Symptoms and signs of stress
Prolonged activation of the stress response (chronic stress) can lead to a variety of negative health consequences. Stress can affect any part of the body.
Here, some of the signs and symptoms of stress are organised according to body systems:
- Nervous system: tremors or trembling; dizziness or light-headedness; depression, anxiety or nervousness; irritability or frustration; difficulty concentrating or forgetfulness; sleep problems such as insomnia and nightmares; tiredness or fatigue; appetite and weight changes; restlessness and reduced productivity.
- Cardiovascular system: raised blood pressure or hypertension; increased heart rate; heart palpitations; chest pain.
- Respiratory system: difficulty breathing; a feeling of tightness in the chest; hyperventilation.
- Musculoskeletal system: pain, including headaches, muscle pain, shoulder, neck and back pain; weakness.
- Skin: rashes; itching; blushing; sweating or clamminess.
- Endocrine system: elevated levels of stress hormones; increased risk of developing diabetes.
- Gastro-intestinal system: dry mouth; problems swallowing; heartburn and acid reflux; indigestion; nausea; stomach pain or cramps; diarrhoea; constipation.
- Immune system: lowered immune function and increased susceptibility to infections; slower healing of wounds and recovery from illness; worsening of allergy-related conditions such as asthma, allergic rhinitis and eczema.
- Reproductive system: lowered libido or sex drive; irregular or painful menstrual cycles; erectile dysfunction or impotence; decreased fertility; worsened menopausal symptoms.
How do we measure stress?
There are various ways in which stress can be measured scientifically. Health practitioners such as psychiatrists and psychologists can use questionnaires to help them understand the types of stressors a person experiences, how the individual is affected by the stressors, and their ability to cope with the challenges they face.
Researchers can evaluate how people respond to stress by putting them in stressful situations, such as having them do public speaking exercises or showing them upsetting images. They can measure how the body responds to stress by measuring certain physiological parameters, such as heartrate, breathing, blood pressure, sweating and pupil responses.
Doctors can also use different types of brain scans or monitoring approaches to evaluate how the brain responds to stressors. They can also measure levels of stress-related hormones in body tissues, such as blood, urine, saliva and hair.
Reviewed by Dr Leigh van den Heuvel, psychiatrist at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Stellenbosch University and Tygerberg Hospital. August 2018.
Factors that could lead to stress