Identifying Stress Symptoms And Solutions

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated April 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

For many, stress can be a common part of life with many potential causes. People may experience stress due to negative life events, pressure at work, and typical stressors, like feeling overwhelmed with responsibilities. While everyone generally experiences stress at some point, there may be times when stress can become excessive. When excessive stress occurs for an extended period, it can lead to more serious issues. There may be many ways to cope with stress, from simple mindfulness exercises to speaking with a mental health professional online or in person. Understanding the definition of stress and identifying its causes in your life may help you find the best way to cope with your unique form of stress. 

What is stress?

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Stress can be a common side effect resulting from a demand placed on the body or mind. Stress can have both mental and physical symptoms, and it’s usually common in people of all ages and backgrounds. While some stress may be beneficial and allow you to overcome obstacles, excessive stress can have a negative impact on your health. Although stress tends to manifest differently between individuals, there may be a few common symptoms, including the following:

Fatigue and lethargy

Fatigue and lethargy can be common symptoms of stress. If you struggle to complete basic tasks or find it unusually difficult to get out of bed in the morning, you may be living with stress. People often describe these feelings of fatigue and brain fog as a result of stress and the brain. These symptoms can make it hard to think clearly and make decisions. On top of this, some feel mentally exhausted and find it difficult to feel enthusiasm, even for things they once loved to do.

Muscle tension

Muscle tension can be another common symptom of stress. People often tense their muscles when they're stressed. Common spots of tension may include the muscles of the face, shoulders, and back. This tension can also manifest in repetitive motions, such as fidgeting with your hands or tapping your feet.

Aches and pains

Like muscle tension, persistent aches and pains may be a sign of stress. Many people struggling with stress often feel physically sore and in pain, even when they haven't exercised or otherwise taxed their bodies. These aches and pains can be exacerbated by physical activity and injuries, often making them particularly difficult symptoms for those already living with chronic pain or illness.

Feeling overwhelmed

People living with stress may feel overwhelmed and unable to function. Even when the obstacles before them are ordinarily easily surmountable, they may feel as if they have too much to do and may be unable to successfully complete simple tasks. Even when there is a large disparity between a task’s actual and perceived difficulty, the feelings these individuals experience can be a very real part of stress and anxiety.

Constant worrying

Constant worrying can be another symptom of excessive stress. If you find yourself obsessing about the smallest details and unable to sleep due to worries about what the next day might bring, you may be living with stress or anxiety. While some amount of worry can be normal, especially during naturally stressful situations, prolonged worry may not be typical and can significantly impair daily functioning.

Racing thoughts

Those experiencing stress may feel like their thoughts are racing ahead of them, and they may be unable to slow down. Racing thoughts because of stress may dwell on the negative, whether they take the form of worries about things about to happen or anxiety over things that have already passed. Individuals experiencing stressful racing thoughts often feel like they can't get out of their own heads or think clearly about other topics.

Feelings of worthlessness

Another common symptom of stress and anxiety can be a pervasive feeling of worthlessness. Those experiencing stress may feel like their lives and accomplishments don't matter and that nothing they do will have a significant positive impact on the world. People living with chronic stress may have low self-efficacy and may not believe that anything they achieve will make a difference.

Withdrawing from the world

When you're feeling stressed and anxious, it can be tempting to withdraw socially. Those experiencing stress may socialize less and spend less time with friends and family. They often reduce their commitments and obligations, opting to spend more time alone at home instead.

Headaches

Along with the mental symptoms listed above, headaches can be another common symptom of stress. Depending on the individual, these can even develop into debilitating migraines. Even if you're experiencing an average headache due to stress, it’s often an unwelcome addition to the host of other symptoms.

Changes in appetite

Stress can also cause changes in appetite. Some people may not be able to stomach food at all and may eat very little, often reporting feelings of decreased hunger and desire for food. On the other end of the spectrum, some people may cope with stress by overeating to comfort themselves. Whether you're eating more or less than usual, disruptions to your normal eating patterns may affect your overall health.

