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OBSTETRICS • GYNECOLOGY • FAMILY PRACTICE

Topic of the MonthEffects Of Stress

Health Effects of Stress: Video Clip

In This Article:

 

What is Stress?

Modern life is full of hassles, deadlines, frustrations, and demands. For many people, stress is so common that it has become a way of life. Stress is not always bad. In small doses, it can help you perform under pressure and motivate you to do your best. But when you a’re constantly running in emergency mode, your mind and body pay the price.

Stress is difficult for scientists to define because it is a highly subjective phenomenon that differs for each of us. Things that are distressful for some individuals can be pleasurable for others. We also respond to stress differently. Some people blush, some eat more while others grow pale or eat less.

If you frequently find yourself feeling frazzled and overwhelmed, it’s time to take action to bring your nervous system back into balance. You can protect yourself by learning how to recognize the signs and symptoms of stress and taking steps to reduce its harmful effects.There are numerous physical as well as emotional responses as illustrated by the following list of some 50 common signs and symptoms of stress.

1.  Frequent headaches, jaw clenching or pain

26. Insomnia, nightmares, disturbing dreams
2.  Gritting, grinding teeth

27. Difficulty concentrating, racing thoughts
3.  Stuttering or stammering

28. Trouble learning new information
4.  Tremors, trembling of lips, hands

29. Forgetfulness, disorganization, confusion
5.  Neck ache, back pain, muscle spasms

30. Difficulty in making decisions.
6.  Light headedness, faintness, dizziness

31. Feeling overloaded or overwhelmed.
7.  Ringing, buzzing or "popping sounds

32. Frequent crying spells or suicidal thoughts
8.  Frequent blushing, sweating

33. Feelings of loneliness or worthlessness
9.  Cold or sweaty hands, feet

34. Little interest in appearance, punctuality
10. Dry mouth, problems swallowing

35. Nervous habits, fidgeting, feet tapping
11. Frequent colds, infections, herpes sores

36. Increased frustration, irritability, edginess
12. Rashes, itching, hives, "goose bumps"

37. Overreaction to petty annoyances
13. Unexplained or frequent "allergy" attacks

38. Increased number of minor accidents
14. Heartburn, stomach pain, nausea

39. Obsessive or compulsive behavior
15. Excess belching, flatulence

40. Reduced work efficiency or productivity
16. Constipation, diarrhea

41. Lies or excuses to cover up poor work
17. Difficulty breathing, sighing

42. Rapid or mumbled speech
18. Sudden attacks of panic
43. Excessive defensiveness or suspiciousness
19. Chest pain, palpitations

44. Problems in communication, sharing
20. Frequent urination

45. Social withdrawal and isolation
21. Poor sexual desire or performance

46. Constant tiredness, weakness, fatigue
22. Excess anxiety, worry, guilt, nervousness

47. Frequent use of over-the-counter drugs
23. Increased anger, frustration, hostility

48. Weight gain or loss without diet
24. Depression, frequent or wild mood swings 

49. Increased smoking, alcohol or drug use
25. Increased or decreased appetite

50. Excessive gambling or impulse buying

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As demonstrated in the above list, stress can have wide ranging effects on emotions, mood and behavior. Equally important but often less appreciated are effects on various systems, organs and tissues all over the body, as illustrated by the following diagram.

Effects of chronic stress

The body doesn’t distinguish between physical and psychological threats. When you’re stressed over a busy schedule, an argument with a friend, a traffic jam, or a mountain of bills, your body reacts just as strongly as if you were facing a life-or-death situation. If you have a lot of responsibilities and worries, your emergency stress response may be “on” most of the time. The more your body’s stress system is activated, the easier it is to trip and the harder it is to shut off.

Long-term exposure to stress can lead to serious health problems. Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in your body. It can raise blood pressure, suppress the immune system, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, contribute to infertility, and speed up the aging process. Long-term stress can even rewire the brain, leaving you more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.

 

Many health problems are caused or exacerbated by stress, including:
  

  • Pain of any kind
  • Heart disease
  • Digestive problems
  • Sleep problems
  • Depression
  • Obesity
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Skin conditions, such as eczema

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How much stress is too much?

Because of the widespread damage stress can cause, it’s important to know your own limit. But just how much stress is “too much” differs from person to person. Some people roll with the punches, while others crumble at the slightest obstacle or frustration. Some people even seem to thrive on the excitement and challenge of a high-stress lifestyle.

