Physical Symptoms of Stress

Tell-tale symptoms of stress are both physical and mental

Stress can cause stomach-upset
Physical symptoms of stress are wide-ranging; specific symptoms are unique for each of us.

It's important to recognise these in your own body

We're all familiar with mental signs of stress like anxiety and irritability.

But physical symptoms are also common.

Examples include muscular tension, a pounding heart, difficulty breathing, stomach upset, skin disorders, chest pain and dry mouth.

There are many common symptoms of stress, and they differ widely from one person to the next.

It's important to recognize your own unique symptoms, as a first step toward managing your own stress.

Our bodies express excessive stress in different ways.

It's as if each of us has a unique 'target organ' through which our stress mainly manifests itself.

For you it may be your digestive tract (stomach upset, nervous diarrhea), your skin (rashes, itches), or through headaches or a stiff neck, for example.

You may experience a number of these symptoms of stress simultaneously or at different times.

And remember, these symptoms may be related to other causes.

How can I tell whether my problems are symptoms of stress or are caused by something else?

Most conditions that may be symptoms of stress may also be due to some other health reason.

You may even have amedical condition needing professional assessment and treatment.

If you're in any doubt as to the cause and likely meaning of your symptoms, it's wise to seek advice from a health practitioner.

Stress Management

The first step in learning how to relieve stress is to monitor your own reactions to stress and track their effect on your health.

Become conscious of how your body reacts under various stressful conditions.

Deliberate reflection and introspection will help you develop awareness of your own unique symptoms of stress.

Discover what sensitized parts of your body function as a kind of barometer, reflecting stress, worry or anxiety.

Knowing something about stress will help you decide whether you may have symptoms of stress.

Knowing the common causes of stress will help you understand your own exposure to stress.

This in turn will make it easier for you to learn how to deal with stress more effectively.

There's a lot of good general information on this website. Read it and follow the links to other resources that you feel are relevant to your situation.

I always recommend you do your own research. Your body and your circumstances are unique.

Delve more deeply into your own stress 'niche' and be guided by your own life experience and your unique symptoms of stress.

Practicing the 6 Health Habits will help you. When you adopt the first two habits, Live Consciously and Act Responsibly, you really will find it easier to take conscious responsibility for finding your personal path to a less stressful, more fulfilling life.

What causes symptoms of stress to appear?-->

What causes symptoms of stress to appear?

Symptoms of stress are caused by unwanted chemicals ('stress hormones') produced by your body.

An understanding of what stress is, and how your body's fight or flight response operates, will help you better appreciate what follows.

Basically, you experience stress when your body releases an 'oversupply' of chemicals into the bloodstream due to extended operation of the fight or flight response.

These chemicals, the 'stress hormones' adrenalin and cortisol and others, are intended to give us the wit, strength and speed to recognize, sum up and deal with an emergency or threat instantly when it arises, in order to survive.

These stress chemicals would have been pretty useful when you were being charged down by a hungry saber-tooth tiger.

excessive stress hormones can lead to serious health problems
An oversupply of 'stress hormones' like adrenalin and cortisol can trigger unpleasant symptoms; over this can cause serious health problems.

There's not much need for physical action to deal with today's emergencies, like mortgage and employment worries.

Fear of these things however causes our bodies to create the same chemical cocktail.

But we don't burn it off.

There are many causes of stress in our lives, some serious and ongoing, and we can find ourselves being topped up pretty much continuously with oversupplies of these chemicals.

The unwanted chemicals produce the conditions we experience as symptoms of stress.


James L. Wilson's book Adrenal Fatigue. The purpose of your adrenal glands is to help your body cope with stresses and survive.

But what happens to you when prolonged stress wears you out and your adrenal glands are 'runnung on empty.'

It wasn't until 2010 that the World Health Organisation finally acknowledged adrenal fatigue as a medical condition. Although it remains controversial within the medical profession, and is still underdiagnosed and undertreated, there's no doubt among sufferers that it is real.

Virtually everyone beset with long-term stress has an adrenal deficiency. This powerful and compelling book not only offers great insight into the causes and symptoms of stress; it offers a proven lifestyle plan showing how you can relieve stress and enjoy a more fulfilling and rewarding life.

Symptoms of stress are both physical and mental

You are a 'whole' person; your physical and mental states continuously interact with and influence each other in countless ways.

Whether you're experiencing short-term stress, or you've been under stress for some time, you are likely to be be experiencing both physical and mental symptoms.

Recognizing your own symptoms of stress, and your particular causes of stress, are critical steps in learning how to deal with your stress.

