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Posted 09 March 2017

Identifying 5 stress symptoms, and how to tackle them

Headache, sweaty palms, increased heart rate: we’ve all felt the symptoms of stress before – but some are less obvious than others...

Mental health journalist Sarah Graham (@SarahGraham7) talks to the experts for their top tips on tackling the lesser known signs of stress.

  • Identifying the symptoms of stress.
  • How to handle these symptoms.
  • Ways to tackle stress more generally.

Stress is a huge issue that many of us face in our day-to-day lives. In fact, between 2015 and 2016 there were nearly half a million (488,000) reported cases of work-related stress, depression and anxiety[1].

Although it's often clear when stress levels are creeping up, there are some symptoms that can be harder to recognise.

1. Insomnia

Insomnia can be brought about by periods of stress, particularly when there is a specific trigger incident or event[2].

‘Many people feel unable to turn their mind off when they hit the pillow and this causes hyperarousal, where one is in a state of feeling 'wired up' emotionally and physically,’ explains psychotherapist Samantha Carbon (@SamanthaCarbon).

If nodding off is an issue, then Carbon recommends ‘implementing a healthy diet, talking to someone about your worries, sitting less and moving more during the day. Also, introducing exercise, as well as avoiding screens and other stimulants an hour before bedtime.’

2. Feeling disconnected

A condition known as anhedonia has been linked to stress. It sounds scientific, but put simply it means the inability to feel pleasure in things you usually enjoy[3].

‘This can happen because you are consumed by a constant level of busyness that keeps you distracted and disconnected from your feelings,’ says Dr. Deb Sandella PhD (@DrDebSandella), a psychotherapist and the author of international bestseller Goodbye Hurt & Pain[4].

3. Stomach ache or headache

‘Triggered by hormones, the so-called ‘fight or flight’ stress response protected early humans from danger,’ explains Dr. Alexandra Phelan (@DrAPhelan), an NHS GP and online doctor with Pharmacy2U.co.uk (@Pharmacy2U). ‘Those hormones can result in physical symptoms, including an upset stomach or headache.’

Stress-related stomach aches and headaches can strike at any moment, and it often feels like the best response is raiding the medicine cabinet. However, there are also ways to tackle the stress before the painful symptoms appear – all of which involve getting out of that stressful headspace.

‘Exercise, socialising and relaxation are all positive ways to reduce the impact of stress,’ Dr. Phelan adds.

4. Memory loss

If you've ever experienced brain fog during stressful periods, you won’t be surprised that memory loss can be another symptom of stress[5].

‘When we’re stressed out and overwhelmed our body produces the hormone cortisol, which is linked to forgetfulness[6]. Stress can often mean we’re feeling under a lot of pressure, juggling lots of things at once, struggling to meet deadlines, or feeling inadequate,’ says ecotherapist Hayley Gillard (@HayleyGillard1). ‘All these effects make our mind sluggish, or overworked, and more likely to forget things,’ she adds.

Ecotherapy is a holistic therapy, which involves working in nature – such as going on walks, gardening and other outdoor exercises – as a way of managing stress and other common mental health problems. In a report, mental health charity Mind has praised the benefits of ecotherapy as a treatment option[7].

5. Muscle tension

Muscle tension is another common issue with stress, which many people overlook[8].

‘When we’re stressed, our ‘fight or flight response’ is activated. Our pupils dilate, our heart rate quickens and blood is pumped to our muscles. It’s great if we need to run away from a lion, but not so useful in everyday life,’ explains Margot Radicati di Brozolo, founder of YourMind (@YourMindCo).

‘Over-activation of this response means that our muscles are constantly activated and tense, causing a stiff neck and back pain. Tense, aching muscles can be eased by taking a hot shower with lavender oil, or by doing some yoga,’ Radicati di Brozolo says. ‘Controlled breathing and dedicating time to doing something you love can also help take your attention away from the stressors and into the present moment.’

All the symptoms discussed here can also be indicators of other, more serious mental or physical health issues – so do consult a medical professional if you have any concerns.

When it comes to tackling these symptoms, and the underlying stress itself, Dr. Phelan says: ‘Talking therapies are a crucial part of tackling any mental health problem, and this is especially true for anxiety. Talking about our worries can help to share the burden, identify any reasons for worrying, and explore how we may resolve them[9].’

For more guidance on tackling your stress, why not read our article: 7 ways to improve your focus and reduce stress. Work-related stress, depression and anxiety caused 11.7 million days worth of work absences in 2015/16[10]. Consider income protection cover to make sure absences from work don’t leave you or your family in a difficult financial position. You can further protect your family from financial difficulty with LV= Life Insurance.


[1] http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/stress/

[2] http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Insomnia/Pages/Causes.aspx

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24471371

[4] http://www.riminstitute.com/meditation-book-bonus/

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15772357

[6] https://medicalxpress.com/news/2014-06-stress-hormone-elevation-memory-deficits.html

[7] https://www.mind.org.uk/media/273470/ecotherapy.pdf

[8] http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-body.aspx

[9] http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/pages/benefits-of-talking-therapy.aspx

[10] http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/stress/

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