Recognizing stress: many physical discomforts that appear for no apparent reason are caused by stress. These can be mild pains that have hardly any effect on daily functioning, but also severe pains that stand in the way of a nice and enjoyable life. Stress related symptoms can make a happy life seem far from reach.
To understand why we react to stress in such a way, we describe in this article what it does to your mind and body.
How does the body react to stress?
Let’s take a look at the old example of the tiger :
You’re walking through the forest and a huge tiger jumps out of the bushes. Of course you’re very scared! How does your body react? You quickly make up your mind: Do I run away? Or can I win this fight? Whatever choice you make, your muscles are on edge and ready for action.
Increase of blood circulation and heart rate, dilated pupils etc. Everything is put in place to allow you to react as quickly and alertly as possible. Your body wants to survive and that sets a lot of processes in motion. Adrenaline is, in the first instance, the hormone that helps you do this.
When several tigers jump out of the bushes, all of which you cannot beat, you still don’t feel relaxed. In order to stay alert, but still keep reasonably straight thoughts, the body makes cortisol.
On the basis of this example, we explain the following physical pains that often occur when under stress.
Recognize stress, recognize the signals:
This list of signals to recognize stress is divided into three categories:
- Physical pain
- Psychological/emotional reactions
- Behaviour and social interactions
Our bodies are fantastic things. They allow us to move, live and communicate. But what we seem to forget is that it’s also an excellent warning mechanism. This is also the case with stress, over-working and burn-outs: often our body knows much earlier that something is wrong than we do ourselves.
Stress symptoms: discover your stress symptoms
The various physical discomforts listed below could indicate that you are suffering from too much stress, are overworked, are approaching a burn-out or are already in the middle of it. Especially when you have more than 3 or 4 of these stress symptoms at the same time.
- Problems sleeping
- Painful/stiff muscles
- Dizziness/feeling light headed
- Hormonal fluctuations
- Excessive perspiration
- Clammy hands
- Nervous tics (twitches)
- Stomach discomfort
- Digestive complaints
- Accelerated heartbeat/breathing
- Hyperventilation and shortness of breath
- Palpitations / stabbing pains in the chest
- Menstrual disorder
- Increased cholesterol
- Increased blood pressure
- Neck/shoulder/back pain
- Skin related illnesses
- Various skin conditions (acne, eczema, etc)
It is of course true that all symptoms could also have a medical background, so don’t conclude on your own that you are suffering from too much stress and visit your family doctor first. He or she can distinguish the most extreme consequences of stress.
Recognizing Stress – Physical Symptoms
Below we describe a number of physical symptoms that are related to stress.
Headaches can have various causes and are not in themselves a direct cause for fear of too much stress or being over-worked. However, headaches can cause you so much trouble that they paralyze you, just think of someone who can’t function for days because of a migraine.
Headaches are very common. 20% of the Dutch population suffer from headaches weekly. This differs from an annoying pressure on the head to a severe migraine that lasts for several hours. This headache is often caused by muscle tension in your back and shoulder area. Nutrition and other circumstances also contribute to this. Tension headaches are often accompanied by a stiff, aching neck and shoulder area.
A good indication of stress is being nauseous If you are facing a big challenge that you want to acheive, for example, speaking in front of a large group of people, it is usually quite normal to feel slightly nauseous. Usually eating and drinking does not make you feel any better, and the nausea is accompanied by some of the other symptoms.
For people who don’t experience it and never have, it seems almost unreal. Tinnitus is often caused by stress and is particularly annoying for people who suffer from it.
A very important symptom of tinnitus is that you hear a sound that comes from within and not from outside. The environment does not perceive this sound either. Several kinds of sounds are heard: noises, whistling, beeping, etc.
Painful / stiff muscles
With physical fatigue, the supply of energy normally found in muscles is used to provide energy. However, with painful muscles and joints, this supply is empty or misused. Wasted energy is left over and joints become painful as fluid drifts away. The result is often that you start to move differently, putting more strain on (and exhausting) other muscles.
Feeling Light headed/dizziness
A complaint that occurs more often but is not always associated with stress or a burn-out is being dizzy. If we get up quickly, we all get dizzy sometimes, but due to stress this can also occur at times when there seems to be no reason for it at all. The stress can also be increased when this occurs during activities such as driving a car.
