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Karen Stewart, MA, and David Stewart, PhD, are psychologists who work with individuals, couples, groups, and organizations in their Durham practice.

Symptoms of Stress

By Karen Stewart, MA

Karen Stewart, MA

All day, every day, our bodies move us through the world to do our mind’s bidding. Mostly we are unaware of our bodies unless they cause us pain or something goes awry. At our best, we take good care of our bodies with nutritious food, exercise, relaxation, and rest. But under stress (good or bad), we often simply expect them to put up with whatever we throw at them—too much food or alcohol, too much work, too little exercise, rest or relaxation.

Our bodies are often able to cope with such mistreatment for a while, but eventually, they wear down and we develop symptoms. I am amazed at the variety of symptoms that can be caused by stress: headaches, stomach aches, backaches, toothaches, sleep problems, dizziness, forgetfulness, anxiety, full-blown panic attacks, and a host of others. I basically believe that all symptoms are either caused by stress or made worse by stress. It is important to have serious, reoccurring symptoms checked out medically. However, learning to deal with stress in order to prevent their toxic effects is also very important.

Dealing With Stress

Stress can be good or bad, acute or chronic. A wedding, the birth of a child, a new job are all good things that can cause stress. Major life incidents like divorce, losing a job, death of a loved one are extremely stressful. Less dramatic stressors include problems at work or in a relationship, or concerns about health, finances, children. Sometimes stress is from an acute event but often it is a chronic problem—an illness, not having enough money, caring for someone who is ill. Finally, the news is a constant source of stress, as we receive reports about politics, the economy, the devastation cause by hurricanes and earthquakes, and most recently another mass shooting.

The effects of stress can creep up on us. If you put a frog into hot water it will immediately jump out, but if you put the frog in room temperature water and heat the water gradually, it doesn’t notice and gets cooked. I think in many ways we are like the frog, simply absorbing stress and not recognizing our distress until we develop symptoms that get our attention.


What to do to prevent these stresses from taking a toll on our health? We cannot always solve the problems or remove the stresses, but we can control what we do. I believe the most important thing we can do is to attempt to live as mindfully as possible. Mindfulness is often linked to meditation practices, but it is also a way to live.

Many of us go through our days, lost in our thoughts about the past or worried about the future, simply reacting to what comes our way. We dismiss many cues from our bodies, we ignore hunger, tiredness, reactions to events. We forge ahead getting things done without examining the toll it is taking or the tension that is building. When we are mindful we are fully present in the moment. We pay attention to what is happening, to our bodily sensations, our emotions and our thoughts. While it may be impossible to be mindful all the time, practicing being mindful at times throughout the day will improve the quality of our lives.

When we are especially stressed we can be consumed by anxiety. Worry can take us over, and we act unconsciously based on old assumptions, fears, and ‘shoulds.’ When we become mindful, we are no longer controlled by our immediate experience. We can see ourselves and the situation more clearly. We can silently describe what is happening, our emotions, and thoughts. We can step back and gain perspective. Our options broaden as we are able to consider more information. We see that we have more choices and are no longer at the mercy of our emotions and emotional thinking. Once we step back from the stress it no longer has the same grip on us. From this clearer space, we will make better decisions. We may see the way to go forward or we may decide to ask for help, from friends or professionals if we need it.

This is indeed a very stressful time. We need to recognize that and take very good care of ourselves. Taking time to eat nutritious food, to exercise, and to play is imperative. We need to feel a part of something bigger than ourselves; it can be spiritually based or a cause that we believe in. We need supportive communities, circles of people who are there when we need them. We need to find meaningful ways to give and make a difference in our world. Most of all we need to remember that we are all in this together and work towards what is good for all.