By David D. Clarke, MD from

Everyone with a heartbeat knows about stress.  It is part of life.  Some stress is good for you; it keeps you on your toes and makes life exciting.

For some people, however, continuous or long-term stress can lead to health problems and make many physical conditions worse.  For some people, stress alone can cause symptoms that can be as severe as those caused by any other form of illness.

How Does Stress Cause Symptoms?

One way to think about it is that when you’re under pressure, your brain will react as it tries to cope.  Sometimes it does this by sending nerve signals into the body.  This might cause pain, discomfort or symptoms such as an upset stomach, headache, bowel problems or fatigue.

However, it’s not easy for people or their doctors to figure out if stress is the cause of a physical symptom.  If two people have the same symptom, one person might be suffering from a diseased organ, while the other person’s discomfort is the result of stress.

How Can You Find Out If Stress is Causing Your Illness?

Your doctor can examine you and do tests to find out what is causing your symptoms.  By studying the results, your doctor can usually tell if your symptoms are related to disease of a body organ.

Next, look at the information below to help you recognize stress in your life and what it might be doing to your health.  See if any of the five types of stress are present in your life.  If so, follow the suggestions for controlling stress and talk to your health care clinician about treatments that may help you.

The good news is that once the underlying stress is uncovered, there is almost always effective treatment available.  Recovery is possible, and so is living a healthy and productive life.

I. Stress In Daily Life

The first type of stress comes from things that are happening in your life right now, such as:

  • Difficulty in a personal relationship
  • Caring for the needs of others but neglecting yourself
  • Death of a close friend or family member
  • Troubles your children are having
  • Being hassled by your boss
  • Losing your job

Try making a list of everything that makes you feel scared, nervous or angry. Does the number of things on the list surprise you?  Is it possible that you have been so busy solving problems that you didn’t notice how much stress you had to deal with?  If so, just making this list may be your first step toward freeing yourself from the stresses in your life.

Next, ask yourself if you would feel less scared, angry or nervous if, every day or every week, you gave yourself some personal time for rest, relaxation and re-energizing yourself.

Some people think this is a great idea, but never do anything about it because they tell themselves to wait until things get less stressful.  Most of the time, though, things don’t become less stressful.  Instead of putting it off, try adding yourself to the list of people for whom you care.

The next step is using trial and error to find activities that give you joy while not feeling guilty about taking this self-care time.  When you succeed you will find you can function much better in other areas of your life with a much lower stress level.

II. Stress From The Child Within Us

This kind of stress comes from inside and is less obvious than outside stresses that come from everyday living.  It affects us as adults, but it started when we were children.

It began, for many people, when they were abused physically, sexually, verbally or emotionally as children.  Some people had to deal with parents abusing alcohol or drugs, violence at home, brothers and sisters putting them down or their parents neglecting them.

For a few, there was someone who stood by them through a tough childhood and helped them understand that they were valuable people.  If you were one of these lucky people, you may have been able to leave the sadness from your childhood in the past.

For many others, though, there is still a struggle to control their anger and bad memories.  They still hunger for self-respect and self-esteem and feel enormous stress because no matter how much they get, it is never enough.

For people suffering from this kind of stress, one or more of the following may have happened in the past or be happening now:

  • Would not want a child you care about to grow up as you did
  • Long-term personal relationships that turn out badly
  • Abuse of drugs (including prescriptions) or alcohol
  • Eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia
  • Worries about how to discipline your children
  • A feeling that life is good, but that something could go terribly wrong at any time
  • Fears that you are fooling people about your abilities and that someday they will find out that you are not as talented as they had thought.
  • Feeling that nothing you do is ever quite good enough, no matter how careful, detailed or perfect you are.
  • Feeling that you really are a valuable person who did not deserve the bad treatment you received as a child.  This can make you feel angry, though some people have a lot of anger inside without knowing it or knowing what to do about it.

Help for this kind of stress can be found in mental health counseling, in books written for abuse survivors, and in support groups found through a church or subgroups of Alcoholics Anonymous.

III. A Disease Called Depression

Stress from Depression can be difficult to pin down.  Depression can get mixed up with the other stresses, or it may show up all by itself.  Surprisingly, many people with the disease we call Depression do not feel particularly depressed.  Other symptoms that Depression can cause include the following:

  • Difficulty sleeping, especially causing you to wake up early in the morning and not be able to get back to sleep easily
  • Losing enthusiasm for activities you used to love
  • Poor appetite or increased eating
  • Fatigue or low energy level
  • Crying for little or no reason
  • Thoughts of suicide

If you have any of these symptoms, let your doctor know right away.  There are excellent medications available that are not addictive or tranquilizing.  Alternatively, your doctor may recommend individual counseling to teach skills to improve your mood and sense of self-worth.

IV. Stress From A Traumatic Experience

If you have had a terrifying or horrifying personal experience, this can be a source of stress for many years.  Examples include military combat, a serious accident or being the victim of an assault.  Prolonged symptoms may include:

  • Distressing memories that come back whether you want them to or not
  • Nightmares and flashbacks where you might feel you are reliving the trauma
  • Strong reactions to anything that triggers memories of the trauma
  • Taking steps to avoid reminders of the trauma
  • Feeling anxiously watchful much of the time (might interfere with sleep)
  • Difficulty experiencing emotions
  • Feeling detached from the world
  • Irritability or outbursts of anger

Counseling, sometimes supplemented with medication, is usually quite helpful for this condition so let your doctor know if you have experienced any of these problems.

V. Stress From Anxiety

Frequent, excessive anxiety or worry about common events or activities that is more than seems reasonable might be due to an anxiety disorder.  Sometimes people experience excessive worry in connection with specific social situations such as being around large numbers of people, public speaking or eating with others.  This may be accompanied by fear of judgment by others or fear of personal embarrassment.  Other symptoms may include:

  • Panic attacks (sudden onset of intense fear, often with pounding heartbeat, difficulty breathing, sweating)
  • Fatigue
  • Restlessness or difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability or disrupted sleep
  • Muscle tension or sweats
  • Digestive symptoms such as difficulty swallowing, nausea, abdominal pain or change in bowel habit

Once again, effective treatment for this condition is available and may include counseling with or without the support of medication.  Let your doctor know if you have this source of stress.

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