Hormonal fluctuations are often a result of stress. The consequences are severe mood swings sudden weight loss or weight gain, concentration and problems with sleep. The annoying thing is that these complaints often cannot be traced back to a doctor.
Taking a solution such as extra hormones regularly causes other unpleasant side effects. A healthy lifestyle to reduce stress is much more effective.
Well, who’s not sweating ? In hot weather and sports, it’s not surprising that you sweat. But what if you start sweating when nothing seems to be wrong? Then maybe something else is the cause. In principle, sweating is an ancient physical reaction to stress and anxiety that occurs when facing imminent danger.
Having clammy hands is also caused by perspiration, and can also cause stress. In social situations when hands are expected to be shaken, having sweaty hands is not pleasant.
Your attention is so fixed on one thing that you don’t notice most of the other things around you until the last moment. Sudden noises, touches or other events always cause a fearful reaction. At times you are only trying to prevent this from happening, which causes your attention to become more and more fixed on one thing.
You feel restless when your attention is unfocused and you have a lot of adrenaline in your body. It is as if someone constantly whispers to you ‘you have to do something, you have to do something’, but in the meantime you cannot concentrate and nothing concrete is made by your efforts.
Nervous tics (twitches)
Basically, tics are not constant. They come and go, the intensity and frequency changes, and the type of twitch is also subject to change. When you have a tic or have a tendency to develop one when stressed/tired, it will manifest itself earlier and/or more violently due to stress.
Trembling muscles and limbs are very annoying, you can totally get the feeling that you no longer have control over your body.
Fatigue is one of the most common complaints in people who experience a lot of stress or suffer from a burn-out. Because you continue in your pattern, your body doesn’t rest when needed and you will experience (very severe) fatigue. Your limbs are as heavy as lead, and you can hardly bring yourself to do anything. It requires a great effort of muscle and will power to perform the daily activities.
This is the ultimate fatigue. When you experience this you have been going for so long and so hard in spite of your fatigue that you have really pulled all the energy out of your body. You have not given your body a chance to recover and you have eaten away at all the available reserves.
Stomach discomfort can certainly also occur when there is too much stress. You may eat too much or too little and you no longer take in food properly (Refer to nausea and digestive problems)
Another cause can be an ulcer; this can be caused by a bacteria in the stomach itself or by the use of certain medication. During severe stress, your metabolism is not always the priority. Metabolism helps to convert food into energy.
When you have to flee or fight, your body uses the energy that is available at that moment. Your metabolism slows down or even stops completely. The consequences are a bloated feeling, a rumbling belly, or even severe cramps.
In case of acute stress levels, the digestive system receives very little energy, because in this situation your body sends your energy to the muscles, blood circulation, etc. Eating food can wait until you are back into a safe place.
In case of prolonged stress, however, the production of digestive juices (heartburn, enzymes, bile and pancreatic substances) are not as efficient. As a result, the food is not digested properly and leaves the body faster (diarrhoea).
Accelerated heartbeat / breathing
When you are under stress for a long period of time it can lead to unhealthy breathing. If you breathe the wrong way, you refresh the air too often and lose too much CO2. As a result, too little carbon dioxide remains in the blood and other physical discomforts can manifest themselves. Think of shortness of breath, pressure on the chest, a rushed/anxious feeling, palpitations, tingling in fingers, feet or mouth, a lot of sweating, high blood pressure and dizziness.
Hyperventilation and shortness of breath
This is an extension of accelerated breathing and can manifest itself in a hyperventilation (panic) attack. This is not dangerous but can be very frightening. The cause of hyperventilation is the same as that of accelerated breathing, i.e. a shortage of CO2 due to excessive exhalation.
In a stressful situation your breathing goes up, in order to send a lot of oxygen to the muscles in case of an emergency. Your lungs and breathing mecanisms are under the influence of stress and emotions. If you are stressed, you often sigh. When feeling fear or tension, you hold your breath.
Once you’ve recovered from the fright, you sigh. In case of severe stress, fear, or emotional events, the breathing mecanisms are stimulated, which accelerates your breathing. Just as your breathing slows down the moment your stress factors are fading again.
Palpitations / stabbing in the chest
With palpitations you feel your own heart beating. Your heart beats violently and the heartbeat is fast or irregular. This is usually due to physical strain or emotional stress, but in some cases can also indicate a cardiac dysrhythmia. Palpitations are usually harmless.
