Health Topics

Recognizing Signs and Symptoms of Stress

Recognizing Signs and Symptoms of Stress

What is stress?

Stress is defined as "any stimulus, such as fear or pain, that disturbs or interferes with the normal physiological equilibrium of an organism." Put simply, stress is our response to daily life. The right amount of stress can be a positive force. It helps us do our best work and keeps us alert, energetic, focused, and engaged in the world around us. However, too much stress can leave us anxious, depressed, and uncomfortable.

Everyday life continually presents us with stressful situations. Examples may include:

Stress can play a beneficial role, but too much stress disrupts the normal equilibrium and can disrupt people to the point where their ability to function is compromised.

Symptoms of stress

Symptoms or negative reactions to stress can be divided into several categories -- physical, cognitive (mental), emotional, and behavioral. Examples of signs and symptoms of stress and the categories under which they fall include:


  • Headaches
  • Backaches
  • Chest tightness
  • Fatigue
  • Stomach cramps
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of sexual interest
  • Insomnia


  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Forgetfulness
  • Worrying
  • Thoughts of death
  • Poor attention to detail
  • Perfectionist tendencies
  • Indecisiveness
  • Feeling helpless
  • Catastrophizing (blowing things out of proportion)


  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Poor self-esteem
  • Moodiness
  • Suspiciousness
  • Guilt
  • Weeping
  • Loss of motivation


  • Increased alcohol use
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Increased caffeine use
  • Drug use
  • Violence
  • Overeating
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Relationship conflict
  • Decreased activity

Common sense stress reducers

Numerous techniques have been suggested to help people minimize their negative reactions to stress. Many are common sense solutions and may not appear to have much value -- but try them, they are helpful.

  • Get a good night's sleep.
  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Exercise on a regular basis.
  • Engage in at least one pleasurable activity every day.
  • Stop smoking.
  • Use alcohol in moderation.
  • Use caffeine in moderation.
  • Set realistic goals for yourself, your job and your family.
  • Develop a good support system.

Take a break

Negative responses to stress can also be minimized by taking regularly scheduled breaks to relax and rejuvenate yourself. Ways to refresh your body and mind include:

  • Deep breathing exercises
  • Getting back or foot massages
  • Dancing
  • Dreaming
  • Hugging
  • Laughing
  • Listening to music
  • Walking
  • Bicycling
  • Painting
  • Writing poetry or keeping a journal

Stress management skills

There are three key steps to reducing negative responses to stress:

  1. Be aware of initial signs of stress reaction.
  2. Develop basic stress management skills.
  3. Effectively apply those skills in real life.

The following techniques can be part of a formal stress management program:

  • Deep breathing exercises
  • Imagery techniques
  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)
  • Cognitive restructuring
  • Assertiveness training
  • Individual psychotherapy
  • Group psychotherapy
  • Religious participation