Understanding how your body responds to stress is therefore essential.

You need to know your unique pattern of symptoms of stress.

On this page I cover 7 common physical symptoms of stress.

On the following page I cover 7 common 'mental' signs of stress. Top

The 7 common physical symptoms of stress

1   Muscular tension

Contents this page
7 common physical symptoms of stress

muscular tension
a pounding heart
difficulty breathing
stomach upset
skin disorders
chest pain
dry mouth

return to top

One of the most common symptoms of stress is a feeling of being 'uptight;' a sense that your muscles are taut all over, often most noticeable in the shoulders, neck and back.

If the tightness persists over time it generally leads to muscular stiffness and soreness in those areas.

In response to a stressful stimulus, your unconscious reflex system has initiated a 'danger' signal, as part of the fight or flight response, to the muscles. This causes them to contract in defense of your body and in readiness for the emergency.

Under prolonged stress this state is maintained and our muscles are liable to remain taught.

Muscles need blood and oxygen to nourish them and keep them healthy.

Tight muscles restrict the flow of blood, lymph fluid and energy.

The body compensates by producing its own energy to feed the muscles; a by-product of this process is the production of lactic acid.

As lactic acid builds up, it causes the muscles to continue to tighten, creating a vicious cycle, 'knotting' your muscle and causing pain.


Guide to Stress Reduction by L. John Mason.

The frantic pace of modern life takes a heavy toll on our physical and mental well-being. We experience headaches, backaches, high blood pressure, chronic pain, abdominal disorders, insomnia and many other ailments as a result of stress.

A professional stress-reduction therapist, Dr. Mason has made it his life's work to combat the debilitating effects of stress. In his landmark book, which has sold 30,000 copies, he presents a comprehensive program of exercises designed to alleviate stress. Previous editions have helped thousands of afflicted readers return to the comforting fold of life's natural rhythms.

This completely revised edition continues to teach us how to reduce tension and anxiety with effective techniques including autogenics, visualization, meditation, biofeedback, and desensitization. A brilliant contribution.

2   Pounding heart

The release of stress hormones during operation of the fight or flight response can speed up the flow of your blood by an amazing 300 - 400 percent.

In times of physical danger, your heart must beat much faster to move all that blood around your organs and muscles so you can react quickly to an emergency.

This gives the surge of energy you need to shake off that saber tooth tiger.

It's this massive burst of pumping action that creates your sensation of a pounding heart.

It sends your pulse and your blood pressure racing - you may even experience heart palpitations.

These are common symptoms of stress for many people.Top

3   Difficulty breathing

Stress-induced tightening of the chest muscles can also place pressure on your lungs causing breathing difficulties.

When this happens you feel like you can't breathe right or get a deep enough breath.

Your breathing becomes difficult, labored and uncomfortable.

The feeling that you just can't catch your breath or get enough air can be frightening.

Stress or anxiety can also bring about hyperventilation. This is a state of breathing faster and/or deeper than normal.

This causes you to expire carbon dioxide excessively, which reduces the blood flow to the brain, possibly causing symptoms such as fainting, dizziness or confusion.

4   Stomach upset

Stomach problems are common symptoms of stress for many people.

Our gastrointestinal tract, our gut, is highly sensitive and full of nerves - actually it's the largest area of nerves outside the brain; it's sometimes called the 'little brain' or the 'gut brain.'

Stress can cause an upset stomach
The gut is especially sensitive to stress and emotions.

The gut is especially sensitive to stress and emotions. That's why you sometimes get butterflies in the stomach leading up to something stressful, like having to speak in public. If you're upset after an argument you may feel your stomach is 'churned up' or 'tied up in knots.'

Or you may get stomach cramps, diarrhea, nausea or some other problem.

And it's not just single stressful events that affect the stomach. Long-term stress takes its toll. Indigestion, stomach aches, nausea, loss of appetite, unnatural hunger, nervous diarrhea and difficult bowel movements are among the most common symptoms of stress.

The link between emotional upsets and the intestines, called the brain-gut connection, is not clearly understood.

When you are stressed, some of the hormones and chemicals released by your body enter your digestive tract, where they interfere with digestion. They have a negative effect on your gut flora, and decrease antibody production.

The resulting chemical imbalance can cause a number of gastrointestinal conditions, including the following:

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is characterized by oscillating increases and decreases in the hardness of muscle contractions (peristalsis) in the intestines, the process by which our food is pushed through the digestive tract to enable digestion and removal of waste.

