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Stress symptoms: how stress effects your mind and body

Chartered Psychologist Dr Audrey Tang shares the most common emotional, physical, behavioural and cognitive stress symptoms.

tell tale signs and symptoms you are suffering from stress
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Tired, tearful, anxious or full of rage? These are all common stress symptoms. Stress can be rooted in work, relationships, financial, health or lifestyle issues, or a combination of all of these. While it's normal to feel overwhelmed by any one of these lifestyle factors, if left unchecked stress can start to affect your emotional and physical wellbeing and your whole life.

Dr Audrey Tang, Chartered Psychologist and author of The Leader’s Guide to Resilience (Pearson, £14.99) shares the most common emotional, physical, behavioural and cognitive stress symptoms. If any of the following stress symptoms sound familiar it might be time to take action and seek help:

What is stress?

Stress is best defined as an emotional and physical state resulting in a physiological reaction where the body is prepared to fight or fly. It is an evolutionary response to threat and such 'preparation' often results in the following symptoms:

  • An increased heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Feelings of tension
  • A rise in blood pressure

    We may also become more focused on the threat – often to the exclusion of other information. This sensation – which is often rather unpleasant – lasts until the perceived threat has passed, or until the body is no longer able to sustain this state and falls into exhaustion. The body may display exhaustion in many ways including:

    • A 'nervous breakdown'
    • Anxiety/depression
    • Stomach ulcers
    • Heart attack
      signs and symptoms of stress
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      Emotional symptoms of stress

      On a physiological level, the negative emotional response is the stress response. Adrenaline starts pumping, heart rate heightens, you may get clammy – your body is preparing to fight or flee. This can be sustained for only a certain level of time for each person before it leads to exhaustion.

      Think of the stress response as a rubber band being stretched – if you continue for too long it either breaks, or it becomes flaccid – either way it no longer functions as a rubber band. Constant stress (which can happen if you continue to suppress emotions) can therefore result in physical damage including heart attack or stomach ulcers.

      There is also collateral damage associated with stress including:

      • You might end up avoiding or refusing invitations because you feel overwhelmed – but they might have helped you relax or 'get away' from the feelings of stress (and if you refuse too many invites, friends who may not understand how you are really feeling may stop asking).
      • Lack of concentration/irritability/lack of sleep may affect your work performance and relationships.
      • You may be modelling ineffective coping mechanisms to your children/your teams.

        Other emotional symptoms can include moodiness, low self esteem, black and white/all or nothing thinking, self criticism, anxiety and a feeling of not being in control.

            Physical symptoms of stress

            The negative effects of stress are often discussed. These include:

            • Lack of sleep.
            • Inability to focus.
            • Irritability.
            • Changes in eating habits – often over or under eating – and subsequent stomach distress.
            • Supressing our immune system so we may be more susceptible to illness, or find it harder to recover.

              Physical symptoms of stress can in turn can spiral into further problems which may include problems in relationships, completion of tasks at work, and overall poor physical health. Worse still, for example, a lack of sleep produces ghrelin and can raise our cortisol level – making us crave comfort foods, and reduce the amount of leptin we produce (which signals when we are full) – this lack of sensitivity to our body’s actual needs can result in weight gain, which in turn is a further source of stress.

              Other symptoms can include teeth grinding which can also contribute to lockjaw, headaches, and toothache, and a lack of libido.

              stress signs and symptoms
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              Behavioural symptoms of stress

              There are a number of potential indicators which suggest that a person’s wellbeing is suffering – so it might be that someone else points these out – or you see them in yourself or others. These signs include:

              • Irritability.
              • Seeming very tired – or complaining they aren’t sleeping.
              • Not voicing concerns or stopped talking to management despite an “open door” policy.
              • A change in eating habits – eating or drinking more or less than usual- and if eating more - often of high calorie items.
              • Susceptibility to illness (often because of a depression of the immune system).
              • Tearfulness.
              • Not wanting to talk about something is a key behaviour. (Sometimes physically leaving the room when a difficult subject or a specific name or discussion is raised can indicate avoidance).
              • Getting angry suddenly and out of proportion to what was asked/said can also indicate deeper issues.
              • Fidgety or nervous habits such as nail biting.
              • Increase in drug or alcohol use.

                Then there are the more subtle signs which may need closer observation, for example, slumping or a slower walk, or a lapse in personal grooming.

