Signs and symptoms of stress

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Stressed Woman
Stress is our body’s natural reaction to any type of demand that disrupts our life as usual. We all experience a little stress in our work or personal lives and tend to respond in different ways.

When we are faced with a challenging or overwhelming situation like a looming work deadline, it triggers a cascade of hormones and bodily changes. Our heart beat, breathing rate and blood pressure go up, while other bodily functions like digestion slows down.1 This is also known as the ‘fight or flight’ response, because it evolved as a survival mechanism enabling people to react quickly (fight or flee) in a life threatening situation2, such as being chased by a bear.

However, our bodies can also overreact to stressful events that are not quite life threatening like traffic jams, family difficulties or work pressure.2The problem is that constant activation of the stress response can take a toll on our body resulting in a number of stress symptoms that can affect the way we feel, think and behave. These could be seen as warning signs that we might need a little help coping with stress and some extra TLC.

  1. Muscle tension and headaches – When faced with work pressure or similar every day stress, you may find your shoulders creeping up towards your ears and your upper back and neck muscles may tighten, which can trigger tension headaches.3
  2. Sleeping problems – Ongoing stress is a common sleep stealer. Stress causes hyperarousal, which can upset the balance between sleep and wakefulness, making it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep.4 Often managing stress can help alleviate sleeping difficulties.
  3. Fatigue – Physical and mental fatigue may be caused by emotional stress,5 and can make it difficult to do your regular daily activities. This may be due to consistent activation of the stress response, which uses up a lot of energy and can leave us feeling mentally and physically drained, or may be related to lack of sleep.
  4. Lack of concentration or focus – When we feel overwhelmed, it can make concentrating on even the simplest tasks difficult. Meanwhile, not being to think clearly can often make the problems causing our stress worse. While a little bit of stress can keep us on top of our game, when we have too much on our plate it can have the reverse effect.
  5. Emotional eating – When we are under considerable stress, many of us reach for comforting foods like chocolate or starchy carbohydrates. While it may feel good in the short term, emotional eating will not fix emotional problems and there are healthier ways to manage stress.

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Published August 25, 2013
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