The Most Common Symptoms of Stress, and How They Affect You in the Short and Long Term

Medically Reviewed
black woman on couch with headache and stomachache
Insomnia, fatigue, and headaches are just a few symptoms people may experience when stressed.Getty Images
Most of us recognize stress when we feel it: that overwhelmed state of mind that can make it hard to think, perform, and even breathe.

Yet despite these widespread symptoms, the signs of stress — and what causes them — can vary widely from person to person.
You might find yourself trembling uncontrollably when speaking in front of a crowd, for example, while someone else might develop a bellyache before a first date or get a headache at the thought of meeting a pressing deadline. At the same time, yet another person might breeze through all of these situations without breaking a sweat.

To some degree you can blame your parents (for their parenting and the DNA they passed down to you) and other adverse childhood experiences for why you stress the way you do.

“Some people have a tendency to become more agitated under stress; others become sad, withdrawn, or irritable,” says Michelle Dossett, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of medicine at UC Davis School of Medicine in?Sacramento and Medical Director of the UC Davis Integrative Medicine Clinic in California.
But whatever your habitual stress response, recognizing the telltale signs can help you better manage your stress, gradually find more capacity to live with life stressors, and possibly head off a more serious problem.

“What you might brush off as stress may turn out to be an actual illness or vice versa,” says Jennifer Haythe, MD, a cardiologist and?codirector of the Center for Women’s Cardiovascular Health at NewYork-Presbyterian and Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City. That’s why it’s important to be tuned in to your body (things like yoga, meditation, or exercise can help with this), and if something doesn’t feel right for more than a week or two, see your doctor, she says.

Short-Term Stress: What It Feels Like in Your Head and in Your Body

When you start to feel stressed in response to a real or perceived challenge or threat (let’s say you get an urgent email from your boss, you hit unexpected traffic on your way to the airport to catch a flight, or the fire alarm in your building starts to go off), your sympathetic nervous system reacts, triggering a series of physiological and psychological responses that can change from moment to moment. This fight-or-flight response, as it’s known, ultimately has one main effect: to keep you safe by revving?you up, heightening your focus, and putting you on alert.

(Though “fight” and “flight” may be the more commonly referenced stress responses, others like “flop,” “freeze,” or “friend” can happen, too.)

When you feel stressed, the adrenal glands release the aptly named stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, setting off a cascade of emotional and physical symptoms designed to help you get yourself to safety. In the process, these stress hormones can impact every organ in the body, from your brain to your muscles to the nerve endings in your stomach.

The Most Common Emotional and Cognitive Symptoms of Short-Term Stress

When you’re under a lot of stress, you may find that you’re more emotional than usual — or crankier. Here are some signs to look for:

  • Anxiety or nervousness — in the American Psychological Association’s (APA) 2017 Stress in America survey, 36 percent of people report that stress makes them feel more nervous or anxious.

  • Anger or irritability — in the APA survey, 35 percent of people report this.
  • Difficulty concentrating or forgetfulness
  • Depression, low mood, or crying
  • Fatigue
  • Withdrawn mood
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Difficulty sleeping — in the APA?survey, 45 percent of people report lying awake during the previous month.
  • A change in eating habits or appetite (eating much more or less)
  • An increase in alcohol or drug use
All those stress hormones also have an effect on your body. Here are some of the most common physical symptoms of stress:

Long-Term Stress and the Symptoms That Impact Your Head, Heart, and the Rest of Your Body

While the body’s fight-or-flight stress response is crucial for keeping you safe from harm, when it kicks into action repeatedly because of commonplace triggers (such as a terse email from your significant other or a snarky remark from a colleague) or doesn’t turn off, it can have harmful, long-term effects.

Our stress response is supposed to help alert us to danger and help us avoid harm. Adrenaline and other hormones prepare the body to fight or flee. But what about when you’re faced with a problem that physically throwing a punch or running away isn’t going to help with, like a monthslong divorce or financial strain? The body responds in the same way, but those hormones aren’t going to serve a purpose and instead can do harm.

And when the stress response never completely powers down, it also becomes harder not to have an outsized response to even minimal stressors, Dossett explains.?This can also be demoralizing, as it can produce a state of feeling out of control in ones own body.

