselves or to others but can’t control.

Physical symptoms

  • Aching joints, muscles and headaches, caused by tensing up physically for long periods of time
  • Digestive problems such as loss of appetite, nausea or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which is a cluster of symptoms including diarrhoea, constipation, and bloating
  • Uncontrollable twitching – of your eyes or mouth, for example
  • Dizziness, shortness of breath, feeling faint, palpitations or rapid heart beat
  • Panic attacks – these are intense bouts of stress which can include many of the above symptoms and can come on suddenly
  • Sudden spikes in blood pressure
  • Inability to relax, feeling tense and uptight
  • Insomnia – having problems getting off or back to sleep
  • Lethargy, lack of energy
  • Loss of sexual desire
  • Sweating excessively
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Being tearful

Emotional symptoms

  • Anxiety, fearfulness – worrying uncontrollably about future or past events or other people’s behaviour and attitude towards you, when others seem to take it in their stride
  • Lack of control – feeling that you are overwhelmed by, or a victim of, negative events or other people’s behaviour
  • Lack of self-confidence
  • Phobias – being afraid of situations or things that don’t bother other people but terrify you when you think about or are exposed to them

Behavioural symptoms

  • Eating, drinking, smoking, taking too many drugs to comfort yourself or ”self-medicate” and blot out negative feelings and thoughts
  • Clenching/unclenching your fists or jaw, tapping your feet, biting your nails or other repetitive behaviour you can’t stop or are unaware of
  • Feeling irritable and losing your temper easily
  • Problems concentrating because you are worrying or upset about something
  • Being unable to “switch off” and relax

Hilly Janes

About Hilly Janes

Hilly Janes is an award-winning former health editor at The Times. She has 20 years' experience on national newspapers and magazines and is the author of Latte or Cappuccino? 125 Decisions That Will Change Your Life (Michael O’Mara Books, 2012).

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