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The Signs of Stress

An important part of managing your stress is knowing what your stress looks like. Your stress responses can take different forms: bodily changes, emotional changes, and behavioral changes. Although they look very different, they are all possible responses you may have when confronted with a stressful situation.

Your body reacts

When you’re in fight-or-flight mode, your physiological system goes into high gear. Often your body tells you first that you’re experiencing stress. You may notice that you’re breathing more quickly than you normally do and that your hands feel cool and more than a little moist. But that’s just for starters.

If you could see what’s happening below the surface, you’d also notice some other changes. Your sympathetic nervous system, one of the two branches of your autonomic nervous system, is producing changes in your body.

Your hypothalamus, a small portion of your brain located above the brain stem, stimulates your pituitary, a small gland near the base of your brain. It releases a hormone into the bloodstream called adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). When that hormone reaches your adrenal glands, they in turn produce extra adrenalin (also known as epinephrine) along with other hormones called glucocorticoids. (Cortisol is one.)

This biochemical domino effect causes an array of other remarkable changes in your body. This diagram helps you see what’s going on.

[Credit: Illustration by Pam Tanzey]
Credit: Illustration by Pam Tanzey

More specifically, here are some highlights:

  • Your heart rate speeds up, and your blood pressure rises. (More blood is pumped to your muscles and lungs.)

  • You breathe more rapidly, and your nostrils flare, causing an increased supply of air.

  • Your digestion slows. (Who’s got time to eat?)

  • Your blood is directed away from your skin and internal organs and shunted to your brain and skeletal muscles. Your muscles tense. You feel stronger. You are ready for action.

  • Your blood clots more quickly, ready to repair any damage to your arteries.

  • Your pupils dilate, so you see better.

  • Your liver converts glycogen into glucose, which teams up with free fatty acids to supply you with fuel and some quick energy. (You’ll probably need it.)

In short, when you’re experiencing stress, your entire body undergoes a dramatic series of physiological changes that readies you for a life-threatening emergency. Clearly, stress has adaptive survival potential. Stress, way back when, was nature’s way of keeping you alive.

Your feelings and behavior change

Your body isn’t the only thing that responds to a stressor. You also react to a stressor with feelings and emotions. A partial list of emotional symptoms includes feeling anxious, upset, angry, sad, guilty, frustrated, hopeless, afraid, or overwhelmed. Your emotional reactions may be minor (“I’m a wee bit annoyed” or “I’m a bit concerned”) or major (“I’m furious!” or “I’m very anxious!”).

Together your physiological responses and emotional reactions can activate changes in your behavior. These changes help you “fight” or help you “flee.” Fight or flight may not be an appropriate response to a non-life-threatening situation such as misplacing your keys or failing your driving test.

The right amount of anxiety can motivate adaptive behavior, such as doing your best and working toward important goals. However, too much anxiety, too much anger, or too much of some other emotional trigger can cause you to over-react or under-react. Annoyance can become anger, and concern can turn into anxiety.

Excessive emotion can result in inappropriate responses. You may act too angrily, quarrel, and later regret what you said or did. If you’re feeling anxious or fearful, you may go in the other direction. You may withdraw, avoid, and give up too quickly.

What makes stress such a problem — both physiologically and emotionally — is that your stress can be continuous and ongoing. Modern life demands much of us, and keeping up with these demands means lots of stress. A stressor here and there, now and then — that you can handle.

If you’re stressed out only once in a while, stress isn’t really a concern. Your body and mind react, but you soon recover and return to a more relaxed state. But too often people experience a near-continuous stream of stressors and they don’t get enough recovery time. This figure helps you understand what this looks like.

[Credit: Illustration by Wiley, Composition Services Graphics]
Credit: Illustration by Wiley, Composition Services Graphics
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