Your ability to tolerate stress depends on many factors, including the quality of your relationships, your general outlook on life, your emotional intelligence, and genetics.

Things that influence your stress tolerance level

  • Your support network – A strong network of supportive friends and family members is an enormous buffer against life’s stressors. On the flip side, the more lonely and isolated you are, the greater your vulnerability to stress.
  • Your sense of control – If you have confidence in yourself and your ability to influence events and persevere through challenges, it’s easier to take stress in stride. People who are vulnerable to stress tend to feel like things are out of their control.
  • Your attitude and outlook – Stress-hardy people have an optimistic attitude. They tend to embrace challenges, have a strong sense of humor, accept that change is a part of life, and believe in a higher power or purpose.
  • Your ability to deal with your emotions  - You’re extremely vulnerable to stress if you don’t know how to calm and soothe yourself when you’re feeling sad, angry, or afraid. The ability to bring your emotions into balance helps you bounce back from adversity. 
  • Your knowledge and preparation – The more you know about a stressful situation, including how long it will last and what to expect, the easier it is to cope. For example, if you go into surgery with a realistic picture of what to expect post-op, a painful recovery will be less traumatic than if you were expecting to bounce back immediately.

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Am I in control of stress or is stress controlling me?

  • When I feel agitated, do I know how to quickly calm and soothe myself?
  • Can I easily let go of my anger?
  • Can I turn to others at work to help me calm down and feel better?
  • When I come home at night, do I walk in the door feeling alert and relaxed?
  • Am I seldom distracted or moody?
  • Am I able to recognize upsets that others seem to be experiencing?
  • Do I easily turn to friends or family members for a calming influence?
  • When my energy is low, do I know how to boost it?

Source: The Language of Emotional Intelligence by Jeanne Segal, Ph.D.

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Causes of stress

The situations and pressures that cause stress are known as stressors. We usually think of stressors as being negative, such as an exhausting work schedule or a rocky relationship.

However, anything that puts high demands on you or forces you to adjust can be stressful. This includes positive events such as getting married, buying a house, going to college, or receiving a promotion.

What causes stress depends, at least in part, on your perception of it. Something that's stressful to you may not faze someone else; they may even enjoy it.

For example, your morning commute may make you anxious and tense because you worry that traffic will make you late. Others, however, may find the trip relaxing because they allow more than enough time and enjoy listening to music while they drive.

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Common external causes of stress

Not all stress is caused by external factors. Stress can also be self-generated:

  • Major life changes
  • Work
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Financial problems
  • Being too busy
  • Children and family

 

Common internal causes of stress

Not all stress is caused by external factors. Stress can also be self-generated:

  • Inability to accept uncertainty
  • Pessimism
  • Negative self-talk
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Perfectionism
  • Lack of assertiveness

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Signs and symptoms of stress overload

It’s important to learn how to recognize when your stress levels are out of control. The most dangerous thing about stress is how easily it can creep up on you. You get used to it. It starts to feels familiar – even normal. You don’t notice how much it’s affecting you, even as it takes a heavy toll. 

The signs and symptoms of stress overload can be almost anything. Stress affects the mind, body, and behavior in many ways, and everyone experiences stress differently.

How do you respond to stress?

Psychologist Connie Lillas uses a driving analogy to describe the three most common ways people respond when they’re overwhelmed by stress:

  • Foot on the gas – An angry or agitated stress response. You’re heated, keyed up, overly emotional, and unable to sit still.
  • Foot on the brake – A withdrawn or depressed stress response. You shut down, space out, and show very little energy or emotion.
  • Foot on both – A tense and frozen stress response. You “freeze” under pressure and can’t do anything. You look paralyzed, but under the surface you’re extremely agitated.

The following table lists some of the common warning signs and symptoms of stress. The more signs and symptoms you notice in yourself, the closer you may be to stress overload.

Stress Warning Signs and Symptoms
Cognitive Symptoms Emotional Symptoms
  • Memory problems
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Poor judgment
  • Seeing only the negative
  • Anxious or racing thoughts
  • Constant worrying
  • Moodiness
  • Irritability or short temper
  • Agitation, inability to relax
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Sense of loneliness and isolation
  • Depression or general unhappiness
Physical Symptoms Behavioral Symptoms
  • Aches and pains
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Nausea, dizziness
  • Chest pain, rapid heartbeat
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Frequent colds
  • Eating more or less
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Isolating yourself from others
  • Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
  • Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax
  • Nervous habits (e.g. nail biting, pacing)

Keep in mind that the signs and symptoms of stress can also be caused by other psychological and medical problems. If you’re experiencing any of the warning signs of stress, it’s important to see a doctor for a full evaluation. Your doctor can help you determine whether or not your symptoms are stress-related.

