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What are the signs of stress?

When we’re stressed, we experience somatic, emotional, cognitive and behavioral changes. Not everyone experiences all of these changes, nor does a single person react to all stressors in the same way. While responses can be problematic, they can also be helpful in responding to the stressor and solving the problem.


  1. Somatic symptoms. Somatic symptoms can take a range of forms including headaches, backaches, aches and pains, or other muscular tension; nausea and stomachaches; fatigue; elevated heart rate and blood pressure; shortness of breath; and insomnia.
  2. Emotional changes. People can experience both positive and negative emotions when stressed (for example, when getting married). On the one hand, they may feel energized and excited. On the other hand or in other situations, they may feel distressed, anxious, worried, sad, or afraid. Some people become more irritable or moody when stressed.
  3. Cognitive changes. People report a variety of cognitive changes when stressed, some of which they find helpful (e.g., increased focus, increased awareness of their surroundings, improved problem solving). Other cognitive changes can interfere with problem solving and can cause problems of their own (e.g., catastrophizing, ruminating, anticipating negative outcomes, or focusing narrowly on more pessimistic outcomes).
  4. Behavioral responses. People respond to stressors in a variety of ways, some positive, which help them cope with the stressor (see How can I cope with stress effectively?), but people also can respond more negatively and in ways that cause additional problems. These negative responses may include withdrawing from the situation or other people, sleeping more (or less), eating more (or less), crying more frequently, or self-injuring.