Stress Signs, Symptoms, Types and Treatment

Stress is a major reason people reach out to us at iCounseling for services. Stress disorders are relatively new, in terms of being considered a mental illness. In 1994, Acute Stress Disorder was added to the list of mental health diagnosis (National Center for PTSD). There have been numerous studies completed over the years, and they have found that there is a 13%- 33% chance that an individual will develop an acute stress disorder after events such as car accidents, natural disasters, assault, work accidents, or in witnessing a crime or traumatic event. This is a guide to tell you about some of the stress signs and symptoms, the various types of stress disorders that individuals struggle with, and treatment options that have been found to be useful to do on your own and with an individual therapist.

Understanding Stress

According to Stress.org, and the American Institute of Stress:

There has been no definition of stress that everyone accepts. Therefore, it’s difficult to measure stress if there is no agreement on what the definition of stress should be. People have very different ideas with respect to their definition of stress. Probably the most common is, "physical, mental, or emotional strain or tension". Another popular definition of stress is, "a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize." We must also consider stress in the context of Stress Disorders. This is when someone has either witnessed an intensely traumatic or stressful situation, or their stress has mounted to such a level, that is it considered an illness.

Who suffers from stress?

According to the American Psychological Association:

Though they report similar average stress levels, women are more likely than men to report that their stress levels are on the rise. They are also much more likely than men to report physical and emotional symptoms of stress. When comparing women with each other, there also appears to be differences in the ways that married and single women experience stress.

Quick facts

  • Women are more likely than men (28 percent vs. 20 percent) to report having a great deal of stress (8, 9 or 10 on a 10-point scale).
  • Almost half of all women (49 percent) surveyed said their stress has increased over the past five years, compared to four in 10 (39 percent) men.
  • Women are more likely to report that money (79 percent compared with 73 percent of men) and the economy (68 percent compared with 61 percent of men) are sources of stress while men are far more likely to cite that work is a source of stress (76 percent compared with 65 percent of women).
  • Women are more likely to report physical and emotional symptoms of stress than men, such as having had a headache (41 percent vs. 30 percent), having felt as though they could cry (44 percent vs. 15 percent), or having had an upset stomach or indigestion (32 percent vs. 21 percent) in the past month.
  • Married women report higher levels of stress than single women, with one-third (33 percent) reporting that they have experienced a great deal of stress in the past month (8, 9 or 10 on a 10-point scale) compared with one in five (22 percent) of single women. Similarly, significantly more married women report that their stress has increased over the past five years (56 percent vs. 41 percent of single women). Single women are also more likely than married women to say they feel they are doing enough to manage their stress (63 percent vs. 51 percent).
  • Married women are more likely than single women to report they have experienced the following due to stress in the past month: feeling as though they could cry (54 percent vs. 33 percent), feeling irritable or angry (52 percent vs. 38 percent), having headaches (48 percent vs. 33 percent) and experiencing fatigue (47 percent vs. 35 percent).

Common Causes of Stress

Work Stressors - Unhappiness in a current position. Feeling as if you can not manage your responsibilities and assigned tasks. Having a poor work-life balance. Poor organizational, time management, and problem solving skills. Working in a hazardous environment. Fearing termination, suspension, or probation in your position. Fear of public speaking. Suffering from workplace harassment and discrimination.

Life Stressors - Unresolved grief, going through a divorce, being fired from your job, being the family's primary breadwinner, feeling the pressure of financial obligations, upcoming wedding, moving for a job or due to the loss of a job, and suffering from a chronic illness or injury. Suffering from depression, anxiety, anger, or other mental illness, low self-esteem, being a primary caretaker for an ailing partner or parent, and suffering from trauma are all stress signs.

Stress Symptoms and Signs

You may notice the following symptoms and signs in yourself or in others:

Restlessness, anger, and irritability - You find it difficult to relax, and are constantly on guard for something to happen or go wrong. You become easily angered and are irritable with those around you. Things that used to not bother you, now seem like a major issue to you.

Headaches and migraines - You may or may not have had a history of migraines and headaches. Whatever the case, they are now more frequent, and are typically more intense in nature is a common stress sign.

Poor memory, focus, and concentration - You are finding it harder and harder to focus on tasks that need to be done. You struggle to recall information on the spot, if at all. Your concentration is significantly impacted, where you find it difficult to concentrate on a particular task or item that needs to be done. You are easily distracted and on edge.

Lack of motivation or fear of activities - You find it very difficult to participate in the tasks of everyday life. You can’t imagine gathering the energy and focus to work, watch your children, exercise, eat, or speak with those in your life. You are afraid that if you go out, something bad will happen to you.

