Recognise The Signs and Symptoms of StressFeb 05, 2024
Life can be stressful. We can experience this pressure from any number of areas in our life, from work to relationships to unforeseen changes. Stress is a natural reaction to challenging situations or demands.
The problem begins when this stress becomes overwhelming or chronic. This strain will manifest in various signs and symptoms that may disrupt your daily life, schedule, and even desires. Therefore, recognizing these signs is crucial in order to seek appropriate help or develop coping strategies.
We’ll look at 10 of the most common signs and symptoms related to stress as backed up by the research and study of renowned neuroscientist and stress expert, Bruce S. McEwen, Ph.D.
1. Sleep disturbances
One of the most significant indicators of stress is difficulty in falling asleep, staying asleep, or experiencing restful sleep. Stress causes the body to release stress hormones, such as cortisol, which can interfere with the body's natural sleep-wake cycle. It stands to reason then, that when you feel under stress, and lacking enough rest, responsibilities can become increasingly difficult to take care of.
2. Changes in appetite
Stress can also cause disruptions in our eating habits, leading to either a significant increase or decrease in appetite. Emotional eating or loss of appetite can be a result of stress hormones. This type of eating can deeply affect our energy levels as well as our overall physical health.
3. Frequent headaches
Headaches are often linked to stress, as tension in our muscles caused by stress can lead to what is known as “tension headaches”. Additionally, stress may trigger migraines in some people, worsening their pain and discomfort and decreasing their satisfaction and experience in life. Identifying stress as a contributing factor is essential for managing headaches.
4. Digestive issues
The gut-brain connection plays a significant role in stress-related digestive issues. Stress can cause a number of gastrointestinal issues, such as indigestion, acid reflux, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Of course, digestive issues can make life quite difficult. Chronic stress, left unmanaged, can lead to long-term digestive issues that could even require medical intervention.
5. Memory and concentration problems
Stress can negatively impact our brain and its ability to do its job fully, making it difficult to remember information, concentrate, or even make big decisions. In his study, Dr. Bruce McEwen highlighted that prolonged stress can damage the hippocampus, a region of the brain responsible for memory and learning, potentially leading to long-term cognitive decline (McEwen et al., 2015).
6. Mood swings
Mood swings are a common symptom of stress, characterized by rapid shifts between emotions such as sadness, anger, or irritability. Specifically, stress hormones can affect our brain's neurotransmitters, like serotonin, which regulate mood, causing emotional instability. For women, this can often be classified as PMT but may, in fact, be caused by stress.
7. Fatigue and low energy
Chronic stress can result in persistent fatigue and low energy levels, even if you’re capable of getting a full night’s sleep. The continuous release of stress hormones can cause the body to enter a state of constant alertness, think the fight-or-flight response, which can be physically, as well as mentally exhausting.
8. Increased susceptibility to illnesses
Stress weakens the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to things such as infections and illnesses. When the body is under stress, it produces cortisol, which suppresses the immune response. Consequently, people experiencing chronic stress may find themselves getting sick more often than before, or possibly taking longer to recover from minor problems.
9. Social withdrawal
Under stress, individuals may isolate themselves from friends and family, avoiding social situations altogether. This social withdrawal can exacerbate stress, as it deprives people of the support and connection needed to cope with challenging situations. Recognizing this symptom and seeking help from loved ones or a mental health professional can be crucial in managing stress.
10. Anxiety and depression
Prolonged stress can contribute to the development of mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. Dr. McEwen's study suggests that chronic stress can alter the brain's structure and function, potentially predisposing individuals to these mental health conditions. It is vital to recognize and address stress early to reduce the risk of developing more severe mental health issues.
Recognizing the signs and symptoms of stress is a crucial step towards managing it effectively. How do you fix something you don’t fully understand? By utilizing studies from experts, we can learn the red flags to look out for, to best care for ourselves.
Early intervention can help prevent the negative consequences of chronic stress on both your physical and mental health. So take the steps today to become mindful of the stress when it begins to impact your life.
McEwen, B. S., Gray, J., & Nasca, C. (2015). Recognizing Resilience: Learning from the Effects of Stress on the Brain. Neurobiology of stress, 1, 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ynstr.2014.09.001
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