Life today is full of pressures and demands. From hectic work schedules to financial struggles to relationship conflicts, we encounter stressors on a daily basis. While a little bit of short-term stress can help motivate and focus us, over time it takes a toll. Prolonged, unrelenting stress, known as chronic stress, has serious consequences for both physical and mental health if left unchecked. Recognizing when your stress has crossed over into unhealthy territory is critical. Being aware of the wide-ranging symptoms can help you see when you need to take action to protect your wellbeing.
Since chronic stress keeps the body’s fight-or-flight response activated, one of the first places it manifests is through physical symptoms. These include:
- Headaches and migraines
- Muscle tension, pain, or tightness, especially in the neck, shoulders, or back
- Chest pain and rapid heartbeat
- Fatigue and low energy
- Insomnia or restless sleep
- Weakened immune system leading to more frequent illnesses
- Upset stomach, nausea, diarrhea
- Changes in appetite, unintended weight loss or gain
- Skin issues like eczema, psoriasis, or itching
If you notice such physical ailments frequently, stress may be a hidden culprit. Track symptoms and see if any correlate to particularly stressful events. Headaches, stomach troubles, and fatigue are especially common with anxiety and overload. Pay attention to previously minor health issues getting worse as well. Chronic stress can turn manageable conditions into major problems over time without proper self-care.
Emotional and Mental Signs
In addition to its physical impact, chronic stress also takes a toll on our minds and moods. Watch for these cognitive and emotional indicators:
- Decreased motivation and feelings of being overwhelmed
- Lack of focus and concentration
- Constant worrying or racing thoughts
- Irritability, restlessness, feeling on edge
- Sadness or depression, frequent crying
- Lack of interest in activities previously enjoyed
- Feeling disorganized and forgetful
- Negative self-talk and feelings of helplessness
When you feel like you’re always tired, frazzled, and carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders, it’s likely chronic stress. Anxiety, anger issues, sadness, and low motivation can all stem from prolonged strain. These mental health symptoms demonstrate that stress is inhibiting your productivity and overall outlook.
Given its effects on emotions, chronic stress also frequently manifests in relationship problems. Look out for:
- Increased conflicts with partner, friends, coworkers
- Feelings of loneliness and disconnection
- Lack of patience, frequent impatience
- Avoiding social situations and isolating
- Decreased intimacy or affection
- Cynicism, pessimism, negativity
When your stress response is overactivated, people seem irritating and you likely feel you don’t have energy for others. You might have more heated arguments due to feeling defensive. Isolation only feeds the stress cycle further. If your relationships are deteriorating, stress could very well be at the root.
Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms
In an attempt to numb the effects of chronic stress, you may turn to unhealthy coping habits like:
- Using alcohol, tobacco, or drugs to unwind
- Making impulsive purchases you can’t afford
- Binge-eating sugary or fatty comfort foods
- Watching hours aimlessly scrolling through your phone or TV
- Lashing out at loved ones or blaming others
- Neglecting responsibilities or having difficulty meeting deadlines
These provide just a quick fix before the stressful feelings return. Look for any patterns of avoidance or addiction emerging, as they suggest you’re looking for an escape. Face the reality of your stress levels instead.
Disruptions in normal sleep patterns—either sleeping too little or too much—are another hallmark of chronic stress. You may experience:
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep at night
- Frequent waking or restless sleep
- Fatigue upon waking even after many hours of sleep
- Increased need to nap or oversleep during the day
- Nightmares or anxiety-filled dreams
Poor sleep diminishes your ability to handle stress and think clearly during the day. Prioritize getting on a healthy sleep schedule to reduce fatigue.
Noticing symptoms is the first step toward feeling better. Look at when and how the symptoms manifest, then take steps to reduce pressure and add in relaxation practices. Reach out for professional help from a doctor or therapist if needed. With some lifestyle adjustments and self-care, you can get your stress back to healthy levels. Don’t ignore the signs—your body is telling you it needs relief.