Symptoms of Stress


Discover the different types of acute stress symptoms, the intellectual, emotional, behavioral and physical symptoms that you would see in friends, families and co-workers. As with all diseases, we must first learn what the symptoms are.

The Physical Symptoms of Stress

George Grie (2007): Panic Attack or Anxiety

A healthy, middle-aged man had spent most of his life in the shadow of his mother. Fatherless, he described her as “a wonderful lady who made all the family decisions correctly and who never met a situation she could not control.” At 31, financed by his mother, he bought a nightclub, and she helped him to run it. At 38 he married, and his wife, not surprisingly, began to resent his dependence on his mother. When he received a profitable offer to sell the nightclub, he told his mother he was considering it, and she became distraught. Finally, he decided to sell. His mother told him, “Do this, and something dire will happen to you.” Two days later he had his first asthma attack. He had no previous history of respiratory illness and had not even had a cold in ten years. The day after he closed the sale, his asthma attacks became much worse when his mother told him angrily that “something will strike you.” He now became depressed and frequently protested that he was helpless. With psychiatric help, he began to see the connection between the asthma attacks and his mother’s “curse,”; he improved greatly. His psychiatrist saw him for a minute session at 5:00 P.M. on August 23, 1960, and found him in excellent physical and mental shape. At 5:30 he called his mother to tell her that he planned to reinvest in a new business without her help. She reminded him of her curse and told him to prepare for “dire results.” At 6:35 he was found gasping for breath, cynotic, and in coma. He died at 6:55.  — Mathis, J. L. (1964). A sophisticated version of voodoo death: Report of a case. Psychosomatic Medicine.,26:104-107.

List of Physical Symptoms

Frequent sickness. Since the immune system affected under conditions of high stress, individuals are likely to get sick more often and stay sick longer.

Tension headaches. Something all of us have had. 

Insomnia. This includes both not getting to sleep or waking up later in the evening and not being able to get back to sleep 

Change in Appetite. For some, there is a weight gain. For others, weight loss. Some when they are feeling anxious have no appetite while others can’t stop eating 

Nausea and Vomiting. Not that common but seen in extreme stress states such as panic.  

Diarrhea or Constipation. Stressors do have a great impact on teh gastrointestinal system. Ulcers can also occur.

Sexual Difficulties. Usually there is a loss of interest. 


Hyperventilation. Fast, shallow breathing or 

Muscle Spasm. Stiff or tense muscles is frequently seen. 

Intellectual Symptoms

William Orpen (1878–1931): The Thinker

She had been president and salutatorian of her class, and a popular and pretty cheerleader. Everything she wanted had always fallen into her lap; good grades came easily and boys fell over themselves competing for her attentions. She was an only child, and her parents doted on her, rushing to fulfill her every whim; her successes were their triumphs, her failures their agony. Her friends nicknamed her Golden Girl.When I met her in her sophomore year, she was no longer a Golden Girl. She said that she felt empty, that nothing touched her any more; her classes were boring and the whole academic system seemed an oppressive conspiracy to stifle her creativity. The previous semester she had received two F’s. She had “made it” with a succession of young men, and was currently living with a dropout. She felt exploited and worthless after each sexual adventure; her current relationship was on the rocks, and she felt little but contempt for him and for herself. She had used soft drugs extensively and had once enjoyed being carried away on them. But now even drugs had little appeal. She was majoring in philosophy, and had a marked emotional attraction to Existentialism: like the existentialists, she believed that life is absurd and that people must create their own meaning. This belief filled her with despair. Her despair increased when she perceived her own attempts to create meaning—participation in the movements for women’s liberation and against the war in Vietnam—as fruitless. When I reminded her that she had been a talented student and was still an attractive and valuable human being, she burst into tears: “I fooled you, too.” — Seligman, M.E.P. (1975). Helplessness: on Depression, Development, and Death. San Francisco, CA: W. H. Freeman. Pg. 3.

7 Intellectual Symptoms of Extreme Stress

Inability to Concentrate. One thinks, but one cannot focus. 

Defensiveness. Ego defense mechanisms are essentially an effort by the mind to reduce the stress load on the Ego reduce anxiety.

Memory. Anxious college students don’t do as well during exams as more relaxed one.

Failure to Pay Attention to Detail

Reduced Creativity. Solutions to problems tend not to be found so individuals default to doing what they have done before (which often doesn’t work well). 

Belief in Loss of Control. If one believes one has no control, even low level stressors can be amplified into major problems. 

Imagined Catastrohies. Involves generating extreme mental images. Bad things happen in the future

Emotional (Affective) Symptoms

Envy one of the Seven Deadly Sin. An acrylic painting by Michelle de Villiers.


A 27 year-old asthmatic woman apparently died of cardiac standstill and did not exhibit asthma either before or during the interview. She had been reluctantly drawn into a discussion of her psychological problems, including the humiliation of a seduction, an illegitimate baby, and a rape attempt by her brother. As she recounted how she had been increasingly rejected by and cut off from her family and had to quit junior college and take menial jobs only to lose them because of asthmatic attacks, she became increasingly excited, cried, hyperventilated, and finally collapsed unconscious just as she was saying, “Naturally I always lost my job and had no hope anymore to recover. That’s why I wanted to die and want to die all the time, because I am no-good, no-good.” — Engel, G. L. (1971). Sudden and rapid death during psychological stress, folklore or folk wisdom? Annuals of Internal Medicine, 74:771-782.

A List of 7 Emotional Stress Symptoms

Apathy. You get that, “I don’t give a damn feeling,” about too many important things in live.

Feeling Down. Everyone feels down but it persists, it can lead to depression .

Low or High Energy Levels

Fatigue. Hear complaints about being tired or being tired in early afternoon and evening 

Restless and Irritable. Its impossible to simply sit still and even small things going wrong causes you to raise you voice 

Anxious and Agitated. Can range from a vague feeling of discomfort to more 

Argumentative and Hostile. Clearly a problem since will this action damages relationship.

12 Stressful Emotions we Routinely Feel

Stress tends to trigger a number of nasty emotions. Or you might say these nasty emotions increase your stress levels.













Behavioral Symptoms

James Tissot (1836–1902): The Anxiety of Saint Joseph

The behavioral symptoms are grouped into four general categories. It is thought that stressors actions are attempts by the person to reduce stress loading. Also, remember it is the change that is significant.


This is also a defense mechanism. But from a standpoint of behavior, it is a method where the person is trying to reduce the stress they are feeling by:

• Social isolation

• Neglecting responsibilities

• Refusal to accept new tasks

Rule Breaking

Someone who normally follows the rules can be driven to break them. These can range from small infractions such as not following a dress code to breaking the law by abusing illegal or legal drugs. Typical behaviors  include:

• Poor appearance

• Numerous absences

• Child/Spouse abuse

• Accident prone

• Substance abuse

Acting Out

Acting out is more series since it has some really nasty consequences. Money worries leads to gambling as a solution. But instead of winning, loses produce greater money worries. One sees

• Gambling

• Promiscuity

• Spending sprees

• Fights


The first step in managing stress, is recognizing that you are in a nasty state of mind. And that you need to get out of this state of mind of the intellectual,  behavioral, emotional and physical symptoms will continue.


Gazzaniga, Michael S., and Heatherton, Todd F. , The Mind, Brain and Behavior, Chapter 10, Overview

Leadership Skill Development