Sadness and/or depression - You start to feel increased feelings of sadness and depression. This is often associated with feeling like you can’t do the things you once could, that you can’t turn off the stressful thoughts, and that you can’t feel safe.

Rapid heartbeat and/or chest pains - Your stress and worry causes an increase in your heart rate, raises your blood pressure, and can actually cause you to feel pain in your chest. Many people may think they are having a heart attack.

Increased fatigue with associated sleep issues - Too much sleep, too little sleep, trouble falling asleep, trouble staying asleep, tossing and turning all night, and daytime drowsiness. The most common issue is not being able to turn your thoughts off at night, and being afraid to fall asleep.

Changes in sex drive and/or performance anxiety - You find that you have a decreased sex drive, as you are unable to focus on this need over the fears and stress. The high stress levels can cause an inability to perform, or an inability to maintain arousal.

Nausea and/or vomiting - In understanding stress we have learned that our thoughts have a strong impact on our body. Some people will become so stressed, and so nauseous, that they end up vomiting.

Changes in appetite - This can be eating too much or too little. You may find yourself having virtually no appetite and losing weight. Stress can cause a major reduction in appetite. You may also find yourself binge eating unhealthy foods to fill the void stress is leaving in your life. This behavior is most common when you are bored or stressed.

Increased substance use - You are drinking or using drugs to numb yourself and detach from the emotional pain and to quiet the stressful thoughts. You are so fearful of something happening to you, that abusing substances feels like the only way to quiet your thoughts.

Isolation and withdrawal from people in your life - You pull away from people in your life. You stop returning calls and message, you cancel plans, and you feel like telling them how you are feeling would be a burden. You fear going out to meet them, as you are afraid what might happen to you. Social situations cause you tremendous stress, as people are unknown, and you are very concerned with being able to escape places quickly.

Medical Conditions Causing Stress

According to the Anxiety Center the following is a list of stress symptoms along with other medical conditions that can cause or mimic them.

Breathing, difficulty - Aortic Insufficiency, Asthma, Bronchitis, Cardiac Arrhythmia, Collagen Disease, Emphysema, Guillain-Barre Syndrome, Hemothorax, Left Ventricular Failure, Lupus, Mitral Stenosis, Myasthenia Gravis, Ovarian Cancer, Pericardial Effusion, Pleural Effusion, Pneumoconiosis, Pneumothorax, and Pulmonary Edema.

Chest Pain - Angina Pectoris, Coronary Artery Disease, Heart Attack, and Lupus. Concentration, or lack thereof: Alzheimer's Disease, Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Brain Cancer, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Depression, Insomnia, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Premenstrual Syndrome.

Dizziness - Benign Positional Vertigo, Cerebral Embolism, Cerebral Hemorrhage, Cerebral Thrombosis, Dental Problems, Ear Infections, Fibromyalgia, Food Allergy, Food Poisoning, Head Injury, Heat Exhaustion, Hypertension, Insect Bites and Stings, Labyrinthitis, Meniere's Disease, Menopause, Miscarriage, Motion Sickness, Myocardial Infarction, Nystagmus, Postural Orthostatic Hypotension, Stroke, Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction, and Transient Ischemic Attacks.

Dyspnea (Breathing discomfort or breathlessness) - Anemia, Asthma, Bronchitis, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, Collagen disease, Colorectal Cancer, Congestive Heart Failure, Edema, Emphysema, Endocarditis, Food Allergy, HIV and AIDS, Hyperkalemia, Hypoxia, Insect Bites and Stings, Laryngitis, Leukemia, Lupus, Myocardial Infarction, Ovarian Cancer, Pericarditis, Pharyngitis, Pulmonary Edema, Pulmonary Fibrosis, Pulmonary Hypertension, and Thyroiditis.

Fatigue - Allergic Rhinitis, Anemia, Atherosclerosis, Bone Cancer, Bronchitis, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Cirrhosis, Colorectal Cancer, Congestive Heart Failure, Crohn's Disease, Cystic Fibrosis, Depression, Diabetes Mellitus, Endocarditis, Erythema, Fibromyalgia, Heat Exhaustion, Hepatitis, Viral, Herpes Zoster and Varicella Viruses, Hyperkalemia, Hypoglycemia, Influenza, Insomnia, Intestinal Parasites, Leukemia, Lupus, Lyme Disease, Lymphoma, Mononucleosis, Motion Sickness, Multiple Sclerosis, Myeloproliferative Disorders, Osteomyelitis, Ovarian Cancer, Pericarditis, Premenstrual Syndrome, Pulmonary Hypertension, Radiation Damage, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Sarcoidosis, Sleep Apnea, Systemic Lupus Erythematosus, Tension Headache, and Tuberculosis.