When you first experience palpitations or a restless feeling in your chest, this can be quite a scare. Contact your doctor to discuss this, especially if palpitations don’t stop when you are sitting quietly, or if other symptoms occur as well.
You don’t necessarily have to have a heart attack or clogged veins to be in discomfort. Keep in mind that it is important to be kind and careful with your body! So that you will not have a heart attack caused by a moment of stress, or not have clogged up veins from an unhealthy diet. It is a process that builds up over several years. Unfortunately, at an increasingly younger age, people suffer from heart and blood vessel related health problems.
Stress is one of the causes that can affect the menstrual cycle. It often goes that the cycle becomes irregular, but the cycle can also be skipped.
Erection problems and impotence are often also caused by stress. This can occur because of the pressure that is put on someone during the sexual experience itself, but also because of pressure and tension at work or in the relationship.
Increased cholesterol is usually not directly related to stress. It has therefore not been demonstrated that there is a direct correlation. However, increased cholesterol can pose an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Usually a healthier lifestyle is recommended as a remedy, just like in the event of over-working yourself.
Increased blood pressure
When your heart contracts and blood is pushed throughout the body, the pressure in the blood vessels is at its highest. When the heart relaxes again, the pressure is lower. These are respectively the upper and lower blood pressure readings.
Blood pressure is constantly changing. When making an effort, the blood pressure is higher than when sitting quietly. There is no unequivocal cause for high blood pressure, but it is true that stress can cause an increase. Again, a healthier lifestyle is often recommended.
Neck / shoulder / back pain
Stress causes tension in the body, and this is reflected in high muscle tension. It is no longer possible to relax the muscles properly and it seems as if the muscles are ‘on’ all the time. As a result of muscle tension, the body can be held in a slightly different position, resulting in complaints of neck, shoulder or back pain.
The body produces the hormone Cortisol. This hormone provides the fight or flight reaction and helps us to get out of a threatening situation. In case of stress, this situation is continuously present for the body and Cortisol is always produced.
One of the consequences of this, is that the immunity system temporarily drops to a lower level of performance, making you more susceptible to all kinds of illnesses. If you already have sensitive skin, or if you sleep badly for example, an illness will arise faster and more easily. A well-known skin condition as a result of stress is eczema.
We all sleep badly sometimes. Especially in the summer when it is lighter for longer, it can be difficult to get enough hours of sleep in. If you are also experiencing stress, it is even more difficult to get to sleep. It is precisely when you relax that all your feelings come to the surface and you start to worry.
There is a risk that you will start to sleep during the day and that your sleep rhythm will be reversed : you will be wide awake at night and so tired during the day that you will catch up on your sleep then.
Red spots on the skin due to stress
Stress causes red spots on the skin. You can also observe red spots on the neck. Skin problems such as acne and eczema can occur aswell.
Recognizing Stress – Psychological / Emotional Signals
Below we describe psychological and emotional signals that can help you recognize stress.
Everybody suffers from it at some point: You have trouble getting out of bed and you don’t feel like doing anything. You feel hungry and indifferent, in other words, you feel lifeless. Now this is not an immediate cause for concern. If you have the flu or haven’t rested for a while, it’s not at all crazy to feel like this.
But it can also have other causes, just think of grief. In all cases you have little energy, everything is too much and everything is slowed down. This feeling can last for some time, a few days or weeks maybe, but after that it will normally be over.
It’s not at all bad to feel this way for a moment, your body often indicates that it needs to catch its breath and take it easy for a while. If the problem persists, it is an indication that there is more going on.
Gloomy or depressed
Who doesn’t know what it feels like to be gloomy or depressed ? Often the cause can be identified. Many people try to suppress the feeling because they experience it as unpleasant and disturbing.
Unfortunately that doesn’t help: what you resist remains. It’s part of life, just like being happy and feeling good. Again, if the symptoms persist longer than a few days to weeks, something else may be going on.
Being depressed is a somewhat elusive concept. After all, not every gloomy mood is a sign of depression. If the symptoms persist for more than a few weeks and are present for most of the day, the person may be suffering from depression.
The same applies if you experience a lack of interest and pleasure: when this continues for a longer period of time, and you no longer have interest and find pleasure in the things that were otherwise enjoyable, these can be signs of depression.
