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Stress generally refers to two things: The psychological feeling of pressure and worry, and the physical symptoms that accompany it. These symptoms can pop up all over the body in many ways; from the way we sleep, to our weight, to pain, and more. Stress forms a critical part of our makeup, helping us to react in potentially dangerous situations and motivating us to take action in our day-to-day lives when it comes to getting things done. However, stress becomes a problem when the symptoms of stress begin to interfere with being able to function in a normal way.

When chronic stress becomes constant worry or even anxiety, it can lead to feeling overwhelmed both mentally and physically. So, what exactly are the symptoms of stress and how do we manage them to stop them from becoming chronic? In this article, we delve deeper into this issue.

Stress: The science

When we are presented with a stressful situation, our body leaps into action, producing hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline to help us do what we need to do to avoid or tackle the threats we encounter. These hormones increase our heart rate and circulation to help us move more quickly, and metabolise sugar and fat for an energy boost, preparing our muscles for action. When it comes to running away from an aggressive dog or getting to the bus on time for work, these hormones can be incredibly beneficial. When we are stressed about a deadline and our stress motivates us to get the assignment done, we can thank it for helping us to complete that task. But while stress is vital and helpful in some situations, this bodily function was designed to be short-lived to help us avoid life-threatening situations. When stress becomes chronic, and levels of cortisol and adrenaline are at a constant high, stress can morph into chronic stress and even anxiety. And that’s when we need to take note of our stress, its symptoms, and how we can better manage them.

The symptoms of stress

Stress can manifest itself in different ways for everyone, but some of the most common symptoms of stress include:

  •         Increased heart rate
  •         More rapid breathing
  •         A feeling of worry or dread
  •         Trouble sleeping
  •         Irritability
  •         Chest pain
  •         Muscle pain and tension
  •         Fatigue and exhaustion
  •         Headaches or migraines
  •         Hives
  •         Rapid gain or loss of weight
  •         Reduced metabolism
  •         Feeling overwhelmed and anxious
  •         Trouble concentrating
  •         Memory loss

These are just some of the symptoms you might experience when stressed, and when stress becomes chronic. As you can see, stress can present itself in ways that are not only psychological but also physical. In extreme cases, stress can mean migraines, breaking out in hives, being unable to sleep, and gaining or losing weight due to a change in diet and metabolism. If not addressed, these symptoms can grow worse over time until you can find it difficult to live life in the way you’re used to. To prevent stress from turning into chronic stress, anxiety, and manifesting into serious physical symptoms that accompany them, it’s important to tackle them as soon as possible.

How to manage stress and stress symptoms

There are both healthy and unhealthy ways of coping with stress and managing the symptoms of stress. Some people drink too much, smoke, take drugs, crave sugar, become avoidant of social situations, sleep more often than usual, or avoid sleep altogether by distracting themselves with television or social media. Needless to say, each of these coping mechanisms are unhealthy, and can lead to greater stress and anxiety in the long term. Some of the healthier ways of managing the symptoms of stress include:

Harness the relaxation response: Did you know that just as we have a stress response, we also have a relaxation response? Coined by a Harvard Medical School cardiologist in 1970, the term refers to a deep state of relaxation reached by cultivating a relaxation response in the body. Just as stress releases cortisol and adrenaline into the body and causes a rise in heart rate, the relaxation response releases calming hormones, decreases the heart rate, and helps us to reduce our stress. You can start to cultivate your own relaxation response with simple techniques such as the ‘body scan’ and progressive muscle relaxation (read more here). You can also use yoga and meditation to achieve this. Or, for a profound impact on your ability to call on the relaxation response, consider hypnotherapy.

Increase your physical activity: Getting active – you’ve heard it again and again, especially from us! – is great for your mind and body. Not only does it help to improve your overall health, it’s also an excellent way of managing the symptoms of stress and reducing stress overall. From something as simple as going for a walk when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, to making exercising a regular part of your routine to help release those feel-good hormones every day and keep your stress levels low, exercise is a class stress-buster. For those who struggle with knowing what kind of exercises are best for them and their goals, or who have trouble with staying motivated to exercise, a personal trainer can be a great help.

Eat better: Once again, you’ll hear this from us all the time – eating better is not just good for your body, it’s vital for your mind. Eating a healthy and balanced diet (that doesn’t mean a no-fun diet, it just means everything in moderation) can help your digestion, your sleep, and your stress!

Improve your routine: Stress can often occur as a result of feeling out of control with life. One of the best ways to tackle this is to try to improve your daily routine. That means setting a regular sleeping and waking time, making time for eating well, knowing when to clock off from work, setting boundaries with loved ones, having enough ‘me time’, and making time for some exercise. Taking back control by having a better routine (full of all the things that support your mind and body) can have a big impact on your stress levels.

Of course, tackling only the symptoms of stress rather than the cause of stress is not a good long-term solution, as the symptoms are likely to arise again the very next time you find yourself stressed. When it comes to the symptoms of stress and how to manage them, it’s important to take a look at the underlying reasons for stress. And so, on top of the great stress-busting actions above, you should also:  

  •      Have a think about the things that are triggering your stress,
  •      Try your best to remove stress triggers from your life,
  •      Improve your lifestyle choices, and maintain more balance in your life,
  •      Reduce caffeine and alcohol intake, which can enhance stress, and, most importantly,
  •      See a counsellor to uncover your true underlying reasons for stress

By seeing a counsellor, you can discover the underlying thoughts and behaviours that contribute to your stress and develop strategies for tackling these. At Integrated Health Specialists, we are experts in stress management and at getting to the heart of what’s causing your stress. For a more stress-free life, get in touch with us to make an appointment today.

Michelle van Namen
Author: Michelle van Namen