Heart symptoms - Palpitations - one becomes aware or heart irregularities, Arrhythmia - irregular heart rhythm, tachycardia - fast heart rate, Hyperthyroidism, Extrasystole, Coronary artery disease, Post-myocardial infarction, Heart Attack, Infections, and Pericarditis.

Hyper vigilance (Extreme sensitivity to cues that may signal presence of feared object or situation.) - Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Stress.

Irritability - Common Cold, Depression, Diabetes Mellitus, Herpes Simplex Virus, Hypoglycemia, Hypothermia, Insomnia, Meningitis, Menopause, Migraine Headache, Osteomyelitis, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Premenstrual Syndrome, Seizure Disorders, Sleep Apnea, and Tension Headache.

Muscle tension - Stress, Near-syncope (sudden loss of consciousness or weakness), Brain Cancer, Food Allergy, Migraine Headache, Pulmonary Hypertension and Stroke.

Palpitations - Anemia, Hyperkalemia, Hypoglycemia, Lyme disease, and Pulmonary Hypertension.

Sleep disorders - Alcoholism, Alzheimer's Disease, Amyloidosis, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Dementia, Depression, Fibromyalgia, Hyperthyroidism, Insomnia, Menopause, Premenstrual Syndrome and Sleep Apnea.

Sweating - Anaphylaxis, Asthma, Heat Exhaustion, Hyperthyroidism, Hypoglycemia, Lung Cancer, Motion Sickness, Pancreatitis, Radiation Damage, Seizure Disorders, Syncope and Thyroiditis.

Types of Stress

Acute Stress

This is the most common form, and is typically short term. Stress signs include emotional distress, physical tension throughout their bodies, gastrointestinal issues, and physical issues of the heart, head, and chest.

Episodic Acute Stress

This is for individuals who suffer with recurrent bouts of acute stress, most commonly due to disordered living. Their lives often involve frequent chaos and crisis. They will most often display the emotional symptoms such as irritability, tension, and anger.

Chronic Stress

This is the type of stress that always seems to be there. It can wear people down, and have significant emotional and physical tolls on the person suffering with it. It is the type of stress that most often leads to suicide, violence, heart attacks, strokes, and potentially even cancer. This feels like it will never be resolved to the person suffering, and sometimes stems from childhood trauma.

Stress Treatments

Journal about the cause of stress, and the thoughts and feelings associated with it.

  • Write out the thoughts, feelings and actions associated is a great way in overcoming stress.

Incorporate a healthy diet and exercise into your daily routine.

  • Exercise helps produce hormones and chemicals that regulate mood.
  • A healthy diet lets the entire body better itself, including your mood.

Cut down on alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine

  • Alcohol causes disrupted sleep.
  • Cigarettes stimulate the system causing wakefulness.
  • Caffeine causes wakefulness and stimulates the system.

Learn "grounding" techniques from your therapist to address stressful and intrusive thoughts.

  • Grounding can be soothing, physical, or mental.

Stop isolating yourself and get together with friends and family.

  • Reconnect with friends and family, and do activities you once enjoyed.
  • Take part in local group activities to make new friends.
  • Attend Social Anxiety groups.

Focus on what you do and do not have control over, remove what you don’t.

  • Decide the things in your life you have control over.
  • Decide what you have no control over.
  • Make a list of small and manageable steps to work toward.
  • Remove the items you can’t control.

Learn to get organized, and work on procrastination.

  • Develop organizational systems that work best for you.
  • Get a physical planner and write down due dates, meetings, and appointments.
  • Make a visual planner so that you always know what needs to be done when.
  • Make sure that you complete a task at the time it is due.

If possible, avoid the situations, people, places, and things that stress you.

  • Identify triggers that cause you anxiety.
  • Once you know what your triggers are, try and avoid the triggers, or learn techniques to minimize your stress levels.

Learn to express your feelings and ways to compromise.

  • Learn techniques to be assertive and get your needs met.
  • Learn the art of compromise, and what you are willing to give up in order to have what you want most.

Learn time management skills.

  • If time is an issue for you, set multiple alarms.
  • Write down that you need to be places earlier.
  • Break tasks down so they are not so overwhelming.

Learn coping tools and relaxation techniques for overcoming stress.

  • Learn deep breathing.
  • Learn progressive muscle relaxation.
  • Learn meditation and guided imagery.

