A stressed worker sitting at her desk

If you’re going through a busy period at work, or you have something happening in your personal life, it can be easy to let serious stress sneak up on you.

Dr Dawn Richards, medical affairs director at Vitality, says “Everyone uses the term “stressed” at some time when we are under pressure, indeed some stress can help us to get things done but it becomes a problem when it becomes so overwhelming it stops us being able to get on with life.”

Being overwhelmed can hinder us in many aspects of life, so it’s important to be able to spot the signs of stress. Here are some of the biggest signs of stress, and how to will notice them.

Physical symptoms 

It isn’t always all just in your mind – it can manifest itself in a myriad of different physical symptoms which you might not think to connect to your mental state. 

Headaches are one of the most common physical symptoms – stress is a common trigger of not only tension-headaches, but also migraines, so a headache could well be one of the first signs that your mind is causing your body pain.

If you are suddenly having stomach pain out of nowhere, this could also be a symptom of feeling under pressure. Stress causes us to enter a fight or flight state and releases stress hormones and chemicals, which can have a negative effect on our gut. It can also cause muscle tension and pain. If you have chronic stress, your muscles can stay in this tense state almost constantly, which can lead to further aches and other physical symptoms.

Mental problems 

It might seem obvious that stress can lead to other mental problems, but we often fail to realise that it can be the cause for what we are experiencing. 

While there are numerous possible causes of a sudden difficulty in concentrating on anything – this could be because of tiredness or hormonal changes – stress is often a key cause of this. Even when we don’t realise that we are still in a state of stress, its effect can carry over and cause us to have trouble keeping our mind on things that aren’t even related to the cause of our stress.

Anxiety and stress are two more states which would seem to mean the same thing. But whereas stress is a response to a situational threat, anxiety is actually a reaction to this. If you are noticing yourself experiencing anxiety more often or more severely than you are used to, this could be another sign that you are feeling stressed out. 

An even more severe possible symptom of chronic stress is major depression. Stressful experiences can lead to episodes of major depression, so it is really important to realise if you are dealing with stress early on by spotting the signs. 

Behavioural symptoms 

Even if it doesn’t affect our minds or our bodies, stress can still have a big impact on how we interact with other people. 

Irritability is a very common symptom of mental strain. Even if we don’t realise it, when we are under pressure we can become irritable and angry at situations and people around us. One study found that higher anger levels were associated with mental stress, so if you are finding yourself particularly snappy one day and you’re not sure why, it could be a sign that you’re stressed.

Our sleeping patterns can also suffer when we are feeling stressed, causing us to sleep too much or too little. Stress can frequently lead to bouts of insomnia, which can in turn lead to feeling more strain because we are tired. On the other hand, stress can also cause us to sleep too much or for too long. If you’ve noticed this sort of change in your sleeping pattern, it can be a key sign of stress. 

One more key behavioural change you might notice in yourself if you’re feeling mental strain is drinking more alcohol. Research has found that men and women who report higher stress levels tend to drink more, with men in particular turning to alcohol as a way to deal with being stressed even more than women do. If you have noticed yourself enjoying a drink more often or in higher quantities than you’re used to, it could be that you are trying to deal with pressure without realising that this is the reason.

Mental strain can sneak up on all of us, so it is really important you look out for these tell-tale signs in yourself. The NHS website lists even more symptoms to look out for which show that being stressed is affecting your life.

If you’re looking for more information about mental health, check out our article on the 10 biggest mental health questions.

As a Vitality member, you could get 30% off an annual subscription with Headspace. Plus, earn Vitality points from other mindfulness apps. Available with eligible health insurance, life insurance and investments plans. Log in to Member Zone for the details.