How to Tell if You Are Stressed out

Discover the key symptoms — the intellectual, emotional, behavioral, and physical warning signs that you (or friends, families, and co-workers) are stressing or burning out. 

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Learn To Dial Down Stress

There are relaxation responses that you can learn and practice. These are natural mechanisms built into the human mind & body. But they must be activated.

The first step in fighting off a physical or mental illness is to be aware of the symptoms.

Physical Symptoms of Stress

Image of anterior and posterior views of man’s body. Issued in seven installments by the flamboyant Parisian surgeon Eugène-Louis Doyen (1859-1916)

Blame it on the French philosopher Rene Descartes. He proposed (and the great thinkers of the day) agreed to give spiritual affairs to the Church, the mind to psychology, and the body to medicine. It should be clear though, that physical illness sometimes is caused by something in the mind.

11 Acute Symptoms Associated With Stressing Out

There are a number of physical symptoms you experience under acute stress (National Institutes of Health, 1996). They are:

  1. Your rate of breathing increases
  2. The mind becomes increasingly alert and more focused on the environment
  3. The body’s energy level gets greater
  4. Strength to the muscles increase
  5. The release of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol
  6. Blood flow is redistributed from internal areas of the body to the external areas
  7. The heart beats faster
  8. The stomach and intestine grows less active
  9. Sexual interest wanes
  10. Hyperventilation (Fast shallow breathing)
  11. Sweating

8 Physical Symptoms of Chronic Stress

Quote: Anxiety will make a man old before his time.

According to a study done by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (Rosch and Pelletier, 1987), common physical symptoms include:

  • Frequent sickness.  Individuals are likely to get sick more often and stay sick longer since the immune system due to immune system suppression.
  • Tension headaches. Something all of us have had from time to time. 
  • Insomnia. This includes both not getting to sleep or waking up later in the evening and not being able to get back to sleep 
  • Change in Appetite. For some, there is a weight gain. For others, weight loss. Some when they are feeling anxious have no appetite while others can’t stop eating 
  • Nausea and Vomiting. Not that common but seen in extreme stress states such as panic.  
  • Diarrhea or Constipation. Stressors do have a great impact on teh gastrointestinal system. Ulcers can also occur.
  • Sexual Difficulties. Usually there is a loss of interest. 
  • Muscle Spasm. Stiff or tense muscles is frequently seen. 
  • “70-90% of the visits to primary care physicians are due to stress related such as backache, headache, insomnia, anxiety, depression, chest pain, hypertension, gastrointestinal and dermatologic complaints.
  • Stress suppresses the function of the immune system and reduces defenses against viruses, bacteria, and AIDs.
  • More than 2.6 million Americans are disabled from chronic back pain 
  • Some things don’t change. Seven in ten American workers indicated that job stress is causing frequent health problems and has made them less productive. The same study reported that Workers who report high stress are three times more likely than workers reporting low stress to suffer from frequent illness (Northwestern National Life Insurance Company, 1991)

Case: Death Caused by Anxiety

A healthy, middle-aged man had spent most of his life in the shadow of his mother. Fatherless, he described her as “a wonderful lady who made all the family decisions correctly and who never met a situation she could not control.” At 31, financed by his mother, he bought a nightclub, and she helped him to run it. At 38 he married, and his wife, not surprisingly, began to resent his dependence on his mother. When he received a profitable offer to sell the nightclub, he told his mother he was considering it, and she became distraught. Finally, he decided to sell. His mother told him, “Do this, and something dire will happen to you.” Two days later he had his first asthma attack. He had no previous history of respiratory illness and had not even had a cold in ten years. The day after he closed the sale, his asthma attacks became much worse when his mother told him angrily that “something will strike you.” He now became depressed and frequently protested that he was helpless. With psychiatric help, he began to see the connection between the asthma attacks and his mother’s “curse,”; he improved greatly. His psychiatrist saw him for a minute session at 5:00 P.M. on August 23, 1960, and found him in excellent physical and mental shape. At 5:30 he called his mother to tell her that he planned to reinvest in a new business without her help. She reminded him of her curse and told him to prepare for “dire results.” At 6:35 he was found gasping for breath, cyanotic, and in a coma. He died at 6:55.  — Mathis, J. L. (1964). A sophisticated version of voodoo death: Report of a case. Psychosomatic Medicine, 26:104-107.

