Six Warning Signs Of Stress You Should Know

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis, LCMHC
Updated May 14, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The American Psychological Association (APA) describes stress as “a normal reaction to everyday pressures”, but notes that it can become unhealthy when it impacts your day-to-day functioning or causes or worsens mental or physical health problems. Read on to learn how to recognize the six most common warning signs of stress that could be reaching concerning levels for you, plus how to implement healthy coping mechanisms to better manage it.

iStock/PeopleImages
Noticing the warning signs of stress?

Potential physical symptoms and consequences of stress

First, let’s take a look at how a consistently high level of stress can be harmful to your health and well-being. 

  • It can negatively impact your brain. Research has found that chronic stress can cause a person to lose brain volume, which can lead to both “cognitive and emotional impairment”.
  • It can lead to negative physical changes and worsening health outcomes. An extensive body of research has linked chronic stress to decreased immune functioning and higher risk of viral infections, diabetes, ulcers, high blood pressure, and atherosclerosis, among other serious conditions.
  • It can lead to negative mental health outcomes. As the APA said, chronic stress has also been linked to mental health issues like anxiety and depression.

Plus, chronic stress can also affect your day-to-day functioning. It can impact your sleep, appetite, and energy levels, which can make it difficult to take care of your responsibilities. It can cause mood swings and negative feelings and create friction in your relationships.

In other words, consistently high-stress levels can be dangerous for your health and problematic for your life, which is why learning to recognize the warning signs may be helpful.

Six potential signs of problematic stress levels

As outlined above, the potential negative consequences of chronic stress have been well-documented. However, these consequences as well as chronic stress levels in general typically develop over time rather than overnight. That’s why it can be helpful to get familiar with the top warning signs that your stress levels may be starting to negatively impact your life, so you can take action accordingly. Here are six common signs to watch out for.

  1. Your relationships have become strained

Stress can take a toll on relationships. If you’ve been feeling overwhelmed or experiencing high stress for a while, you may have noticed that you have less patience with those around you. You might find it hard to concentrate when you’re spending time together, or you might have started to feel irritated by people more frequently—possibly escalating into anger more often than is normal for you. If things with partners, friends, or family members simply feel off or more contentious than usual, it could be a sign that one or both of you—since stress is contagious—is struggling with high levels of stress.

  1. You’re exhibiting out-of-character behavior

Your stress levels may be getting too high if they’re causing you to act out in ways that are not normal for you. If you’re experiencing new feelings of paranoia, angry outbursts, or crying spells, for instance, these could be warning signs. There may also be less obvious signs, like a disinterest in maintaining your normally healthy diet. Practicing techniques to get your stress levels under control may help you bring your behaviors back into a normal, comfortable range for you.

  1. You’re feeling consistent negative emotions

Experiencing negative or difficult emotions sometimes is thoughts or emotional stress can be a normal part of the human experience. However, if you’ve been having trouble feeling joy or happiness from things you used to enjoy, or if it seems like you only ever feel overwhelmed, sad, frustrated, irritated, or angry, this may be worth paying attention to. Certain types of stress may be associated with mental health conditions like depression, which feelings like these may be symptoms of—but even have positive thoughts and feel happiness. That’s why taking action to manage stress levels may be helpful if you find yourself experiencing this warning sign.

iStock/fizkes
  1. You’re having trouble sleeping

Cortisol is a hormone the body releases in response to stress. If you're experiencing frequent or lasting stress, your body may be consistently producing it. In combination with a racing mind that’s busy worrying about work, school, family, relationships, or whatever else is causing you stress, excessive cortisol levels may be making it harder for you to fall or stay asleep. Since getting enough sleep (approximately seven to nine hours) has been linked to important aspects of life like learning, memory, and even metabolism and endocrine function, it could be time to address your stress levels if you’re experiencing sleep problems.

  1. Loved ones have expressed concerns

While you know more about your current mental state than a casual observer, it may be worth listening if several people and/or those closest to you start expressing concern about your stress levels. Behavioral symptoms of stress can be plentiful and subtle, which means you may be exhibiting them without even realizing it—such as fidgeting often, coming across as short or irritable, or changing your eating habits in an unhealthy way.

  1. You’re feeling consistently low-energy

The body’s stress response is designed to be temporary: to give you the energy and focus you need to handle the “danger” in front of you, and then to relax. However, chronic stress means that this response is switched on consistently or frequently over time. So although exhaustion can have many different causes (a hectic lifestyle, poor sleep, mental health conditions like depression), stress can also be a contributing factor. You deserve to have enough energy to fulfill your responsibilities and enjoy yourself, so addressing stress levels may help if you’re often feeling tired, lethargic, drained, or depleted.

How to learn stress management techniques, and what are the seven warning signs of stress?

In addition to the signs above, there are many more physical and emotional symptoms that may indicate you may be experiencing excess amounts of stress. Here are seven potential red flags to look for.

  1. A significant change in appetite, resulting in over or underconsumption of food
  2. Persistent feeling of being overwhelmed
  3. Substance misuse, including excess alcohol or prescription medication intake
  4. Frequent outbursts of anger
  5. A disinterest in previously enjoyable activities
  6. Racing thoughts
  7. A persistent sense of dread

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

If you are experiencing any of these signs that may indicate you are undergoing high or consistent stress, there are a variety of strategies you can try to reduce your stress levels and/or better cope with stressors. Taking inventory of your life circumstances is usually a recommended first step in case there are any areas where you can adjust what’s causing you stress. For instance, setting boundaries in relationships or finding ways to reduce work-related stress could be helpful. However, this approach isn’t always feasible. In that case, it’s usually helpful to focus more on managing stress. There are many different ways to do this.

First, research shows that regularly practicing mindfulness-based meditation has been associated with reducing stress as well as anxiety and depression. Since meditation is becoming more popular due to the many recent studies that support its benefits, there are a variety of both free and paid videos and apps that can help you learn how to do it. Next, a 2014 study suggests that regular physical exercise can increase a person’s “resilience to acute stress”. If you don’t know where to start, joining a gym or a sports league, showing up for a pick-up game of basketball at the park, or asking a friend or neighbor to take a daily walk with you are a few ideas you can try.

iStock/Rawpixel
Noticing the warning signs of stress?

How therapy can help

Speaking with a trained therapist or counselor is another way you can learn stress management techniques. They can help you identify and shift any unhealthy coping mechanisms and learn healthier ones. They can also provide you with a safe space to express and process emotions or situations that may be causing you stress, and learn to manage symptoms of any coexisting mental health conditions you may be experiencing. If you are having difficulty solving problems related to stress and would like to seek in-person support, you can search for a mental health provider in your area. If you’d feel more comfortable seeking this kind of support from the comfort of your own home, online therapy is an option. 

Research suggests that online therapy can offer similar benefits to in-person therapy. It also posits that stress management programs can be effective when delivered virtually—especially because they can be more reachable this way and because they may help in overcoming the stigma clients can experience regarding mental health care. Those who are interested in virtual therapy might try a platform like BetterHelp, which matches you with a licensed therapist who you can speak with via phone, video call, and/or online chat to address the challenges you may be facing.

Takeaway

Our bodies are equipped to allow us to manage stress, but typically not consistently high levels over a long period of time. The information in this article can help you identify whether you may be experiencing unhealthy levels of stress and learn healthy ways to handle it if so. You do not have to manage stress on your own -- there is never any shame in asking for help. For empathetic and evidence-based support in mitigating stress and controlling intense emotions related to stress, reach out to a licensed online therapist at BetterHelp.
Ease stress and mental exhaustion
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started