Contents this page
7 common physical symptoms of stress

muscular tension
a pounding heart
difficulty breathing
stomach upset
skin disorders
chest pain
dry mouth

return to top

These oscillations lead to alternating bouts of diarrhea and constipation.

An increase in contractions causes a speeding up of the passage of waste material through the intestines. This doesn't give time for enough water to be reabsorbed from the material into the body, causing diarrhea or possibly cramping.

A decrease in contractions reduces the speed of passage of waste; too much water is absorbed from the material leading to constipation.

Nervous stomach is a term sometimes used to describe a stomach-related problem when diagnostic tests fail to identify an apparent reason for it.

Nervous stomach is thought to be stress or anxiety related, a result of the chemical reaction that happens as a response to stress.

Blood flow is diverted away from the stomach, towards the muscle tissues, to supply oxygen required for the fight or flight the response. The blood goes mainly to muscle tissues scattered around the digestive tract.

At the same time, the digestion process is disrupted and we do not properly absorb nutrients from our food.

Symptoms of a nervous stomach can include stomach ache, stomach cramps, abdominal fullness, bloating, belching and flatulence, indigestion, heartburn, acid reflux, nausea and vomiting.

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) covers a group of disorders in which the intestines become inflamed (red and swollen).

It probably probably results from an immune reaction of the body against its own intestinal tissue.

The two major types of IBD are ulcerative colitis (UC) and Crohn's disease (CD).

Common symptoms of IBD include abdominal cramps and pain, bloody diarrhea, severe urgency to have a bowel movement, fever loss of appetite, weight loss and anemia due to blood loss.

It was once thought that stress was a major cause of IBD, but this is no longer thought to be the case.

However it's common for people suffering from IBD to also experience significant levels of stress.

We know that poor health is a major cause of stress.

It's easy to see why early researchers thought that IBD was caused by stress.

Many of the patients with IBD they saw showed signs of severe stress or other emotional or psychological problems.

But symptoms of stress were likely due to the constant pain, diarrhea, bleeding, and social stigma they endured because of their IBD.

Stress or emotional or psychological problems do not cause IBD, but they can make it worse.

Peptic ulcers are lesions (open sores) in the lining of the stomach or duodenum, which is the first part of the small intestine.

This is where most nutrients are absorbed into the body.

Ulcers in the duodenum, called duodenal ulcers, account for about 80% of all peptic ulcers; those in the stomach (gastric or stomach ulcers,) make up the rest.

The major symptom of a peptic ulcer is a burning or gnawing feeling in the stomach area generally lasting between 30 minutes and 3 hours.

This pain is often interpreted as heartburn, indigestion or hunger.

It usually occurs in the upper abdomen, but may be present below the breastbone.

The pain may come just after eating or several hours later.

It frequently awakens sufferers at night. Weeks of pain may be followed by weeks of no pain.

Peptic ulcers may cause appetite loss and weight loss. Weight gain can also result, due to excessive eating in an attempt to ease discomfort.

Other possible symptoms include vomiting, black stool, blood in the stool and anemia.


5   Skin disorders

Skin irritations are common symptoms of stress.

Sick of scratching? Does stress cause skin irritation?

Most people think of skin itches and rashes as common symptoms of stress.

In a sense that's true.

While the exact cause of many skin disorders is unknown, stress can certainly trigger and aggravate eczema and various other inflammatory skin conditions.

The actual causes of these conditions can include such things as viral, bacterial or fungal infections, sun exposure and heat rash, parasites, allergies to materials, substances or foods, reactions to drugs, pregnancy and genetic predisposition.

However stress certainly plays a role in causing 'flare ups' of a number of underlying skin conditions.

Psoriasis, commonly experienced as red, scaly patches on the skin, appears to be triggered by stress in as many as 40-60% of cases. Moreover, stress seems to have a detrimental effect on treatment.

Stress-related eczema, a form of atopic (allergy-related) dermatitis, is a term for a group of medical conditions that cause the skin to become inflamed or irritated. Flare ups of this codition can be triggered by stress.

Contents this page
7 common physical symptoms of stress

muscular tension
a pounding heart
difficulty breathing
stomach upset
skin disorders
chest pain
dry mouth

return to top

The symptoms, severity and extent of skin coverage varies with the type of eczema/dermatitis involved and also differs among individuals.

The most common symptom of eczema is dry, reddened skin that itches or burns, although this varies from person to person and according to the specific type of eczema.

Eczema may lead to blisters and oozing lesions or result in dry and scaly skin. Repeated scratching may lead to thickened, crusty skin.

