Focus on stress – Part 2: The symptoms of stress

Photo by Maxwell GS via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

The first part of this blog (‘Why do people become stressed?‘, 14 March 2012) looked at the question of why some people are more prone to stress than others. This second part of our ‘focus on stress’ will look at short-term and long-term stress and the symptoms that may signify a problem.

Occasionally we are all faced with situations that we find difficult to cope with. For some, these situations can become extremely stressful and this stress can manifest itself in a number of ways, including:

  • rapid heartbeat and breathing;
  • sweating;
  • cold hands, feet or skin;
  • ‘butterflies’ or feelings of nausea;
  • tightening of muscles a tense feeling;
  • dry mouth;
  • muscle spasms;
  • headaches;
  • fatigue;
  • shortness of breath.

Generally, once the stressful situation is over, people suffering from short-term stress can recuperate and get back to normal. In some cases, however, stress is prolonged or long-term and can cause a number of physical/behavioural and mental/emotional effects, which can be damaging over time. For some, the build-up of stress can ultimately culminate in ‘burn-out’ (i.e. an inability to cope). Symptoms of longer-term stress can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint, mainly because people adapt to feeling the way they do. These symptoms can include the following:

Physical/behavioural effects Mental/emotional effects
Change in appetite Feeling overwhelmed and out of control
Feeling of tiredness and fatigue Difficulty making decisions
Susceptibility to common illnesses and bugs (e.g. colds, flu, etc.) Mood changes (e.g. impatience, irrationality, irritability)
Change in sleep patterns Worrying and feeling anxious
Nervous behaviours (e.g. nail biting, fiddling, etc.)  
Increased dependence on alcohol, cigarettes, etc.  

A certain amount of pressure at work can help to focus the mind and encourage people to work more productively, yet this pressure can easily give way to stress, which can be damaging if left unchecked. The third and final part of this ‘focus on stress’ blog (to be posted next week) will look at how employers/line managers can support employees who are struggling with stress. Guidance on reducing stress levels in the workplace can be sought from the free Health for Work Adviceline on 0800 0 77 88 44.

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