The Mental Symptoms of Acute and Chronic Stress

Image by: Cinegiak. Film Poster of “The Dark Side of the Mind”

Since mental is a pretty large category, these symptoms are further divided into:

  • The anxiety disorders
  • Intellectual symptoms
  • Affective symptoms
  • Emotional Expressed

The Anxiety Disorders

If you happened to have a class on abnormal psychology, you’ll realize the importance of stress driving many different types of mental illness. The current Diagnostic Statistical Manual V (published by the American Psychiatric Society lists the major anxiety disorders as:

  • Panic Disorder
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Phobias
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
Data from: L. N. Robins and D. A. Regier, Eds. Psychiatric Disorders in America: The Epidemiologic Catchment Area Study. New York, NY: The Free Press.

In one recent survey published in the Archives of General Psychology, it was estimated that as many as 18% of American adults suffer from at least one anxiety disorder.

However, there are other conditions called somatic or psychosomatic disorders. These are conditions in which stress, anxiety, and worry cause physical suffering. In other words, the stress is being converted to physical symptoms.

Intellectual Symptoms of Stress

William Orpen (1878–1931): The Thinker.

7 Intellectual Symptoms of Extreme Stress

  • Inability to Concentrate. One thinks, but one cannot focus. 
  • Defensiveness. Ego defense mechanisms are essentially an effort by the mind to reduce the stress load on the Ego reduce anxiety.
  • Memory. Anxious college students don’t do as well during exams as more relaxed one.
  • Failure to Pay Attention to Detail
  • Reduced Creativity. Solutions to problems tend not to be found so individuals default to doing what they have done before (which often doesn’t work well).
  • Belief in Loss of Control. If one believes one has no control, even low level stressors can be amplified into major problems. 
  • Imagined Catastrohies. Involves generating extreme mental images. Bad things happen in the future
Envy one of the Seven Deadly Sin. An acrylic painting by Michelle de Villiers.

A List of 7 Affective Symptoms of Stress

  • Apathy. You get that, “I don’t give a damn feeling,” about too many important things in you live.
  • Feeling Down. Everyone feels down sometimes. But if it persists, it can lead to depression .
  • Low or High Energy Levels. It’s hard to define in terms of ergs, but you can really tell something is wrong.
  • Fatigue. You hear complaints about being tired or being tired in early afternoon and evening 
  • Restless and Irritable. Its impossible to simply sit still and even small things going wrong cause you to raise your voice
  • Anxious and Agitated. Can range from a vague feeling of discomfort to panic 
  • Argumentative and Hostile. Clearly a problem since damages relationships.

 12 Stressful Emotions we Routinely Feel

Stress tends to trigger some nasty emotions. Or you might say these nasty emotions increase your stress levels. Anger especially causes many problems for those who frequently use it.

George Grie (2007): Panic Attack or Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Frustration
  • Guilt
  • Shame
  • Embarrassment
  • Jealousy
  • Envy
  • Anxiety
  • Worry
  • Sadness
  • Grief
  • Fear

