“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 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
- 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
- Withdrawn mood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
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.
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.
- Depressed mood
- Chronic anxiety
- Difficulty sleeping (or sleeping too much)
- Difficulty concentrating, focusing, or learning
- 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.”
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.
Is It Stress or Anxiety? How to Tell the Difference
Stress and anxiety are both emotional responses, but they differ slightly.
“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.”
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.
How COVID-19 Affected Our Stress
For many, a recent, major, and maybe ongoing source of stress has been the COVID-19 pandemic.
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.
“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?
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
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- 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.