Signs and Symptoms of Stress


By Dr Roger Henderson


What do we mean by stress? What are the tell-tale signs? And how do you know when you need further help? Dr Roger Henderson, a GP and expert on stress, has the answers.

There are probably as many definitions of stress as there are causes, since stress means different things to different people. Some thrive on the adrenaline of a frantic lifestyle and constant crises, while others feel tense at the slightest deviation from their routine.

Most people fall between these two extremes but the irony is that we all need stress to function normally. Stress gets us out of bed in the morning and through the day, and a stress-free life would be too dull to contemplate. But when feelings of tension, pressure or strain begin to affect the quality of our lives it is time to take a quick ’stress MOT’ and see what you can do to repair the damage.

Good and Bad Stress

Short bursts of stress are not dangerous. In fact, we are designed to cope with these. We do so with what is known as the ‘fight or flight’ reaction. Adrenaline and other stress-linked hormones are released into our body to allow us to deal with the immediate problem or - as in the days when we used to hunt our own food - run away as quickly as possible.

Longer-term or chronic stress, however, is a slightly different problem and, although it never kills anyone as such, it is probably a risk factor for developing heart problems in later life. It also undoubtedly contributes to other health problems, such as insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome, psoriasis and migraines, if it is allowed to continue unchecked.

The exact reasons for this remain unclear but it seems that the pace of life in the 21st century now means that many people find it increasingly difficult to ’switch off’ from their stresses, and so feel unwell as a result.

The Tell-Tales Signs

There are hundreds of indicators of stress, but, as a doctor, the commonest ones I see include:

• Not being able to sleep properly

• Poor concentration and increased irritability

• Drinking excess caffeine or alcohol, and/or smoking more

• An inability to make decisions, and feeling increasingly frustrated by this

• Palpitations of the heart, a ‘lump’ in the throat or stomach, dry mouth and slight tremor of the hands

• Always feeling that something needs to be done, and that you cannot simply sit and relax

More Worrying Symptoms

These symptoms may be severe, especially if anxiety is present (sufferers may genuinely believe they are about to die) but more worrying symptoms - which you should consult your doctor about - are:

• Chest pain, radiating into the neck or arm. This pain may feel like a ‘crushing’ or heavy sensation and may be brought on by exertion or exercise.

• An inability to swallow food properly, especially bread or meat - it feels like food sticks in the gullet.

• Weight loss or alteration in the normal bowel habit (such as constipation or diarrhoea).

• A rapid or erratic pulse rate for no obvious reason, which may occur when relaxed or at rest.

• Feelings of self-harm or suicidal thoughts.

Deciding When You Need Further Help

Everyone has different stress threshold, but most people need further help when some or all of the following occur:

• Life no longer feels enjoyable - it is a constant struggle to feel on top of things.

• Relationships are put at risk because of the symptoms of stress.

• Irritability and anger/frustration are present every day.

• Alcohol or cigarette intake increases radically.

• A previously normal sex drive is diminished.

• Feelings of self-loathing develop and lack of self-worth.

Stress affects us all but by recognising where our individual stresses comes from, and then following some simple tips we can all improve our physical and mental health.


About the author

Dr Henderson is a GP and medical columnist who is a regular contributor to The Sunday Times and other national newspapers and magazines.


View as PDF


The Have I Got A Problem website is a free online resource to help people better understand any issues or concerns they may have about mental health or addiction. The website includes resources specifically focused to; general Mental Health, Depression, Stress, Anxiety, Insecurities, Self-harm Schizophrenia, Bipolar, Anger Management, Eating Disorders, Coping, general Addiction, Alcohol, Smoking, Gambling, Drugs, Cocaine, Heroin, Marijuana (Cannabis) Ecstasy, PCP, Mephedrone, Ketamine & Crystal Meth.

The site was created to give the public information to help them understand mental health and addiction issues and to assist people in making better informed decisions about their life and personal choices. was created and is run by 'Advising Communities’, which is a UK registered charity (Charity No. 1061055)


"I've probably been stressed throughout half of my life, and at this point in time I'm going through quite a bit of heartbreak."


MoreSend us your Quotes

Tips & Hints

  • Take a break

    Nobody thinks twice about an athlete taking a break to recover from the amount of energy used up when performing to their physical utmo...
  • Sing!

    You may not think you’re very good at it, but no-one needs to hear! In various studies singing has been proven to reduce blood press...
  • Break your routine

    Shake it up. The creation of routine through the necessity of repeating tasks in our day-to-day lives does have the advantage of simpli...
  • Express your feelings

    Don’t keep your feelings to yourself. Talk them through with a friend or write them down. Mentally replay your experiences as if watc...
  • Carpe Diem!

    Live in the here and now instead of the past or the future. Take note of what is happening now instead of being anxious about what mig...
  • More Tips & Hints