How to deal with stress – because the physical symptoms of stress can be debilitating

The physical symptoms of stress can be worse than you think. This is what an expert wants you to know

Illustration of woman with pink lines to symbolise physical symptoms of stress
(Image credit: Getty Images)

What really is stress and what actually are the physical symptoms of stress? It's a feeling that keeps us safe and protected first of all. When our brains are stressed, our body releases the hormones cortisol and adrenaline, and changes in our body happen as a fight or flight response to a potentially dangerous situation. 

That's why you might start to sweat, shake, get quickened or heavy breathing, or begin to struggle for breath. It's simply your body attempting to prepare for a challenge or threat. And stress can also be a driving force. It can motivate us to get the job done—whether it's paperwork or packing for a trip at the last minute.

But when it overwhelms you and leaves you feeling unable to get things done, it becomes a problem. If you feel as though you're finding it difficult to cope, or unable to deal with the level of stress in your life, it's time to take a look at your stress levels and learn how to relax your mind.

What are the stress symptoms?

Stress symptoms are things we're probably all familiar with, but sometimes it's hard to recognise them for what they are.

Despite people thinking it affects just your mental state, stress can leave you both mentally and physically exhausted.

Mental symptoms of stress

Stress can show up in many different ways, depending on the individual. "Sleep disturbances, either finding it hard to get to sleep or waking during the night as well as feeling exhausted all of the time, no matter how many hours you've slept is common," explains Samantha Quemby, life coach and accredited NLP and Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) Practitioner. 

"As is emotional dysregulation, where you find yourself being more irritable than usual and also having heightened reactions to situations. You may find yourself unable to focus, be creative, and you may have the urge to multi-task rather than focus on one project."

She says that a racing mind and finding it hard to switch off are also common mental signs of stress, along with worrying thoughts and symptoms of anxiety

"You may also feel a sense of not being able to cope with how much you have to do either in work or in life," she adds.

Stress can also leave you feeling:

  • Irritable
  • Under-confident
  • Fearful
  • Unable to concentrate
  • Unable to make decisions

Physical symptoms of stress

Stress may also cause physical symptoms such as:

  • Stomach pain
  • A feeling of sickness
  • Dizziness
  • Sleep problems
  • Shallow breathing
  • A feeling of tiredness that makes it difficult to do anything

And of course, we all know the effect stress symptoms can have on our relationships. If we're stressed after a long and busy day, we're far more likely to snap or become angry at our loved ones.

"Stress is a big cause of long-term anxiety and also depression," explains Samantha. "It makes it hard for us to be able to enjoy the present moment as our nervous system is in a heightened state of awareness, meaning we are often worrying about the future or dwelling on the past."

She says, "Increased stress also impacts the immune system and can cause us to get sick more often, and have less energy to do the activities we love such as exercising or socializing with friends. Increased irritability and a shorter temper can also impact the quality of our relationship with loved ones as we often take our feelings of the stress out on those closest to us."

But there are ways to deal with tension. You can practice techniques that teach you how to deal with and reduce stress...

Woman dealing with the physical symptoms of stress by runningg with a friend

(Image credit: Getty Images)

How to reduce stress

Research from Indiana University Kelley School of Business in 2016 found that people in their sixties who work in high-stress jobs and have little freedom or control to make decisions at work are 15% more likely to die than those in low-stress roles. 

Stress hormones like cortisol and arginine vasopressin have also been implicated in negative outcomes ranging from arthritis, weight gain, and insomnia to heart disease, depression, and dementia. It can also lead to a chronic version of stress called burnout, and although you can learn how to avoid burnout without quitting your job, it's not a situation anyone wants to be in. 

Feeling your stress levels rise just thinking about it? Here are 10 science-backed ways to tackle your stress, right now.

1. Working out regularly

Exercise is a known stress-reliever, with running and strength training typically seen as the biggest burners of stress in daily life. As a study from the University of Chicago explains, exercise helps to shed cortisol and adrenaline hormones but it also stimulates the production of endorphins. 

These are chemicals in the brain that are the body's natural painkillers and mood elevators. The study suggests that those who exercise regularly are better equipped to handle stressful events and have more emotional resilience thanks to the rise in these 'feel-good' hormones.

"It's a great way to reduce stress as it can help to release the body of excess adrenaline," Samantha says. "If you are very stressed then focus on lower intensity exercises such as swimming, yoga for beginners, and walking as opposed to intense HIIT sessions as they will stress the body more. The aim is to be feeling energized after exercising, not more depleted."

2. Practice breathing exercises

Shallow, upper chest breathing is another typical physical symptom of stress. As well as being a sign though, it can also making those feelings of stress and anxiety worse as it disrupts the flow of oxygen to the lungs and, in turn, into the blood. 

So learning how to breathe better is very important for minimizing stress. Try the following technique:

  • Let your breath move as deep down into your belly as is comfortable, without forcing it.
  • Try breathing in through your nose and then out through your mouth.
  • Breathe in gently and regularly with ease. You might find it helpful to count steadily from one to five. But don't worry if you can't reach five at first.
  • Then, without holding your breath, let it flow out gently. Then count from one to five again, if you find the technique works. 
  • Continue doing this for 3 to 5 minutes.

This works as when you breathe out, you signal to your parasympathetic nervous system that it's time for the body to calm down. Breathing exercises, where you breathe out for longer than you breathe in, will keep you zen-like.

3. Try some online therapy

Therapy isn't accessible to everyone. You can wait 10 or more weeks for a referral on the NHS if you live in the UK, and private therapy is famously expensive. But if you do have the funds to try therapy even for a limited time, you can get help online for less than you would pay in person. 