Case 1

She had been president and salutatorian of her class, and a popular and pretty cheerleader. Everything she wanted having always fallen into her lap; good grades came easily and boys fell over themselves competing for her attentions. She was an only child, and her parents doted on her, rushing to fulfill her every whim; her successes were their triumphs, her failures their agony. Her friends nicknamed her Golden Girl. When I met her in her sophomore year, she was no longer a Golden Girl. She said that she felt empty, that nothing touched her anymore; her classes were boring and the whole academic system seemed an oppressive conspiracy to stifle her creativity. The previous semester she had received two Fs. She had “made it” with a succession of young men, and was currently living with a dropout. She felt exploited and worthless after each sexual adventure; her current relationship was on the rocks, and she felt little but contempt for him and herself. She had used soft drugs extensively and had once enjoyed being carried away on them. But now even drugs had little appeal. She was majoring in philosophy, and had a marked emotional attraction to Existentialism: like the existentialists, she believed that life is absurd and that people must create their own meaning. This belief filled her with despair. Her despair increased when she perceived her own attempts to create meaning—participation in the movements for women’s liberation and against the war in Vietnam—as fruitless. When I reminded her that she had been a talented student and was still an attractive and valuable human being, she burst into tears: “I fooled you, too.” — Seligman, M.E.P. (1975). Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death. San Francisco, CA: W. H. Freeman. Pg. 3.

Case 2

A 27-year-old asthmatic woman apparently died of cardiac standstill and did not exhibit asthma either before or during the interview. She had been reluctantly drawn into a discussion of her psychological problems, including the humiliation of seduction, an illegitimate baby, and a rape attempt by her brother. As she recounted how she had been increasingly rejected by and cut off from her family and had to quit junior college and take menial jobs only to lose them because of asthmatic attacks, she became increasingly excited, cried, hyperventilated, and finally collapsed unconscious just as she was saying, “Naturally I always lost my job and had no hope anymore to recover. That’s why I wanted to die and want to die all the time because I am no-good, no-good.” — Engel, G. L. (1971). Sudden and rapid death during psychological stress, folklore, or folk wisdom? Annuals of Internal Medicine, 74:771-782.

Three Behavioral Symptoms of Stress

James Tissot (1836–1902): The Anxiety of Saint Joseph

Behavioral symptoms are grouped into three categories of symptoms. What is the purpose of these behaviors — to reduce stress loading. This is a fancy way of saying one wants to relax.

Physical Withdrawal

This is also a defense mechanism. Here, the person is trying to reduce the stress by:

  • Social isolation.
  • Neglecting responsibilities
  • Refusal to accept new tasks

One can see then that withdrawal occurs in work environments. Keep an eye out for it if you are running a remote work team.

Rule Breaking

Someone who normally follows the rules can be driven to break them. These can range from small infractions such as not following a dress code to breaking the law by abusing illegal or legal drugs. Typical behaviors  include:

  • Poor appearance
  • Numerous absences
  • Child/Spouse abuse
  • Substance abuse

Acting Out

Acting out is more serious since it has some really nasty consequences. Money worries lead to gambling as a solution. But instead of winning, losses produce greater money worries. One sees

  • Gambling
  • Promiscuity
  • Spending sprees
  • Fights


The first step in managing stress is recognizing that you are in a nasty state of mind. And that you need to get out of this state of mind of the intellectual,  behavioral, emotional, and physical symptoms will continue.

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Access On Site Resources


Carretero, OA, (2000). “What Is Essential Hypertension. “. Circulation 101 (3): 329–35.

Diamond DM, et al. (2007). “The Temporal Dynamics Model of Emotional Memory Processing: A Synthesis on the Neurobiological Basis of Stress-Induced Amnesia, Flashbulb, and Traumatic Memories, and the Yerkes-Dodson Law”. Neural Plasticity: 33.

Gazzaniga, Michael S., and Heatherton, Todd F., The Mind, Brain and Behavior, Chapter 10, Overview

Northwestern National Life ([1991]. Employee burnout: America’s newest epidemic. Minneapolis, MN: Northwestern National Life Insurance Company

Rosch, Paul & Pelletier, Ken (1987). Designing Worksite Stress Management Programs. Lawrence Murphy & Schoenborn (Eds.) Stress Management in Workplace Settings. Washington D. C: U.S. H.H.S.

Yerkes, Robert M.  andDodson, John D.  (1908). The Relation of Strength of Stimulus To Rapidity of Habit Formation, Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18, 459-482.

Work Skills For the 21st Century