Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms of Stress Overload
Left untreated, chronic stress may lead to serious health problems. Learn how to recognize the signs and symptoms of stress.

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Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms of Stress Overload

Your typical day might go something like this: get up, check your email quickly, eat something and head to work. You work hard all day, get home, cook dinner. Ready to do it all over again tomorrow?

You may be, but you may not be ready for much else. Any change to your daily routine may cause you to feel stress. These changes might include getting stuck in traffic or having problems with your boss. Or you might hear bad news about a family member.

Stress is your body's response to something that makes you feel threatened. It may be real or imagined. When this happens, your nervous system releases stress hormones. These hormones prepare your body for "fight-or-flight" or emergency action.

A little stress isn't bad for you. It can even help you perform well under pressure. The dangerous effects of stress come when stress is constant or chronic. Under chronic stress, your body remains in high gear — off and on — for days or weeks on end.

Continuous and long-term stress may lead to serious health problems. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of stress and learning how to manage it may help you stay one step ahead of an overload.

What are the signs of stress?
Because of the many demands of life today, too much stress may feel normal to you. It may seem familiar and almost comfortable. You might not be able to recognize it.

Can you remember what being relaxed feels like? If you don't feel calm, alert, focused and productive most of the time, you may be dealing with too much stress. People perceive stress and its effects differently, so be sure not to compare yourself with others.

It may be difficult to spot the outward signs of stress. Watch for one of these responses: You may zone out and withdraw, you may become more easily angry and agitated or you may freeze up. These are the three typical ways that people respond to stress.

What are the symptoms of stress?
Everyone experiences stress differently. And some people may not experience any symptoms at all. Still, there are many common symptoms to be aware of.

Symptoms of stress may include:

  • Emotional: Feeling out of control, overwhelmed, lonely, isolated, unhappy, depressed, helpless, irritable, short-tempered, moody, impatient, unable to relax or agitated.
  • Physical: Aches and pains, tight muscles, a clenched jaw, nausea, dizziness, rapid heartbeat, chest pain, diarrhea or constipation, headaches, back problems/pain, frequent colds or loss of sex drive.
  • Behavioral: Sleeping too much or too little, eating too much or too little, speaking and eating quickly, procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities, isolating yourself or using alcohol, cigarettes or drugs to relax.
  • Cognitive: Poor judgment, constant worrying, anxious or racing thoughts, inability to concentrate, memory problems or seeing only the negative.

Keep in mind that the more symptoms you notice, the closer you may be to stress overload. Some of these symptoms may be caused by other medical or psychological problems. See your doctor if you are experiencing any of these symptoms. Your doctor can determine if they are stress-related or not.

The dangers of stress overload
Untreated chronic stress has the potential to harm nearly every system in your body. It has been associated with a variety of health problems including: pain, sleep problems and digestive problems. Chronic stress may contribute to infertility and menstrual problems. It may also aggravate acne and other skin conditions like eczema.

Chronic stress alone does not cause heart disease. But scientists agree that chronic stress may worsen risk factors such as high cholesterol levels and hypertension. Chronic stress may even speed up the aging process. It is also linked with osteoporosis, inflammatory arthritis and frailty. It is also associated with type 2 diabetes and certain cancers.

Additionally, chronic stress may rewire the brain. This may make you more susceptible to depression and anxiety. Stress may also make emotional problems from your past worse. This may increase thoughts of suicide.

If you have thoughts of hurting yourself or others, call your health care professional, 911 or a suicide hotline such as 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433) or have someone drive you to your nearest emergency department.

Recognizing the signs and symptoms of stress is one of the first steps to overcoming stress overload. Once these are recognized, the next step is learning how to deal with your stress by seeking help. You can try a variety of self-help techniques, such as meditation, relaxation, journaling and positive thinking.

Depending on the severity of the stress, you may want to seek counseling. Ask your doctor for referrals. If you have the benefits, you may find a mental health professional through your health insurer, your employee assistance program or the mental health division of your local health department. The American Psychological Association or National Association of Social Workers may have information about getting help. If you find names of local therapists online, be sure to run them by your doctor, spiritual leaders and friends first.

By Lucy Casale, Contributing Writer
Created on 05/13/2013
Updated on 05/13/2013
Sources:
  • Helpguide.org. Stress symptoms, signs and causes.
  • American Psychological Association. Understanding chronic stress.
  • National Institute of Mental Health. Fact sheet on stress.
Copyright © OptumHealth.
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