Often, the symptoms caused by long-term stress can be similar to those caused by short-term stress, including:

  • Depressed mood
  • Chronic anxiety
  • Difficulty sleeping (or sleeping too much)
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating, focusing, or learning
  • Insomnia
  • Stress eating, bingeing, or increasing your intake of drugs or alcohol
  • Loss of sex drive

The difference is that with chronic stress, these symptoms fail to subside when the stressor goes away. Most people can manage routine acute stressors fairly well. Chronic stress, however, becomes more difficult to handle because it depletes our coping reserves, Dossett explains. “It changes our physiology.”

The stress hormones act directly on our brain and nervous system, she says. “When we are repeatedly flooded with stress hormones, it impacts our cognitive function, ability to make decisions and think creatively, and our entire body physiology.”

That’s why if stress continues unabated (meaning it’s chronic), it can take a serious toll on the body and put you at risk for a number of physical symptoms and other health problems, including:

How to Tell if the Symptoms You Are Feeling Are Due to Stress or Something Else, and When You Should See Your Doctor

When you notice yourself experiencing more symptoms of stress more often, it’s a good time to focus on self-care, Dossett says. Remember, self-care is everything you do to take care of your health and well-being. It can be making time for a yoga class, taking a walk in nature, focusing on getting more sleep, or connecting with a close friend, among many other things.

If focusing on self-care doesn’t help (or is not possible or available to you), talk to your doctor about stress, Dossett says. Your doctor can help identify underlying health issues that may be contributing, or help you create a self-care routine that better helps you manage the stressors in your life (or refer you to someone who can help with this, like a therapist or psychiatrist).

Whether or not you’re stressed, it’s smart to see your primary care physician once a year for a complete exam, including a check of blood pressure, heart rate, weight, cholesterol, and possibly?thyroid hormones. Stress and symptoms of stress you’re experiencing (or not experiencing) should be part of that conversation. Stress symptoms can be signs of other significant health issues.

“When women have heart palpitations, doctors are more likely to think that they’re either experiencing stress or anxiety, or [even potentially judge] that they’re hysterical in some way. As a result, women tend to be underdiagnosed with heart disease,” says Dr. Haythe. And this happens despite the fact that heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States.?(Common heart attack symptoms for women are fatigue, shortness of breath, jaw and back pain, and nausea.)

A good rule of thumb: If unusual symptoms or symptoms you suspect may be stress-related persist for more than a week or two, see your physician.

You should also see your doctor if symptoms of stress interfere with getting through your normal daily routines. Worry, fear, or sadness are all normal responses to the situations life throws your way. But when these emotions make it harder for you to do your job or interact with friends and family, that warrants a conversation with your doctor.

Is It Stress or Anxiety? How to Tell the Difference

Stress and anxiety are both emotional responses, but they differ slightly.

Stress is a response to external triggers. Work, an argument with a friend, a chronic illness, and discrimination are a few examples that might lead someone to feel stressed.

Anxiety (which is different from an anxiety disorder) is a response to internal worries or concerns someone may feel even if an initial stressor has gone away or doesn’t exist.

You might feel anxiety, for example, about public speaking because a giving a presentation has been difficult in the past. You might feel anxiety about going to a doctor’s appointment because you know there’s a chance the doctor could deliver bad news about your health.
Feeling some amount of stress and anxiety is normal and healthy. Symptoms of anxiety are similar to those of stress. Symptoms of anxiety include: insomnia, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, muscle tension, and irritability.

“People who struggle with anxiety have a tendency to ruminate or worry excessively about things, accompanied by physical sensations like butterflies in the stomach or heart palpitations,” says Dr. Dossett.

“Usually these symptoms are not concerning and simply the result of an overactive stress response,” Dossett adds. “However, if they persist, it is important to see a physician to rule out more serious causes.”

Experiencing a lot of stress and anxiety, in a way that it’s interfering with day-to-day activities can signal a more significant mental health disorder, such as generalized anxiety, panic disorder, phobias, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

RELATED: Are You Just Feeling Anxious, or Do You Have an Anxiety Disorder?