If you are depressed, you are also greatly hindered in your activities. The symptoms have such an impact on you that you function less well at work or in your private life.
Depression often goes hand in hand with other problems. Other characteristics of depression are much more or less eating, feelings of guilt, worthlessness and hopelessness, fatigue, anxiety, restlessness, slower talking and movement. Also thoughts of (your own) death, a plan for, or attempted suicide are not uncommon.
It’s unbelievable, but lately it seems like you’re forgetting everything. You miss appointments or you come back from the shop without having bought the things you needed most. Keeping track of tasks you have to finish or deadlines doesn’t seem to work anymore.
And did you or did you not turn off the stove and lock the door behind you?
Easy to lose track of things
Losing track means you can’t follow it all anymore. This can occur in all kinds of situations and has to do with listening, communication and attention for the other person. When your head is ‘full’ and you can’t take much more, your concentration is quickly exhausted and you quickly lose track of the story.
Concentration difficulties are quite common. This can occur when you have a lot on your mind and can last for shorter or longer periods of time. A noisy environment, poor sleep and stress are common causes of poor concentration
Feeling that the ‘rack’ is out
This literally feels as if you’ve been pulled from all sides and you’re stretched until you can’t go any further. Another nice analogy is that you feel like butter that has been spread over too many slices of bread.
Flexibility is the ability to respond to changes in circumstances. When you are less able to do so, at certain moments you let yourself be guided by the circumstances and adapt continuously. Iinstead of being in control of your life, you feel rudderless.
Refer to the section above on flexibility. When you feel powerless or helpless, or experience powerlessness in certain situations, it means that you have lost control. You are no longer able to cope with the circumstances.
Maybe you had certain expectations that suddenly didn’t materialize – think about losing you job or your partner breaking up with you. This also creates a great deal of uncertainty and doubt in yourself.
Tension and nervousness can have both positive and negative feelings. The tension you feel for a performance, for example a presentation or sports competition, is positive. The same goes for the nervousness you feel when you have a date for the first time. It makes you more alert and more able to react to the situation and circumstances.
When the feeling is negative, tension and nervousness can manifest themselves in all sorts of ways. This can be in your body through an expression of pain, but it can also be a very slight form of muscle tension that you easily overlook at first. When you experience tension for a longer period of time it costs you a lot of energy and pushes your body to exhaustion.
This can make you emotional, irritable or highly sensitive.
Some people are more emotional than others. But what if you suddenly react with a lot more emotion than before? Maybe that’s the reaction you have when you are stressed or overworked. An emotional reaction is often seen as crying or being sad, but can also be an angry reaction.
In any case, both reactions are often experienced as difficult by others on a social aspect. The reaction of others is often that you are no longer taken seriously. Especially in a work situation, this can be quite an obstacle.
Irritable, quickly irritated
If you are irritable, the cause is often the experience of tension or nervousness. If this persists for a longer period of time, it can be a signal of too much stress, overexertion or burn-out.
Anger is a psychological defense mechanism that ensures that you do not have to experience a certain feeling or emotion. From a psychological point of view it is often noticed that it can be a nasty experience that you had as a child and that you do not want to re-live.
Being angry can make you feel good for a while, but it doesn’t solve the problem. Anger linked to stress or strain can be triggered by the smallest things.
Frightened, scared and panic attacks
Just like anger, fear is also a defence mechanism that is ingrained in us. It ensures that we can take rapid action in the event of danger. However, if fear is felt excessively and often occurs, it can have a paralysing effect. There is then an anxiety response that is disproportionate to the situation and circumstances.
The consequences of such an anxious reaction can vary widely, from sleeping badly and worrying a lot, to experiencing high muscle tension and palpitations. In the event of a panic attack, you feel intense fear when there is no reason for it. The fear starts to dominate you.
Over thinking things
Worrying about a situation often happens when you are genuinely worried about it, but sometimes it also happens without an immediately apparent reason. Your mind keeps on grinding and it goes round in circles. In principle you have your mind for that too; thinking! However, if the thinking is excessive, it can paralyze you; you think more than you need to.
Feelings of loss of control
If you feel like you’re losing control of your life, it’s very uncomfortable. It feels like you are floating out at sea on your own, at the mercy of the elements. Actually, it’s the essence of feeling stress – you’ve lost control of the situation.