For example, Mindbox is a website that offers around-the-clock help for people struggling with a range of mental health issues—from anxiety and panic attacks to stress management. Its mission is to provide the best therapy, in the right place, when you need it the most.

At woman&home we believe it’s important to be able to access support whenever and however you need it, which is why we have partnered with Mindbox to offer you an exclusive discount of up to 50% off their services.

Woman sitting on sofa having online therapy to deal with stress, next to potted green plant

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4. Physically connect with people and the environment

Due to our human need for connection and physical presence, spending time in the presence of friends can be extremely beneficial. "Make sure to bring fun into your day. Too often we get caught up in the day-to-day focus of work and then life admin, and we leave little or no time for fun. Make time to see friends, watch something that makes you laugh, or simply spend time on a hobby that you enjoy. Fun and joy are great ways to combat stress," Samantha says. 

However, if social stress is causing the problem, it may be useful to start learning how to be happy alone sometimes.

5. Eat foods rich in key vitamins and minerals

Foods rich in zinc, B vitamins, vitamin C, and magnesium have a stress-combating effect, according to a study by the University of Arkansas. One of the reasons for this, another review by American University explains, is because these minerals may improve brain function with research showing that magnesium in particular helps to regulate neurotransmitters. These send out messages through the brain and body, telling us how to react to certain situations.

So stock up on spinach, pumpkin seeds, broccoli, fish, nuts, beans, and whole grains. There is evidence to suggest that some anxiety supplements can help too.

6. Drink a lot of water

Much like making sure you're reaping all the benefits of magnesium, drinking enough water is really important to reduce the impact of stress on the body.

When we're stressed, the adrenal glands produce excess cortisol and under chronic stress, which is ongoing over a while, these glands become exhausted. A study from the University of Cincinnati says this causes our electrolyte levels to lower significantly, pushing us into feeling dehydrated. As well as negatively impacting the liver and other vital organs, dehydration can make stress worse as it prevents concentration. 

The best way to prevent this is to drink around three liters of water a day. 

7. Check in with yourself

Stress often bubbles over into physical symptoms because we don't see it coming. One minute everything is fine and the next we're struggling to cope so if you know you've got a busy week ahead, keep a note for any potential physical symptoms of stress. You could use a standard diary or one of the best journaling apps for this.

"Checking in with yourself throughout the day and noticing how you are feeling allows you to release the tension and stress that may be building up," Samantha advises. "If you notice you are feeling stressed then take a few deep breaths in and out from the belly, this sends a signal of calm to your body."

8. Find something funny to watch

Having fun reduces the level of stress hormones in your body. It's true, according to research from the University of Kansas. Much like exercising or having an orgasm, laughing can trigger the release of endorphins in the body and help you feel better.

And whatever you do, turn off the news and horror films. Watch a comedy, an episode of your favorite show, or listen to one of the best podcasts for anxiety to relax your nervous system instead, as it responds to pictures of trauma as if it has to protect you in similar circumstances, so give it some time off.

Just the physical act of smiling can directly affect your mood, as well as your body's response to stress. Research has found that people asked to smile during a stressful task recover more quickly.

Woman laughing at video on phone, lying down on sofa at home

(Image credit: Getty Images)

9. Monitor your internal thoughts

Negative thought spirals can put the body under stress, Samantha says. We often imagine the worst-case scenario when we're stressed but rather than preventing it from becoming true, thinking in this way can just make us feel worse.

"Start to become more aware of your thoughts and when your internal dialogue isn't helpful, simply focus on how you can be more supportive of yourself at that moment," she says. "A great way to do this is to think about how you would speak to a friend. This allows for a different perspective which in turn often helps you to feel more relaxed and in control."

10. Try mindfulness

Mindfulness has been around for millennia, but it's a very simple one and it can see you through some of the more stressful times.

Daily mindfulness meditation decreases cortisol production by an average of 20%, a study by Srinakharinwirot University explains. Focus and awareness could be key⁠⁠—brain scans of highly resilient people indicate that they pay more attention to what is going on in their bodies at times of stress than less resilient people.

Essentially, all it means is being aware of ourselves and the world around us in the present moment and not constantly worrying about the future, or agonizing over the past.

If you want to try mindfulness but don't know where to start, there are various meditation and mindfulness apps that can help you start the approach or exercises you can follow, such as low dopamine morning routine.

Professor Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, told the NHS, "It's easy to stop noticing the world around us. It's also easy to lose touch with the way our bodies are feeling and to end up living 'in our heads'⁠—caught up in our thoughts without stopping to notice how those thoughts are driving our emotions and behaviour."

He says, "An important part of mindfulness is reconnecting with our bodies and the sensations they experience. This means waking up to the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the present moment. That might be something as simple as the feel of a banister as we walk upstairs. 

"Another important part of mindfulness is an awareness of our thoughts and feelings as they happen moment to moment. It's about allowing ourselves to see the present moment clearly. When we do that, it can positively change the way we see ourselves and our lives."

Grace Walsh
Health Channel Editor

Grace Walsh is woman&home's Health Channel Editor, working across the areas of fitness, nutrition, sleep, mental health, relationships, and sex. She is also a qualified fitness instructor. In 2024, she will be taking on her second marathon in Rome, cycling from Manchester to London (350km) for charity, and qualifying as a certified personal trainer and nutrition coach. 

A digital journalist with over six years experience as a writer and editor for UK publications, Grace has covered (almost) everything in the world of health and wellbeing with bylines in Cosmopolitan, Red, The i Paper, GoodtoKnow, and more.