Eczema can occur anywhere on the body, but typically appears on the face, neck, and the insides of the elbows, knees, and ankles. It may last for a few hours or days, or persist over a longer time (chronic dermatitis).


Bruce McEwen's book The End Of Stress As We Know It tells us that while some stress is inevitable, "being stressed out" isn't.

An internationally recognised authority, Bruce explains the reactions of our body to stressful circumstances, helping our understanding of symptoms we may suffer. AND he explains how you can learn to live in a way that will limit the damage stress can cause to your body and brain.

The cause of eczema is unknown, but it's thought to be linked to an overactive response by the body's immune system to unknown triggers.

Some people suffer 'flare-ups' in response to certain substances, materials or conditions. Others may experience an outbreak from feeling too hot or too cold, from exposure to specific household products like soap or detergent, or from contact with animal dander.

Upper respiratory infections or colds may also be triggers.

Stress may also trigger a flare up or may exacerbate existing eczema.

Eczema may also be a source of stress. It's an uncomfortable and distressing condition, and can be a major cosmetic concern. And the cost of medications and time off work can be stressful.

Allergic contact dermatitis develops when an allergen (a substance to which a person is allergic) touches the skin. Examples of common allergens are poison ivy and nickel.

A nickel allergy is actually one of the most common causes of allergic contact dermatitis. Many everyday objects contain nickel, including coins, buttons, jewelry, and eyeglass frames.

My wife insists on wearing pure gold jewelry, as alloys containing nickel give her a rash. Plausible and also highly convenient!Top

6   chest pain

Chest pain is another of the many possible symptoms of stress.

There's a good chance that your chest pain isn't heart-related if you've no obvious risk factors for heart disease, like family history, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or smoking habits, and if you lead a relatively active, healthy lifestyle.

Also, heart-related chest pain usually gets worse with any type of physical activity, for example walking or climbing stairs, while stress-related chest pain typically doesn't.

But if you do experience chest pain, don't take chances. Seek advice immediately from a qualified medical practitioner.

Stress-related chest pain is caused by a tightening of the chest muscles, a result of the general tightening of our muscles caused by the fight or flight response.

Unfortunately the sensation produced by this muscular contraction in the chest wall is similar to that typically described for a heart attack.

Chest pain can therefore be be a frightening experience, as we tend to associate it with heart attack.

The thought that it might be a heart attack is liable to stress you further, increasing the chest pain even more.

In fact, stress-induced chest pain is a more common occurrence than heart-related chest pain.

Anyone can experience stress-related chest pain. It's found equally in men and women, but is more common in middle-aged people who lead a sedentary (non-active) lifestyle. Chest pain has also been linked to depression and anxiety.

7   Dry Mouth

This is one of the symptoms of stress many people will recognize - your mouth dries out when you are under stress. It's why public speakers are generally provided with a glass of water at their side.

Contents this page
7 common physical symptoms of stress

muscular tension
a pounding heart
difficulty breathing
stomach upset
skin disorders
chest pain
dry mouth

return to top

Your fight or flight response diverts blood and other body fluids, delivering oxygen, blood sugar and other nutrients, to power your heart-lung system and the large muscle groups needed to run or fight.

The resulting loss of blood and fluids from 'non-essential' areas of the body can reduce the flow of saliva, making it difficult to keep your mouth moist, and leaving you with a dry mouth.

Also, your throat muscles are depleted of blood, and can tighten, making it hard to swallow.

Dry mouth may be one of the common symptoms of stress, but there are other possible causes of a dry mouth.

Stress induced dry mouth is generally temporary. For example, you might experience it due to nerves just before you make a big speech or go for an interview.

Dry mouth may indicate a medical condition called xerostomia, hyposalivation or asialorrhea.

Dry mouth is a common side effect of some medications and medical treatments, and is associated with some health problems.

If you think your dry mouth might have a medical cause, you should seek advice from a qualified health practitioner.

Dry mouth may also be chronic however, which means occurring every day or most of the time. In this case it may be a symptom of ongoing stress, but it may be due to a medical problem (see box).

If left untreated, dry mouth can lead to health problems.

These include dental problems: extra cavities due to a deficiency of saliva, which protects the teeth.

Dry mouth may caused by dehydration (not drinking enough water). Drinking water or other beverages won't necessarily relieve stress-induced dry mouth, especially when it is severe or chronic.