A healthy form of suspicion can be quite normal and help you in your decision making. When you are looking for that hidden something behind everything and are constantly doubting the intentions of others, it costs you a lot of energy.
You also allow your mind to come up with bad and worse disaster scenarios and you keep worrying about this. It can severely temper with the way you function in social situations.
Fearful and scared
You’re fearful when you’re scared of the slightest unexpected thing. This can be caused by sound, for example a door that suddenly closes or a crackling moped driving by, but also by a remark someone makes or a message you read. In any case, it triggers an anxious reaction in you.
Negative and hampering thoughts
If this bothers you, you’re brooding with your focus on what can’t be done. You see barriers everywhere on the road and you no longer think in possibilities and solutions. Distrust and suspicion can play a role here, but also feelings of inferiority and self-limitation.
The feeling of having to do everything
You are driven by the expectations of others and you have the feeling that you have to live up to everything. Just doing your thing isn’t enough, no, you have to perform 110% – everywhere! Actually, you are subject to circumstances and you feel you have to conform to them. Refer to loss of control.
Mood swings are changes in your mood. The changes can be both positive and negative: one moment you get out of bed cranky and irritated, and the next moment you feel good and happy.
The crux of the matter lies in the fact that the changeover is fast and you cannot find a directly demonstrable cause for it. The change of mood can be triggered by hormones, your diet, sleep rhythm and depressive tendancies (the ‘winter dip’ is a good example).
Feeling that you are worth less than others
This has to do with your self-esteem. You compare yourself with others on all sorts of points and you have an ideal image that you cannot and never can satisfy. Your expectations with regard to what you should be able to do, have or achieve are on such a high level that it is actually impossible to achieve everything.
There’s always someone who can do something better than you. But realise that there is no one else who has the unique mix of qualities that you have!
Recognizing Stress – Change in Behaviour
Below we give points where to help you recognize stress through changes in your behavior.
Eating too much
Stress can make you eat too much. When you eat too much, you are more likely to look for the unhealthy food that contains a lot of sugars and carbohydrates. You do this to keep yourself going and to prevent you from getting tired.
In addition, by eating sugary foods, the feel good hormone endorphines are produced in your brain. We also see a sweet treat as a reward, and we have imprinted this on ourselves since we were young. It is an excellent example of how indoctrination can work.
Too little food
Stress can also cause you to eat too little. Your appetite is gone and you can no longer enjoy the taste of food. As a result, you will obviously be undernourished and become more susceptible to illnesses
The adrenaline in your body ensures a continuous high blood sugar level so you no longer feel like eating. Losing weight due to too much stress is therefore very common.
If you notice that you are smoking more, that could be a sign of stress. Stress causes the hormone cortisol to be produced, so nicotine may have less effect. More nicotine is then needed to obtain the same effect.
Smoking less can also cause stress, because your body is used to a certain amount of nicotine. After smoking you experience less stress for a short while, but because the effect is quickly gone and there is a slight withdrawal, you experience more stress again.
Drinking more alcohol
The relationship between alcohol and stress is not easy to demonstrate directly. People who are stressed experience a reduction in stress by consuming a glass of alcohol. Alcohol can reduce cortisol in the body, but the other way around it makes the tension in the body last longer. In addition, stress can also surpress the pleasant feeling of alcohol.
Using more medication
If you are already taking medication and notice that you are taking more or higher doses of it, this can be an indicator of stress. You then use the medication in the same way as others use alcohol or nicotine, mainly to reduce stress.
Drinking more coffee
Coffee makes you more alert and vigilant. If you start drinking more coffee and therefore ingest too much caffeine, it is counterproductive. You will have problems concentrating and this can have consequences for your memory.
Due to an excessive amount of caffeine, your body is in a persistent state of alertness and persistent stress. And did you know that caffeine is also found in other products besides coffee?
Increased need for sweets
Eating sugary food gives you a kick and you get an energy boost for a short time. Your blood sugar level rises and your body reacts by bringing it down again.
This reaction can cause your sugar level to drop below the level it was when you ingested it, making you feel limp and energyless. The remedy is often to start eating sugar again. Excessive sugar consumption causes your body to produce adrenaline – the stress hormone par excellence. Eating sweets therefore stimulates stress.
