physical symptoms of stress

Hidden causes of stress you may not have considered

“I’m so stressed!” It is a phrase we throw around a lot in our modern world.

But for some, stress can become an overwhelming health condition with a raft of symptoms that need to be taken seriously.

The most common emotional symptoms of stress are well documented, including difficulties with concentration and decision making, and feeling overwhelmed and/or worried.1

Physical symptoms of stress

When people say they are stressed out, they are usually referring to one or more of the many physical symptoms of stress.

The NHS warns against aches and pains in muscles, including chest pain.2 But some other specific symptoms you may not have considered include:3

An aching jaw

This can be from clenching your teeth while you work, or grinding them at night.

Digestion problems

The body’s natural response to stress is “fight or flight”.

To ready itself, it diverts nutrients and blood away from the organs not involved in that response, such as the gut.

This can lead to a poor metabolism, weight gain and even food intolerances.

Eye problems

Adrenaline, a hormone released during our “fight or flight” response, makes our pupils bigger to let in more light.

If we are sitting behind a computer or staring at a phone screen when this happens (rather than getting ready to flee from a predator), we can get too much artificial light, which can hurt our eyes in the long term.

Tiredness and low energy

Not only does stress affect our sleep health, but it can also cause problems for our adrenal glands.

This in turn affects the production and uptake of the hormone cortisol, which is key in releasing glucose into our bloodstream to be used as energy.4

What are the common causes of stress?

According to the NHS, the most common causes of stress include work, finances, family or health.5

Stress at work

Stress at work, or work related stress is very serious and should not be underestimated, as it is a risk factor for depression.6

When it comes to family issues, being a carer or going through relationship difficulties are usually the biggest factors.

Post-traumatic stress

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop after a traumatic life event, such a car accident, childbirth, serious health problems, or if you have been attacked.

The symptoms can be similar to those described above, but it might be harder to find the root cause, as PTSD can happen weeks or years after the original event.7

Less well known causes of stress

As well as the well-known causes of stress, there are many other “hidden” causes that scientists have discovered over the years.

The American Institute of Stress has identified five key hidden causes.8

1. Childhood trauma

PTSD can occur in adulthood if a person experienced a difficult childhood, or even a stressful time in the womb as they were developing.

If you are experiencing stress symptoms, including anxiety or panic attacks, but do not know the cause, it might be worth exploring your childhood with a therapist.

2. Lack of sleep

Yes stress can disturb your sleep, but conversely, a lack of sleep can also make you more stressed out.

If your stress has only started after a period of poor sleep, improving your sleep health might well help sort out your stress levels.

3. Type A personality

If you are a competitive overachiever who has a sense of never being good enough, you might well have a “Type A” personality.

These folks tend to run on high alert for perceived threats, which means their bodies are pumping with the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol.

4. Perceived lack of socioeconomic status

If you feel dissatisfied with your life, you might well get stressed more easily than people who are able to accept their lot.

This is especially true if you have poor social support networks.

5. Perceived lack of control

This is especially relevant in a work setting, where you might have a lot of responsibility, but little control over how the organisation is run.

Or if you develop a sudden health problem that leads to you feeling like your life is in the hands of health professionals.

How to relieve stress

The never-ending search for how to effectively reduce stress has most people turning to outside helpers such as yoga, herbal remedies, self-help books and more.

The good news is that there is so much out there to help.

But whatever the underlying reason you are dealing with stress, be it stress in the workplace, financial troubles or a childhood trauma, the answer is likely to come from a combination of several factors.

Last updated: 19 October 2020

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