Coping with Anxiety and Depression During Pregnancy
The Most Common Symptoms of Stress, and How They Affect You in the Short and Long Term
Most of us recognize stress when we feel it: that overwhelmed state of mind that can make it hard to think, perform, and even breathe. (1) Yet despite these widespread symptoms, the signs of stress — and what causes them — can vary widely from person to person.
You might find yourself trembling uncontrollably when speaking in front of a crowd, for example, while someone else might develop a bellyache before a first date or get a headache at the thought of meeting a pressing deadline. At the same time, yet another person might breeze through all of these situations without breaking a sweat. (1)
For the most part, you can blame your parents (aka your DNA) for these disparate symptoms. “Some people have a tendency to become more agitated under stress; others become sad, withdrawn, or irritable,” says Michelle Dossett, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a staff physician at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. But whatever your natural stress response, recognizing the telltale signs can help you better manage your stress and possibly head off a more serious problem. (2)
“What you might brush off as stress may turn out to be an actual illness or vice versa,” says Jennifer Haythe, MD, a cardiologist and codirector of the Center for Women’s Cardiovascular Health at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City. That’s why it’s important to be tuned in to your body, and if something doesn’t feel right for more than a week or two, see your doctor, she says.
The United States of Stress
Short-Term Stress: What It Feels Like in Your Head and in Your Body
When something hits that causes you stress, your sympathetic nervous system reacts, triggering a series of physiological responses that can change from moment to moment. This fight-or-flight response, as it’s known, ultimately has one main effect: to keep you safe by revving you up, heightening your focus, and putting you on alert. (3)
When you feel stressed, the adrenal glands release the aptly named stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, setting off a cascade of emotional and physical symptoms designed to help you get yourself to safety. In the process, these stress hormones can impact every organ in the body, from your brain to your muscles to the nerve endings in your stomach.
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The Most Common Emotional and Cognitive Symptoms of Short-Term Stress
When you’re under a lot of stress, you may find that you’re more emotional than usual — or crankier. Here are some signs to look for:
- Anxiety or nervousness — in the American Psychological Association’s (APA) 2019 Stress in America survey, 36 percent of people report that stress makes them feel more nervous or anxious. (4)
- Anger or irritability — in the APA survey, 35 percent of people report this.
- Difficulty concentrating or forgetfulness
- Depression, low mood, or crying
- Withdrawn mood
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Difficulty sleeping — in the APA survey, 45 percent of people report lying awake during the previous month.
- A change in eating habits or appetite (eating much more or less)
- An increase in alcohol or drug use
All those stress hormones also have an effect on your body. Here are some of the most common physical symptoms of stress:
Long-Term Stress and the Symptoms That Impact Your Head, Heart, and the Rest of Your Body
While the body’s fight-or-flight stress response is crucial for keeping you safe from harm, when it kicks into action because of relatively small events, such as a terse e-mail from your significant other or a snarky remark from a colleague, it can have detrimental effects.
“What happens with many people is that they inappropriately slip into that revved up or wired state over and over again” says Alka Gupta, MD, codirector of the Integrative Health and Wellbeing program at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City. That’s when longer-term negative health effects can take hold
The Emotional Symptoms of Long-Term Stress
Often, the symptoms caused by long-term stress can be similar to those caused by short-term stress, including:
- Depressed mood
- Chronic anxiety
- Difficulty sleeping (or sleeping too much)
- Difficulty concentrating, focusing, or learning
- Stress eating, bingeing, or increasing your intake of drugs or alcohol
- Loss of sex drive (5)
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The Most Common Physical Symptoms of Long-Term Stress
While most people have the ability to bounce back from life’s everyday stressors, if stress continues unabated (i.e., it’s chronic), it can take a serious toll on the body and put you at risk for a number of physical symptoms and other health problems, including:
- Gastrointestinal upset, such as irritable bowel syndrome, heartburn, nausea, and pain
- Headaches and jaw pain
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Muscle pain and tension
- Skin rashes
- Weight gain (3)
How to Tell if the Symptoms You Are Feeling Are Due to Stress or Something Else, and When You Should See Your Doctor
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Whether or not you’re stressed, it’s smart to see your primary care physician once a year for a complete exam, including a check of blood pressure, heart rate, weight, cholesterol, and thyroid hormones. And don’t let a doctor brush off your stress.
“When women have heart palpitations, doctors are more likely to think that they’re either experiencing stress or anxiety, or that they’re hysterical in some way. As a result, women tend to be underdiagnosed with heart disease,” says Dr. Haythe. And this happens despite the fact that heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States. A good rule of thumb: If unusual symptoms persist for more than a week or two, see your physician.
Is It Stress or Anxiety? How to Tell the Difference
If you’re chronically stressed, it may also make sense to see a mental healthcare provider to help you learn more effective ways to manage the stress. A psychologist or counselor can also help determine whether you’re suffering from an anxiety disorder.
More on Anxiety
In general, stress is a response to a difficult or alarming situation, whereas anxiety tends to be excessive and may be triggered by events that haven’t happened. Often, people with anxiety disorders begin to avoid situations that make them fearful, or they may develop panic attacks. (6)
“People who struggle with anxiety have a tendency to ruminate or worry excessively about things, accompanied by physical sensations like butterflies in the stomach or heart palpitations,” says Dr. Dossett. “Of course, these things can happen with stress, too, which is why it’s important to see a doctor if symptoms persist.”
When You Might Need a Cardiovascular Stress Test
More on Heart Health
Despite its name, a stress test isn’t about stress in the usual sense of the word, though the symptoms that lead to having a stress test (chest pain, shortness of breath, palpitations) might be caused by anxiety. “In general, we give patients a stress test when they have risk factors for or symptoms that may indicate heart disease,” says Haythe.
A stress test is an imaging study that measures what happens to the heart when the person is put under physical stress, typically when they’re walking on a treadmill whose incline becomes very steep, very quickly. (7) “The test puts the heart in a situation where it has a greater demand for oxygen, and heart rate and blood pressure all increase. That’s when we can see if there’s an obstruction of blood flow in the arteries that may require cardiac catheterization or another intervention,” says Haythe.
Do Men and Women Experience Stress Differently?
Contrary to popular belief that women are more stressed-out and anxious than men, doctors say that there is no clear evidence that there is a gender difference when it comes to stress. “I do think that women may be more likely to seek out help,” says Dr. Gupta.
Yet the APA survey suggests that women are more likely to report feeling stressed than are men. Women say they have experienced a slight increase in their stress levels in the past year: On a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being little or no stress and 10 being a great deal of stress, women went from 5.0 in 2019 to 5.1 in 2019; in contrast, men’s stress dipped, from 4.6 in 2019 to 4.4 in 2019. The survey also found that men and women get stressed out by different things. Women are likelier to say they feel stress about hate crimes, wars and conflicts, and terrorism than men do. (4)
Whatever symptoms of stress you’re feeling or what may be causing them, it’s important to find stress relief to prevent both short- and long-term health problems related to stress.
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