Keeping busy and talking a lot
If you are someone who experiences a lot of stress you can get very busy and talk a lot. You only calm down when the stress has gone out of your body.
Being overly active
When under stress, your body is full of adrenaline and that ensures that you are and remain active. Your energy level is higher, which manifests itself in hyperactivity and pressure behaviour. Some people play sports fiercely, which causes extra exhaustion.
Achieving nothing (no work out of your hands)
When you’re up against a burn-out, little or nothing comes out of your efforts at work. The excess energy you may have felt at first has turned into fatigue and exhaustion. You have a tendency to limit your activities more and more.
Doing too many different things at once
This is a sign that you are so active and try to do so much at the same time that you can’t really complete anything anymore. On the one hand you keep thinking about everything and on the other hand you only do a little bit of everything. You flip from one activity to another without completing a task or achieving a concrete result.
Not being able to enjoy or relax
Can’t really enjoy anything anymore, or can’t you relax? When you experience stress, your body produces adrenaline, which makes you more alert and have higher energy level. With constant stress, the adrenaline level in your body remains high, making relaxing and enjoying the things you do much more difficult or even impossible.
More complaining and blaming, increasing cynicism and bitterness
Some people complain more than others, or are more cynical than others. That in itself is not an indication of stress. When you or those around you notice that you have started complaining and blaming more, that you become more cynical or bitter, then stress can be a cause of this. If you do nothing about this, there is a risk of conflict.
Having accidents faster than usual (e.g. dropping things)
When you experience this, your attention is especially unfocused. You no longer have control over your body and limbs, at least that’s how it seems, and you keep bumping into things or dropping them out of your hands. In itself there is nothing wrong with your energy and strength, but when your head’s not in the right place for a while, this happens more often.
Don’t feel like being intimate or having a sexual relationship
With intimacy or sex you want to be there for the other person and enjoy yourself. When you experience stress, you feel much less like it. By the way, it has been shown that having sex reduces the stress in your body. But if it is the sex itself that causes the stress, it can be very difficult to take the initiative to do so.
If you find it difficult to concentrate, this can be very hindering for your functioning. You are plagued by feelings rather than keeping a clear head and little comes out of your hands. You focus on all the things you still have to do instead of finishing them off one by one.
Overly worried about what’s happening
This is a combination of a feeling of anxiety and unease with pondering or overthinking what might happen. You are almost always alert and focused on the things that can go wrong.
Difficult to enjoy pleasurable events
When it is difficult for you to enjoy situations and events that you would normally experience as enjoyable it is very annoying. You feel as if you are locked in your head or as if there is a bubble around your head. It takes a lot of effort to make contact with others and you would prefer to just sit on the couch at home.
Unsatisfied with performance
Being unsatisfied with your performance has to do with the expectations you have about it. Are you used to performing at a higher level and do you always expect to reach that level? Maybe you could look at it in a different way.
It is true that imposing high expectations on yourself can cause a lot of stress when you don’t quite reach those goals.. The feeling of dissatisfaction can start to dominate.
Recognizing Stress: Social Signals
Below we describe points with which you can recognise stress through social signals.
Conflicts in the workplace
When you experience a conflict at work, it’s not so bad at first. However, having a conflict can cause a lot of stress. But the conflicts can also be caused by stress. You no longer look at the other person’s interests and do not focus on achieving an optimal result. On the contrary, the only thing you want to achieve is that your frustration disappears again.
Conflicts at home
A conflict at home can be very stressful. This can be an issue with your partner or with your child, or take place in the family atmosphere. If you notice that you are experiencing more conflicts at home than before, this can be a signal of stress, strain or a burn-out.
Reduced interest in the environment
Here, you clearly notice that you are no longer interested in your surroundings. You no longer make real contact with others and you prefer to avoid situations and events. The only thing you want is rest.
Milltain supports, with a team of experienced trainers, organizations in the prevention of stress and the (re) finding of work happiness in the workplace. Our training courses are aimed at managers within companies. A burnout quickly costs the organization € 70,000.
In addition to financial suffering, human suffering is great. Not only for the employee but also for close colleagues who have to deal with the blows. Before you know it you are in a negative vicious circle.
Do you want an effective approach to long-term absenteeism and increasing work pleasure? (instead of extinguishing continuous fires).