Set boundaries with those who you need to, and learn to say "no."

  • Discuss what it would mean to set healthy boundaries and stick to them.
  • Learn when you are taking on too much, and that it is ok to say no.
  • Do not continue to do things that you do not want to do.

Make sure to schedule self-care into your day, no excuses!!!

  • Schedule 30-60 minutes each day just for you.
  • Start the day with coffee, a paper, a podcast, or something enjoyable.
  • Go for a jog or do yoga to calm yourself down.
  • If you decide it is essential, you will find the time.

As you can see, stress disorders can have a major impact on people’s health and well-being, both physically and emotionally. They can make you feel scared, and they can cause you to stop doing the things that you once enjoyed in your life, due to their overwhelming control over your life. Stress Disorders can have an impact on personal relationships, your ability to work effectively, and your ability to form new relationships. Help is possible and available to you, and could allow you to lead the life you envision for yourself. At iCounseling, we want to help you work on your stress treatment, so you can get back to doing the things you love. Help is possible, and more effective than you might think for overcoming stress.

Frequently Asked Questions About Stress

What is stress?

According to Stress.org, and the American Institute of Stress:

There has been no definition of stress that everyone accepts. Therefore, it’s difficult to measure stress if there is no agreement on what the definition of stress should be. People have very different ideas with respect to their definition of stress. Probably the most common is, "physical, mental, or emotional strain or tension". Another popular definition of stress is, "a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize." We must also consider stress in the context of Stress Disorders. This is when someone has either witnessed an intensely traumatic or stressful situation, or their stress has mounted to such a level, that is it considered an illness.

What are the different types of stress?

Acute Stress - This is the most common form, and is typically short term. People most commonly experience emotional distress, physical tension throughout their bodies, gastrointestinal issues, and physical issues of the heart, head, and chest.

Episodic Acute Stress - This is for individuals who suffer with recurrent bouts of acute stress, most commonly due to disordered living. Their lives often involve frequent chaos and crisis. They will most often display the emotional symptoms such as irritability, tension, and anger.

Chronic Stress - This is the type of stress that always seems to be there. It can wear people down, and have significant emotional and physical tolls on the person suffering with it. It is the type of stress that most often leads to suicide, violence, heart attacks, strokes, and potentially even cancer. This feels like it will never be resolved to the person suffering, and sometimes stems from childhood trauma.

What are stress symptoms and signs?

Please see "Stress Symptoms and Signs" for complete descriptions

Common symptoms are restlessness, anger, and irritability; headaches and migraines; poor memory, focus, and concentration; lack of motivation or fear of activities; sadness and/or depression; rapid heartbeat and/or chest pains; increased fatigue with associated sleep issues; changes in sex drive and/or performance anxiety; nausea and/or vomiting; changes in appetite; increased substance use; isolation and withdrawal from people in your life.

How common are stress disorders?

Studies estimate that up to 40 million Americans suffer from some form of stress or anxiety disorder. Stress and anxiety are the most common mental health issues in the United States.

How can someone prevent and treat stress disorders?

While it is not possible to entirely prevent Stress Disorders, there are a number of things a person can do to lessen its effects.

  1. Reduce your consumption of nicotine and caffeine, and avoid their use 4-6 hours before bed.
  2. Start to see a therapist to work on relaxation and stress reduction techniques.
  3. Start living a healthier lifestyle that includes exercise, nutritious eating and appropriate amounts of sleep.

How are Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) different from each other?

ASD is a diagnosis that is only given within the first month following a traumatic event. If stress symptoms continue for longer than a month, the diagnosis is more likely PTSD. ASD also has more dissociative symptoms. Dissociative symptoms include: feeling numb, a lack of awareness, depersonalization, derealization, or amnesia.

What are stress treatments?

Please see "Stress Treatments" for full descriptions

Some ways to treat your stress are:

  • Journal about the cause of stress, and the thoughts and feelings associated with it.
  • Incorporate a healthy diet and exercise into your daily routine.
  • Cut down on alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine.
  • Learn "grounding" techniques from your therapist to address stressful and intrusive thoughts.
  • Stop isolating yourself and get together with friends and family.
  • Focus on what you do and do not have control over, remove what you don’t.
  • Learn to get organized, and work on procrastination.
  • If possible, avoid the situations, people, places, and things that stress you.
  • Learn to express your feelings and ways to compromise.
  • Learn time management skills.
  • Learn coping tools and relaxation techniques.
  • Set boundaries with those who you need to, and learn to say "no".
  • Make sure to schedule self-care into your day, no excuses!!!!