However it's important to stay well-hydrated when stressed, and sipping liquids can provide some relief. Avoid caffeinated beverages such as coffee, tea and sodas (soft drinks) however. These drinks are diuretics and may dry your mouth out further.Top

NEXT: 7 mental symptoms of stress

Learn more about stress and its causes

Many experts believe stress is among the biggest killers of our time. Research has linked it to leading causes of death including cancer and heart diseases. Long term stress can cause serious, irreversible and even fatal damage.

Are you stressed? Find out now if you are at risk.

The worst thing you can lose in life is your health!

If you haven't done so, start at the beginning, where we ask what is stress? See how the stress response, also known as the fight or flight response releases chemicals into your bloodstream; this normal and natural survival mechanism can harm your health if it persists over the long term.

If you're feeling crushed by a continuing failure to cope with distressing demands in your life, you may be suffering from learned helplessness. Learn how to recognise and deal with this condition.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by life events bringing significant changes in your life, try this life events stress test.

See if you identify with some of these common physical symptoms of stress or these common mental signs of stress.

Discover how causes of stress work and read this overview of the the biggest causes of stress. The seven biggest causes of stress are summarized below, with links for more detail on each.

And finally, beat stress in your life! Use stress management techniques to overcome your biggest causes of stress.

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Achieve Lasting Change NOW.

  • outstanding physical, mental and spiritual health
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"Take charge of your health."

"Take control of your life."

"Do it Now."

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Self-diagnosis can be difficult and in some cases even dangerous.

If you've any reason to believe a symptom may require medical evaluation, seek guidance from a qualified medical practitioner.

See Also

The 6 Healthy Habits

The 6 Healthy Habits

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Stress is common and harms your health.

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Tight muscles can also result from mechanical problems owing to bad posture, overuse, poor stretching routines after exercise and sideways spinal curvature.

Make sure your muscle tension is not due to structural problems or poor body movement practices.

The Stress Response

Stress hormones tell your body to increase your blood sugar, providing extra energy for your heart, leg muscles and brain.

They also help increase your heart rate and the strength at which it pumps.

Normal body functions that you don't need during the emergency, like your digestion and immune systems, are turned down.

Once the threat is over your brain stops the alert, and sends out messages that return your body back to its normal balanced state.

Stress symptoms come in countless varieties

The list of possible symptoms of stress appears endless.

For example any of the following (and perhaps most other illnesses!) may be triggered or aggravated by stress:

allergies, asthma attacks, colitis, constipation or diarrhea, depression, diabetes mellitus, dry mouth, excessive tiredness, excessive indulgence and substance abuse, feelings of tension, hay fever, heart attack, high blood pressure, indigestion, irritability, inability to concentrate, menstrual difficulties, migraine and headaches, nervousness, overactive thyroid gland, pounding heart, tight, sore and stiff muscles, peptic ulcers, rhuematoid arthritis, skin disorders, sweating palms, stomach problems, trouble sleeping, tuberculosis.

Occasionally we all experience temporary shortness of breath, for example due to a blocked nose or strenuous activity.

Persistent shortness of breath however can be a sign of a medical problem. Many health conditions can make you feel short of breath.

For example lung conditions such as asthma, emphysema or pneumonia will cause breathing difficulties; heart disease can make you feel breathless if your heart can't pump enough blood to supply your body the oxygen it needs.

If you have trouble breathing often, either shortness of breath or hyperventilation, you should seek advice from a qualified medical practitioner.

What causes Peptic Ulcers?

I remember when we all thought that lifestyle factors like stress and diet caused these ulcers.

We thought that peptic ulcers were caused by the production of excessive hydrochloric acid and pepsin due to chemical imbalances resulting from the fight or flight response or, or from eating certain foods.

We now know that most peptic ulcers result from chronic inflammation due to infection from the bacterium Helicobacter pylori (80% of gastric ulcers and 90% of duodenal ulcers).

However it's still believed that stress plays a significant role in the formation of these ulcers, and may also impair response to treatment.

It's likely that stress impacts on both the onset and course of ulcer disease.

It's thought H. pylori alone can't explain these ulcers. Most of us are infected with the bacterium and don't develop ulcers.

Stress probably interacts with H. pylori to trigger an ulcer, perhaps by stimulating production of gastric acid or promoting unhealthy behavior that introduces other risk factors.

Prolonged or excessive use of some medications can also cause peptic ulcers. These are the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and are active ingredients of common painkillers like aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen.

Smoking is also believed to contribute to ulcer formation and ulcer treatment failure.

Peptic ulcers may be a symptom of some other disease or condition, or reflect a genetic predisposition.

Get professional medical advice if you're in any doubt as to whether you have an ulcer, or what is causing it.