What are the Symptoms of Stress?

Today’s topic in my series of blogs on stress is ‘What are the Symptoms of Stress?’ 

As mentioned in my previous blog, stress is defined as any demand on the body to adjust.  Consequently, stress triggers a series of reactions within the body via the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis, or the HPA axis.  This results in the release of the stress hormones – adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol.  These hormones are responsible for the symptoms noted during stressful events. 

But what exactly are these symptoms? 

I’ll get to that, but first, we’ll start with a bit of sciencey talk! 

The stress response starts in the brain, with the amygdala detecting danger and sending a distress signal to the hypothalamus (see Figure one).  Next, the hypothalamus communicates to the rest of the body via the ANS and the HPA axis.  The ANS is divided into two systems – the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS).  The SNS controls our ‘fight or flight’ response.  It is involved in the release of adrenalin and noradrenalin from the adrenal glands.  This results in the symptoms noted during acute stress – racing heart, faster breathing, dilated pupils, dry mouth, feeling shaky (see figure two). 

In contrast, the PSNS controls our ‘rest and digest’ response.  Importantly, it controls functions such as digestion, relaxation, sleep, immunity and reproduction (see figure two).  When the SNS is stimulated the PSNS is suppressed, chronic stress causes the SNS to be continuously stimulated.  This is why chronic stress contributes to symptoms such as digestive disturbance, insomnia, increased risk of colds, flu and infections and reduced fertility.

Diagram of the stress response - involvement of the HPA axis and the SNS causing the release of the stress hormones from the adrenal gland

FIGURE ONE: The stress response – involvement of the HPA axis and the SNS (epinephrine = adrenaline)

What else is involved?

However, this is only one part of the story, we can’t forget about the HPA axis.  (I touched on this briefly in my last blog – What is Stress?).  The HPA axis is responsible for the production of cortisol, another stress hormone (see figure one).  Therefore, once a stressor passes, the activation of the HPA axis and SNS reduces, stress hormone levels drop and the PSNS switches on, allowing the body to ‘rest and digest’.  However, with chronic stress the HPA axis and the SNS are continually being activated, cortisol levels stay high and the PSNS is suppressed.  This is when the symptoms of chronic stress and illness start to appear.

Additionally, the hypothalamus and pituitary glands are also involved in thyroid and reproductive health.  Therefore, when the HPA axis is activated, thyroid and reproductive health may suffer.  Thus, changes to the menstrual cycle may occur – changes to cycle length, regularity, heaviness and PMS.  Also, for both sexes, there may be a reduction in fertility and libido.  Chronic HPA axis activation also causes a reduction in active thyroid hormones.  This results in symptoms similar to hypothyroidism – fatigue, depression, weight gain.

  Diagram of the he Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) - the roles of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems.

FIGURE TWO: The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) – the roles of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems.

Chronic stress causes physical, emotional, behavioural and cognitive symptoms.

Physical symptoms –

  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Digestive disorders – for example, indigestion/heartburn, diarrhoea, constipation, nausea, stomach ache
  • Muscle tension
  • Chest pain and rapid heart rate
  • Insomnia
  • Reduce immunity – resulting in frequent colds and infections
  • Changes to the menstrual cycle and reduced libido
  • Clenched jaw and teeth grinding
  • Weight gain, especially around the abdomen

Emotional symptoms –

  • Anxiety, fear, anger, sadness, or frustration.
  • Feeling overwhelmed, withdrawn, lonely, worthless or depressed
  • Feeling indecisive, inflexible, aggressive, irritable or tearful

Behavioural symptoms –

  • Changes to your eating and exercise habits
  • Procrastination
  • Cravings
  • Smoking, alcohol or drug use
  • Changes to the way you interact with family and friends

Cognitive symptoms –

  • Constant worry and negative thoughts
  • A racing mind – difficulty relaxing and quieting your mind
  • Forgetfulness
  • Inability to focus

Health problems caused or exacerbated by stress include:

  • Depression and anxiety
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Digestive disorders
  • Osteoporosis
  • Speeds up ageing
  • Inflammation
  • Cancer
  • Autoimmune disorders

Digram describing the symptoms of stress

Hopefully, this blog has given you a better understanding of stress and its many symptoms.  With this in mind, try having another read through the list of symptoms and see how may you relate to.  If you feel that you relate to many of these symptoms consider incorporating some stress coping techniques into your life.  Also, my next blog will discuss ways to help reduce stress.  Likewise, naturopaths have many tools to help support as well as build resilience to stress.  You can read more about naturopaths and naturopathy here.  If you are feeling overwhelmed and would like some support consider booking in for a personalised consultation.  Start your journey by booking a free 15min discovery call here.

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