Excess stress can manifest itself in a variety of emotional, behavioral, and even physical symptoms, and the symptoms of stress vary enormously among different individuals. Common somatic (physical) symptoms often reported by those experiencing excess stress include sleep disturbances, muscle tension, headache, gastrointestinal disturbances, and fatigue. Emotional and behavioral symptoms that can accompany excess stress include nervousness, anxiety, changes in eating habits including overeating, loss of enthusiasm or energy, and mood changes. Of course, none of these signs or symptoms means for certain that there is an elevated stress level since all of these symptoms can be caused by other medical and/or psychological conditions.
It is also known that people under stress have a greater tendency to engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as excessive use or abuse of alcohol and drugs, cigarette smoking, and making poor nutritional choices, than their less-stressed counterparts. These unhealthy behaviors can further increase the severity of symptoms related to stress, often leading to a "vicious cycle" of symptoms and unhealthy behaviors.
The experience of stress is highly individualized. What constitutes overwhelming stress for one person may not be perceived as stress by another. Likewise, the symptoms and signs of poorly managed stress will be different for each person.
Who is most vulnerable to stress?
Stress comes in many forms and affects people of all ages and all walks of life. No external standards can be applied to predict stress levels in individuals—one need not have a traditionally stressful job to experience workplace stress, just as a parent of one child may experience more parental stress than a parent of several children. The degree of stress in our lives is highly dependent upon individual factors such as our physical health, the quality of our interpersonal relationships, the number of commitments and responsibilities we carry, the degree of others' dependence upon us, expectations of us, the amount of support we receive from others, and the number of changes or traumatic events that have recently occurred in our lives.
Some generalizations, however, can be made. People with adequate social support networks report less stress and overall improved mental health in comparison to those without adequate social contacts. People who are poorly nourished, who get inadequate sleep, or who are physically unwell also have a reduced capacity to handle pressures and stresses of everyday life and may report higher stress levels. Some stressors are particularly associated with certain age groups or life stages. Children, teens, working parents, and seniors are examples of the groups who often face common stressors related to life transitions.