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Dealing with stress and its symptoms

While unchecked stress is undeniably damaging, there are many things you can do to reduce its impact and cope with symptoms.

Learn how to manage stress

Coping with Stress

You may feel like the stress in your life is out of your control, but you can always control the way you respond. Managing stress is all about taking charge: taking charge of your thoughts, your emotions, your schedule, your environment, and the way you deal with problems. Stress management involves changing the stressful situation when you can, changing your reaction when you can’t, taking care of yourself, and making time for rest and relaxation.

Read Stress Management: How to Reduce, Prevent, and Cope with Stress

Strengthen your relationships

A strong support network is your greatest protection against stress. When you have trusted friends and family members you know you can count on, life’s pressures don’t seem as overwhelming. So spend time with the people you love and don’t let your responsibilities keep you from having a social life. If you don’t have any close relationships, or your relationships are the source of your stress, make it a priority to build stronger and more satisfying connections.

Tips for reaching out and building relationships:

  • Help someone else by volunteering.
  • Have lunch or coffee with a co-worker.
  • Call or email an old friend.
  • Go for a walk with a workout buddy.
  • Schedule a weekly dinner date
  • Take a class or join a club.

Read Relationship Help: Building Great Relationships Using Emotional Intelligence

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Learn how to relax

Stress Relief

You can’t completely eliminate stress from your life, but you can control how much it affects you. Relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, and deep breathing activate the body’s relaxation response, a state of restfulness that is the opposite of the stress response. When practiced regularly, these activities lead to a reduction in your everyday stress levels and a boost in your feelings of joy and serenity. They also increase your ability to stay calm and collected under pressure.

Read Relaxation Techniques for Stress Relief: Relaxation Exercises to Reduce Stress, Anxiety, and Depression

Invest in your emotional health

Most people ignore their emotional health until there’s a problem. But just as it requires time and energy to build or maintain your physical health, so it is with your emotional well-being. The more you put in to it, the stronger it will be. People with good emotional health have an ability to bounce back from stress and adversity. This ability is called resilience. They remain focused, flexible, and positive in bad times as well as good. The good news is that there are many steps you can take to build your resilience and your overall emotional health.

Read Improving Emotional Health

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More Helpguide Articles:

Related links for stress signs, symptoms, causes, and effects

Stress signs and symptoms

Understanding and Dealing with Stress – This course, prepared by a West Virginia-based organization that works with disabled people, presents a wealth of information on stress and its signs and symptoms. (Mountain State Centers for Independent Living)

Stress: Unhealthy response to the pressures of life – Description of how stress causes symptoms and changes in different systems in the body. (Mayo Clinic)

Effects of Stress – Provides a list of the 50 most common signs and symptoms of stress and describes how stress affects the body. (The American Institute of Stress)

Physiology of the Stress Response – In-depth description of what happens in your body when the stress response is activated. (Centre for Stress Management)

Causes of stress

The Different Kinds of Stress – Overview of the different kinds of stress, along with the common causes, signs, and symptoms. (American Psychological Association)

Causes of Stress – Looks at both internal and external stressors that can trigger the stress reaction. (Stress Management for Health Course)

Effects of stress

Stress and Disease: New Perspectives – Article on the link between stress, the brain, and the immune system. (National Institutes of Health, Word on Health)

Stress – Discussion of stress signs, symptoms, and long-term effects, with a focus on cardiovascular health. (Mount Sinai School of Medicine)

Renew: Stress on the Brain – Detailed article on the effect of stress on the brain and how the biological stress response works. (The Franklin Institute Online)

Stress in kids and teens

Childhood Stress – Clearly lays out what causes stress in children and what parents can do about the problem. (KidsHealth)

Teen Stress – Article geared for teenagers describes the causes, symptoms, and effects of stress in young adults. Includes tips for keeping it under control. (TeenHealth)

Melinda Smith, M.A., Ellen Jaffe–Gill, and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. contributed to this article. Last modified: July 2009

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