                All of these signs may be indicators of other issues, but they are also commonly related to stress, often because one of the first things to be affected is the sleep pattern – which in turn may have further repercussions on concentration, interactions and ability to perform to the standards they would want. It never hurts, if you do notice any of these in others – or recognise them in yourself – to stop and ask “are you/am I really ok?”

                Specific to care professions is 'Compassion fatigue' – sometimes precipitated by working in a highly-stressful care environment for a sustained period of time, and the thought of offering more care feels overwhelming – and this can result in work performance suffering which in turn can unfortunately affect others.

                Cognitive symptoms of stress

                One of the key cognitive symptoms of stress is the over-focus on the stressor, sometimes to the exclusion of everything else. Or alternatively:

                • Absentmindedness/forgetfulness/distraction - often because the brain is trying to focus on too many cognitive tasks at the same time, while the stressor is claiming most of the attention.
                • Larger use of negative words and phrases.
                • Worry and an inability to focus - if the stress is related to a “pile up” of different things.
                • Poor judgment.

                  The consequences of long-term stress

                  If we are not taught healthy ways to manage the unpleasant sensations of stress, we might respond with unhealthy self-soothing – or even if we do know but we just 'don’t want to deal with it right now' we might try to 'escape' (eg drink, recreational drugs, comfort eating) rather than actually deal with the root cause.

                  Of course some escapism, especially talking to friends or perhaps watching something funny on TV can help restore our emotional balance – but at that point it is important to deal with the cause of the stress, otherwise we’re simply papering over cracks rather than doing anything truly effective to help our own growth.

                  If we are not taught healthy ways to manage the unpleasant sensations of stress, we might respond with unhealthy self-soothing.

                  Further, burying negative emotions – ie simply ignoring it - can lead to a number of mental health issues. If you never resolve the issue, it can result in ineffective behaviour strategies to cope, such as avoidance of the person, people, or place which causes the discomfort – which in turn can lead to isolation, and that can lead to social anxiety, anxiety and depression.

                  It can result in never forming a positive connection with people, places or things, which you might have been able to do had you faced the situation when it was merely a conversation which needed to be had, and this can restrict huge avenues to you. Although you are 'inactive' it has the same effect as 'burning bridges'. It can have repercussions on the rest of the family – for example, perhaps you never want to see your parents at Christmas – but that may also mean that your children miss out. (Arguably, there can also be good reason for such a breakdown).

                  Further, if you do not deal with emotions in a healthy way, you may engage in self-medication to help supress them, such as drugs, alcohol or over-eating – and this can have huge physical consequences including detrimental effects (sometimes irreversible) on the brain and body.

                  You are also unable to teach your own children – or perhaps model healthy expression of emotion to your own teams in the workplace. This can affect your success as a parent, and as a professional.

                  Tips to overcome stress

                  To overcome and recover from stress try the following tips:

                  ✔️ Acknowledge your feelings

                  If you are feeling depressed, or anxious, try to avoid using smiling or dismissive (eg I’m fine) behaviour to cope – it is important to acknowledge your feelings and accept that you are not 'strange' or 'a burden' or 'just being silly.' Stress, depression and anxiety are very real, and further to which, even if you are not at the point of diagnosis, view the negative emotions you are experiencing as a warning (like a petrol light) – that something needs to be done.

                  ✔️ Find an outlet

                  At the very least, if you find it difficult to speak to anyone, a good start is to try and find an outlet to express your feelings – some people do it through journaling, others through poetry, dance, song, music, art and so on. Anything that allows you a little release of emotion can help free your mind enough to think a little more clearly about seeking help, and avoid indulging in coping methods which may cause more harm in the long term.

                  ✔️ Ask for help

                  It is best to seek help before the point of crisis, or before it gets to the point where it is taken out of your hands because you are no longer able to cope and your body breaks physically or emotionally. Once you seek help, there will be techniques that will be given to you by professionals to help create a buffer to the stressors currently being experienced.

                  Further help and support

                  If you think you might be suffering from stress your first port of call should be your GP. For additional support, try one of the following resources:

                  • Shout: Text 'SHOUT' to 85258 if you are struggling and a crisis volunteer will text you back. It's completely free 24/7.
                  • Anxiety UK: a charity which specifies in helping those suffering from anxiety.
                  • The Samaritans: a charity providing support to anyone in emotional distress.
                  • Mind: making sure no one has to face a mental health problem alone.
                  • CALM: helping to reduce stigma and reduce rates of male suicide.
                  • Papyrus: contact for help and advice around thoughts of suicide.

                    Last updated: 20-05-2021

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