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Signs of Stress: What to Look Out For Before It Turns Into Something Worse

An image of a man in front of his laptopStress is one of the most common complaints in the modern world. We are surrounded by stressful situations that just don't go away, which causes chronic stress, the most dangerous kind. This kind of stress is incredibly damaging, and it’s responsible for many different health conditions. If you’re experiencing signs of stress, it is a signal from your body that it needs help and rest, before these symptoms can develop into something worse. That's why you need to know what to look out for, and what might be causing these symptoms.

What is Stress?

Stress is a natural state that occurs when you’re confronted with a challenge or threat. In these times, there are a number of physiological changes that occur in your body that create the "flight or fight" response. The adrenal glands are at the center of this response, releasing cortisol and adrenaline, the so-called stress hormones. These hormones prepare you to flee from the threat or to fight it. This response basically sends extra resources to the organs needed to fight, flee, and keep you alive.

This stress response can be a very good thing. It can help you overcome challenges in your life. It helps athletes run their best and new parents to cope with the demands of their new baby.

However, you need to turn off this response afterward. The extra resources taken up by stress are also needed by other key systems, like digestion, detoxification, and muscle repair. When the stress is passed, these other systems need to reactivate to maintain a healthy, balanced body.

The problem is that most sources of stress in the modern world are ongoing. They include things like work pressure, relationship problems, and environmental toxins. These stressors create chronic stress, and they prevent your body from returning to a more natural, restful state. This is when stress becomes dangerous.

When your body can’t rest properly, it eventually affects every aspect of your life. This is when you’ll start to feel frazzled and experience the common signs of stress. And it’s when your health comes under threat.

Common Causes of Stress

Stress can be caused by internal or external factors. These stressors can be short-term, such as a new project at work, or long-term, like a bad relationship. Sometimes it is caused by your own perceptions. If you see a situation as bad or negative, you will experience more stress. On the other hand, if you're excited about the stressor, like a new job or a trip overseas, it’s far less likely to cause signs of stress. Stress can also come from physical sources, such as a chronic illness.

Some of the factors that can cause stress include:

  • Work pressures
  • Financial difficulties
  • Issues with your environment like pollution or noise
  • A busy schedule
  • Caring for children
  • An inadequate or unhealthy diet
  • Relationship problems
  • Health problems
  • A sedentary lifestyle
  • Negative thinking about yourself or your situation
  • Perfectionism

These stressors are highly varied. That’s why the many stressors that impact your life can be so difficult to identify and manage.

The Dangers of Stress

An image of a woman holding the back of her neckWhen you’re chronically stressed, your body never gets the chance to rest, relax, repair, and heal. And this can lead to a whole range of health problems. This can cause or worsen:

  • Digestive upsets
  • Immune system suppression
  • Infertility
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Mental health disorders or mood disorders
  • Pain
  • Sleeping problems
  • Skin problems
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Weight problems
  • Problems with thinking and memory
  • Hormone imbalances
  • Vitamin deficiencies

Stress can cause or worsen all of these problems. That’s why it’s important to identify any signs of stress in your life before they begin to cause worsening health issues.

The Most Common Signs of Stress

Stress can impact every aspect of your health. Both short- and long-term stress can cause the following signs of stress. However, chronic and ongoing stress is more likely to cause problems for your health and your quality of life. Here’s how stress affects each aspect of your health:

Emotional Symptoms

Stress can cause the following emotional symptoms:

  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Overwhelm
  • Loneliness
  • Depression
  • Low sex drive
  • General unhappiness
  • Agitation
  • Irritability
  • Stress eating
  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much

Cognitive Symptoms

Have you ever been stressed and had trouble thinking of a solution to whatever problem was in front of you? This is a common experience with stress, as it can cause:

  • Poor judgment
  • Memory problems
  • Constant worrying
  • Learning problems
  • Negative thinking
  • Anxious or racing thoughts
  • Difficulty concentrating

Physical Symptoms

Stress will also have an impact on your physical health. These physical symptoms may be normal when you’re nervous or stressed because of a big challenge, but if they continue over time, they can become debilitating.

The physical symptoms that stress can cause include:

  • Rapid heart rate
  • High blood pressure
  • Muscle tension
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Low sex drive
  • Aches and pains
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Frequent colds or flu

Behavioral Symptoms

Stress can and usually does cause changes in your behavior. These behaviors are often your way of coping with the stress. But some of these coping mechanisms can worsen your health and your stress at the same time. These include:

  • Withdrawal from social connections
  • Using drugs or alcohol
  • Binge eating
  • Not eating enough
  • Neglecting your responsibilities
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Nervous habits like nail biting

When to See Your Doctor

It can be difficult to know when you should visit your doctor because of the signs of stress. These common symptoms of stress can also be caused by a lot of other conditions. For example, palpitations and stomach upsets can also be a sign of anxiety and heart disease.

If you’re worried that your symptoms could be a sign of a deeper health problem, then it’s probably best to see your doctor for a full check-up. This will help you identify whether you have any conditions that you need to address.

If you get tested and your doctor can’t find anything wrong, don’t let them dismiss your stress. Stress can be very dangerous for your long-term health, and it is important to develop a plan to reduce stress in your life. So, if your doctor dismisses your issues, find another one who’s willing to work with you to develop a plan to achieve better health and quality of life.

Signs of Stress and Adrenal Fatigue

If you have Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS), a condition that occurs due to chronic stress, it’s very common to experience some if not all of these signs of stress.

Your adrenals are part of your NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) stress response. The NEM stress response describes how your organs and systems, grouped into sets of three in six circuits, work together to manage stress.

An image of a boy looking out the windowEach of the circuits in the NEM stress response has a role in protecting you from stress. The adrenal glands are a key part of this stress response. They release stress hormones, like cortisol, which make changes throughout the body. As a result, the body focuses on protecting against stress rather than on its regular tasks and duties. This is completely natural, and once the stress has passed, your body should go back to its normal functioning.

The trouble occurs when you’re chronically stressed. The NEM stress response has to remain active, which overworks the adrenal glands. They can then begin to fatigue and fail to produce adequate amounts of key hormones. Also, the high levels of cortisol force your body to remain in an unnatural state of functioning. The everyday tasks that your organs have to perform become neglected. And they can start to decline in health because of this.

This can cause a whole range of symptoms, problems, and conditions. That’s why it’s so important that you see a medical practitioner who’s aware of AFS if you experience signs of stress. They will work with you to develop a plan to reduce stress, so your body can return to normal functioning to rest and heal itself.

The Takeaway

The signs of stress can vary from person to person, but there are some commonalities. If you’re going to protect yourself against stress, then you need to be able to identify these signs and take actions before your long-term health is impacted. Here’s how to get started with this:

  1. Identify any signs that you’re stressed like nervous habits, stress eating, aches and pains, or mood problems.
  2. Identify any stressors in your life and work to manage them.
  3. Talk to your doctor if you’re really struggling with symptoms of stress.

You can also talk to our team about symptoms of stress at +1 (626) 571-1234 or access our Ask the Doctor system here.

© Copyright 2022 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

Dr. Lam’s Key Question

The signs of stress are many and they can vary from person to person. What’s important is that you start listening to your body so you can identify any problems early and take action. This is the key to protecting, improving, and maintaining your good health.

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