Changes in sleep patterns

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Many people experiencing symptoms of stress and anxiety find it difficult to get a full night's sleep. Lack of sleep can exacerbate many of the other symptoms of stress, potentially making it an exceptionally detrimental side effect. On the other hand, people can also have difficulty waking up or getting out of bed and may sleep excessively when they're dealing with stress.

How to treat stress

While stress can sometimes be a necessary feature of life, it's rarely pleasant. However, there may be a variety of ways to treat stress safely and effectively. If you're concerned about your mental health due to stress, you should generally seek out the opinion of a medical professional before embarking on a new treatment plan. Here are a few tips for treating stress at home or with the help of your doctor:

Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness and meditation are often linked to beneficial mental and spiritual effects. Studies suggest that mindfulness can be especially effective at curbing the symptoms of anxiety and depression. If you're feeling stressed out and don't know what to do when you're feeling overwhelmed, you might try cultivating a meditation practice that centers awareness, breathing, and calmness.

Exercise

Exercise frequently has potent relaxing effects. While it might seem counterintuitive, the stress that exercise places upon the body usually releases endorphins and other chemicals that can fight the negative effects of mental stress. If you're feeling anxious and overwhelmed, even 20 minutes of exercise a day is often enough to reap the benefits.

Retreat to a quiet space

Your surroundings may have an impact on your stress levels, so finding a quiet place to retreat may reduce symptoms. Whether it’s a small space in your home or relaxing outdoors in solitude, spending time in a space in which you can relax and unwind can help you cope with stress. 

Channel your feelings

When stress becomes overwhelming, some may be reluctant to acknowledge their feelings. This may have a negative impact on how we process and understand the stress in our lives, how we choose to cope with it, and how we may better cope with it in the future. Studies suggest that exploring creative outlets, such as writing, art, or music therapy for stress management, can help you better express your feelings and healthily move beyond stress.

Spend time with family and friends

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Learn healthy coping skills to manage stress

Often, individuals struggling with stress can experience social exhaustion, potentially leading them to withdraw from friends, loved ones, and colleagues. However, social bonds may stave off negative feelings associated with stress and have a positive effect on overall mental health. 

Medication

The Yale School of Medicine generally defines chronic stress as “[a] consistent sense of feeling pressured and overwhelmed over a long period of time”. For those living with chronic stress, medication prescribed by a doctor can be an important part of treatment. Since people respond to medication differently, it’s essential to visit your doctor or a psychiatrist to prescribe the right medication for you. Never start or stop any form of medication without the guidance of a licensed medical professional.

Therapy

For many, speaking to a therapist can be one of the most impactful ways to manage stress. Mental health professionals often use several kinds of therapy to help patients identify their stressors, recognize when they feel the most overwhelmed and develop a treatment plan for coping with stressors when they arise. In some cases of chronic stress, your therapist may recommend a blended treatment of medication and psychotherapy to manage your symptoms. 

Some people may not feel comfortable seeing a therapist in person, or their high stress levels may make it feel impossible to get ready and commute to a therapist’s office for frequent sessions. Online therapy can remove these barriers for many people, empowering them to speak with a licensed mental health professional about their stress from the comfort of their homes. 

As this study explains, online therapy generally has the same rate of efficacy as traditional in-office therapy. Whether you prefer to speak with a therapist in person or online, you may rest assured that you can receive quality treatment either way.

Takeaway

Stress can take many forms, and the symptoms often vary in frequency and intensity. These symptoms may include fatigue, lethargy, muscle tension, aches and pains, overwhelm, constant worry, racing thoughts, feelings of worthlessness, social withdrawal, headaches, appetite changes, and sleep changes. Therefore, speaking to a mental health professional in person or online to pinpoint and explore your stress can be beneficial. Other solutions may involve cultivating a mindfulness or meditation practice, exercising frequently, exploring creative outlets, and spending time with loved ones.
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