When You Might Need a Cardiovascular Stress Test

Despite its name, a stress test isn’t about the symptoms of stress you may notice and experience, though the symptoms that lead to having a stress test (chest pain, shortness of breath, palpitations) might be caused by anxiety. “In general, we give patients a stress test when they have risk factors for or symptoms that may indicate heart disease,” says?Haythe.

A stress test is an imaging study that measures what happens to the heart when the person is put under physical stress (or sometimes with a medication that ramps up the cardiovascular system), typically when they’re walking on a treadmill whose incline becomes very steep, very quickly.

“The test puts the heart in a situation where it has a greater demand for oxygen, and heart rate and blood pressure all increase. That’s when we can see if there’s an obstruction of blood flow in the arteries that may require cardiac catheterization or another intervention,” says Haythe.

How COVID-19 Affected Our Stress

For many, a recent, major, and maybe ongoing source of stress has been the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nearly one-third of U.S. adults have felt so stressed by the pandemic that they reported struggling sometimes to make basic daily decisions like what to wear or what to eat, according to survey data collected by the American Psychological Association in August 2021.

More than one-third of adults found it more stressful to make major life decisions.

Younger adults and parents with children living at home experienced the most stress during the pandemic, according to the APA. Half of adults in both of these groups felt skyrocketing stress levels from navigating daily life during the pandemic.

And stress may make people more susceptible to severe COVID-19 infections, some research suggests.

A study published this year found that among 1,100 adults in the United Kingdom, people who reported higher stress levels were more likely to develop infections and they also reported more severe symptoms.

“Our data show that increased stress, anxiety, and depression are not only consequences of living with the pandemic, but may also be factors that increase our risk of getting SARS-CoV-2 too,” says the lead study author Kavita Vedhara, PhD, Professor of Health Psychology at the School of Medicine at the University of Nottingham in the England.

Do Men and Women Experience Stress Differently?

Survey data has shown that women are more likely to report feeling stressed than are men.

According to non-peer-reviewed data published in 2017 by the American Psychological Association, men and women get stressed out by different things. According to the online survey data, women are more likely to say they feel stress about hate crimes, wars and conflicts, and terrorism than men do.

Other data suggest women are more likely than men their age to report higher levels of stress, and women are more likely than men to use emotion-focused coping strategies for stress (like self-distraction, emotional support, instrumental support, and venting).

Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking

  • 50 Common Signs and Symptoms of Stress. American Institute of Stress. 2022.
  • I’m So Stressed Out! Fact Sheet. National Institute of Mental Health.
  • Stress Effects on the Body. American Psychological Association. November 1, 2018.
  • Emotional Stress: Warning Signs, Management, When to Get Help. Cleveland Clinic. December 29, 2020.
  • Stress in America. American Psychological Association. November 2017.
  • Chronic Stress Puts Your Health at Risk. Mayo Clinic. July 8, 2021.
  • Stress Symptoms: Effects on Your Body and Behavior. Mayo Clinic. March 24, 2021.
  • Stress and Decision-Making During the Pandemic. American Psychological Association. October 26, 2021.
  • Psychological Predictors of Self-Reported COVID-19 Outcomes: Results From a Prospective Cohort Study. Annals of Behavioral Medicine. January 3, 2022.
  • COVID-19 and Your Mental Health. Mayo Clinic. November 23, 2021.
  • Exercise Stress Test. American Heart Association. July 31, 2015.
  • Stress vs. Anxiety — Knowing the Difference Is Critical to Your Health. Mental Health First Aid. June 8, 2018.
  • What’s the Difference Between Stress and Anxiety? American Psychological Association. February 14, 2022.
  • Stress in America. American Psychological Association. 2022.
  • Graves BS, Hall ME, Dias-Karch C, et al. Gender Differences in Perceived Stress and Coping Among College Students. PLoS One. August 12, 2021.
  • Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. April 2, 2021.
  • 5 Fs of Trauma Response. University of Michigan. July 2, 2020.
  • Depression: What Is Burnout? Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care. June 18, 2020.
  • Lamontagne SJ, Pizzagalli DA, Olmstead MC. Does Inflammation Link Stress to Poor COVID-19 Outcome? Stress & Health. December 14, 2020.
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