11 Stress Symptoms to Know About, According to Mental Health Experts
Stress, unfortunately, is unavoidable: Everyone experiences it at some point.
By definition, stress is "a feeling of emotional or physical tension," according to MedlinePlus, a resource from the US National Library of Medicine (USNLM), and "it can come from any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or nervous."
When you picture someone feeling "stressed," you might picture that emotional strain described above and assume the effects of stress stop there. But stress can take a huge toll on your body, causing a variety of symptoms from acne to headaches. Why? Stress—especially chronic stress—uses a lot of your energy. "When it's triggered every day, you're taking energy from the other systems of your body," Cynthia Ackrill, MD, a stress experts and editor of the American Institute of Stress's Contentment Magazine, tells Health.
In short, stress can cause multiple bodily systems to malfunction because your body is spending so much energy dealing with the stress. Everyone reacts to stress differently, so a side effect that many people experience might not ever happen to you. Below, you'll find a list of common symptoms that some people experience as a result of chronic stress.
Change in appetite
When a person is especially stressed out, it's not uncommon for them to go to one of two extremes: They either eat very little or snack way more than they usually do, Dr. Ackrill says. If you tend to reach for the potato chips when your stress level starts to rise, you might be practicing what some experts call emotional eating, which occurs when you turn to food in the face of an emotional problem. If you have a hard time eating when you're stressed out, it could be because your digestive system—under the weight of the stress you're experiencing—has slowed down, Dr. Ackrill explains, adding that this is an example of what can happen when stress robs your bodily systems of energy.
Most of us have probably noticed that we—as well as those around us—seem a little on edge when we're stressed. "Behaviorally, one of the first things people notice is irritability," Dr. Ackrill explains. "It's like your fuse is shorter. The cuss words start to come out more quickly." If you notice your mood quickly going down the drain, it might be worth it to evaluate common stressors in your life and ask yourself whether or not they're currently in check.
Stress doesn't just cause external symptoms that are easily monitored. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), stress can impact factors that increase your risk for heart disease. Specifically, it can cause high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, per the AHA, which adds that research is currently reviewing whether or not stress management can have an effect on your chances of suffering from heart disease.
Stress can cause a sensation in the chest that leads people to believe they're going into cardiac arrest, Susan Albers, PsyD, a psychiatrist at Cleveland Clinic, tells Health. "People think they're having a heart attack because their stress is so severe," Dr. Albers explains. This is one of the key reasons it's important to keep an eye on your stress level and work to minimize it as much as possible.
Stress can make you feel sick to your stomach, Dr. Albers says. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, nausea is among the common symptoms of stress involving your gut. Others on this list include stomach cramps and indigestion.
Diarrhea and constipation
Just as stress can cause either a loss of appetite or a much bigger appetite, it can have that same effect—causing one extreme or the other—on your bowels. According to the American Institute of Stress, one reason stress could cause constipation boils down to blood flow: A hormone released during stressful times causes the body to direct blood flow to vital organs (think: heart, brain, lungs) instead of the intestines, thus causing intestinal movement to slow down. According to MedlinePlus, constipation and diarrhea are both symptoms of stress that you might not even realize are being caused by chronic stress.
Being under a lot of stress can definitely make it harder to fall (or stay) asleep at night, Dr. Albers says. This is an especially worrisome stress symptom since sleep is essential to every other aspect of your health. "Sleep is so important to everything. It's when we rest that everything gets renewed," Dr. Ackrill explains. Without sleep, your brain might have a harder time making good choices—which can lead to more stress.
It's not just a myth: Stress can cause you to go gray. "In the long run, chronic stress breaks down your body. Even sometimes [a patient's] hair starts to gray," Dr. Albers says. Recent research partially funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that the reason stress can cause premature graying is related to the effect stress has on stem cells that regenerate hair pigment.
These are the most common types of headache, according to MedlinePlus. They occur when scalp and neck muscles contract or become tense, and they can be a result of depression, anxiety, head injury or stress.
If you've been through puberty you probably learned that hormones can have an impact on your skin. Unfortunately, these hormone-related breakouts don't just go away once you're an adult. Since stress is a hormonal change that makes your skin oiler, it too can cause a breakout, according to MedlinePlus.
Changes in sex drive
Different health problems can cause a reduced sex drive, as can certain medications and the use of drugs and alcohol. However, sometimes it comes down to being exhausted or stressed out, per the National Health Service of the UK, which explains that all-consuming stress—or anxiety or exhaustion—can cause a loss of libido.
If you're having trouble finishing up a task that wouldn't usually take too much brain power, you might want to ask yourself if anything's bothering you. Dr. Ackrill says that among the common complaints she hears from stressed patients is something along the lines of: "I'm just so much more distractible." If you can't seem to get your focus under control, consider taking a look at how you're managing your stress.
While stress can have an immense impact on your health, the good news is that there are numerous ways to manage it. This can include meditation, talk therapy, or simple lifestyle changes (like eating nutritious foods, getting enough movement, and going to bed on time every night). Dr. Ackrill recommends looking through tips at stress.org to find helpful resources if you're having a hard time managing your stress. There are also numerous online therapy options that can help reduce stress in the comfort of your own home.
To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter