Stressed Out: How to recognise first symptoms of stress.

img_2778Stress is a public enemy number one. Stress occurs when pressure exceeds our perceived ability to cope. The key word here is ‘perceived’. In my experience, 90% of things we stress about would never happen and it’s all in our heads. We stress ourselves out by what we are telling ourselves about a situation that we are in. Epictetus, Stoic philosopher, said ‘People are not disturbed by things, but by the view they take of them’. Ever heard of expression ‘I stress about stress before there’s even any stress to stress about, then I stress about stressing over stress that doesn’t need to be stressed about. It’s stressful’? This sums it up quite nicely.

Stress itself is not an illness – it is a state and everyone can encounter it. However, if stress becomes too excessive and prolonged, it can significantly affect our mental and physical state. In context of stress, pressure can be both internal such as perfectionistic tendencies and self-downing beliefs and external such as tough deadlines or targets to meet at work.

Stress can affect you in many different ways. Individual symptoms of stress consist of physiological, psychological and behavioural aspects. Like most problems, the sooner you spot stress the easier it is to manage.

The stress hormone is called cortisol and it influences, regulates or modulates many of the changes that occur in the body in response to stress including:

  • Blood sugar (glucose) levels
  • Fat, protein and carbohydrate metabolism to maintain blood glucose
  • Immune responses
  • Anti-inflammatory actions
  • Blood pressure
  • Heart and blood vessel tone and contraction
  • Central nervous system activation

Here are some of the behavioural, physiological and psychological symptoms of stress:

Changes from your normal behaviour:

  • Comfort eating
  • Increased smoking, drinking or drug taking ‘to cope’
  • Nervous tic
  • Changes in sleep pattern
  • Twitchy, nervous behaviour
  • Poor time keeping
  • Absenteeism
  • Withdrawal or sulking
  • Exhaustion
  • Risk-taking behaviour
  • Accidents due to poor concentration
  • Passive or aggressive behaviour
  • Procrastination

Other psychological symptoms:

  • Feeling angry, guilty or jealous
  • Mood swings
  • Boredom
  • Tension
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Insecurity
  • Meaninglessness
  • Isolation
  • Powerlessness
  • Disengagement
  • Negative or depressive feeling
  • Disappointment with yourself
  • Increased emotional reactions – more tearful or sensitive or aggressive

Physiological symptoms:

  • Dry mouth
  • Clammy hands
  • Frequent colds
  • Breathlessness
  • Palpitations
  • Tightness or pain in the chest
  • Indigestion / IBS
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Excessive sweating
  • Rapid weight change
  • Dizziness

Cortisol plays a big role in the body’s stress response. Cortisol helps us deal with stress by shutting down unnecessary functions, like reproduction and the immune system, in order to allow the body to direct all energies toward dealing with the stress at hand. These functions of cortisol are supposed to be short-lived, just long enough to deal with the stressful situation. However, our modern lives are anything but stress free and when stress is chronic this becomes a problem.

Higher and more prolonged levels of circulating cortisol (like those associated with chronic stress) have been shown to have negative effects, such as:

  • Impaired cognitive performance
  • Dampened thyroid function
  • Blood sugar imbalances, such as hyperglycaemia or diabetes
  • Decreased bone density
  • Sleep disruption
  • Fertility issues, changes in a woman’s libido and menstrual cycle
  • Decreased muscle mass
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Lowered immune function
  • Slow wound healing
  • Weight gain and obesity, increased abdominal fat, which has a stronger correlation to certain health problems than fat deposited in other areas of the body. Some of the health problems associated with increased stomach fat are heart attacks, strokes, higher levels of “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and lower levels of “good” cholesterol (HDL), which can lead to other health problems.

Unfortunately, in our current high-stress culture, the stress response is activated so often that the body does not always have a chance to return to normal. This can lead to health problems resulting from too much circulating cortisol and/or from too little cortisol if the adrenal glands become chronically fatigued (adrenal fatigue).


Health and Safety Executive, (2016), What is stress? Signs and symptoms,

Palmer, S. and Cooper, C., (2015), How to deal with stress, Hong Kong and Croydon: Kogan Page Limited.

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