Signs of stress can be easy to miss - 9 subtle warning signs you’re at breaking point

A woman showing the signs of stress
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Signs of stress can be difficult to identify at the best of times. Most of us are juggling busy careers, jam-packed social lives and attempting a work-life balance, too - all of which can take its toll. 

Case in point: recent stats from Ciphr report that one in 14 UK adults feel stressed every day, with one in five feeling stressed for two weeks a month or more.

That's a lot. While a little stress here and there is a part of daily life, recurring symptoms that affect your quality of life are not.

So, what are the most common signs of stress? Good question and an important one, too, as they can be  so subtle, you shrug them off as normal run of the mill stress.

That's where our expert-led guide comes in. Below, two doctors helo you to decipher whether your symptoms are worth visiting your GP about. Educate yourself on the most common symptoms, plus treatments, too - ahem, self care ideas, we're looking at you.

Our edits of the best self help books and best self care gifts might come in handy, too, alongside our expert-led guide to the best mental health apps and Editor-approved wellness tips.

Signs of stress: a definition 

According to Pablo Vandenabeele, Clinical Director for Mental Health at Bupa UK, stress describes feeling overwhelmed for a prolonged period of time. "Stress is your body’s reaction to feeling threatened or under pressure, and is something that we all experience at times," he explains.

He continues: "When we experience stress our bodies release cortisol - a stress hormone - which triggers a fight or flight response, helping us respond quickly to stressful situations."

Sometimes, this can be helpful - think keeping you on track during a tight work deadline or maintaining focus pre a driving test. But, as with anything, it's all about moderation. "There's a point where stress becomes too much to deal with. If you are repeatedly exposed to stressful situations, you'll constantly be in that "fight of flight" mode, leaving you feeling overwhelmed," the expert explains.

It's important to know what type of stress you're suffering from, too. Typically speaking, average stress is short term but chronic stress is longer term.

As Doctor Houda Ounnas explains, stress is normal, as is the fight or flight response it evokes - but not for long periods of time. "If you feel high levels of stress for anything longer than six weeks, you're experiencing chronic stress."

Vandenabeele agrees, further adding: "Many of us experience low levels of stress in our daily lives without any lasting effects. Chronic stress, on the other hand, is a result of being exposed to stressful situations over a long period of time."

As a result, you're more likely to feel the following symptoms. 

Chronic stress symptoms: a woman massaging her temples

Signs of stress: 9 to have on your radar

1. Headaches or dizziness

Chronic stress can cause many different symptoms and can affect us all differently, shares Vandenabeele. "It may affect how you feel mentally and physically, as well as how you behave," he shares.

One of the first symptoms might be a headache or lightheadedness. If you notice persistent headaches or dizzy spells, do book a GP appointment, as it could be stress or a number of other underlying issues. 

2. Chest pain or a faster heartbeat

Similarly, chest pain or a faster heartbeat are both known as one of the most common sign of stress.

Do note here, as per the NHS website, that this is altogether different from a panic attack, where you'll experience "an irregular or racing heartbeat, palpitations, sweating, trembling, and a shortness of breath, otherwise known as hyperventilation." 

3. Stomach or bowel problems

Ever experienced diarrhoea or stomach cramps during a particularly stressful time in your life? Yep, stress can very much manifest in physical symptoms, too. 

Not only does stress affect how you digest food, but it can also impair gut function, leading to a runny stomach.

4. Difficulty concentrating

Did you know? One 2020 study found that people experiencing chronic stress found it much harder to focus at work than their counterparts who weren't stressed. 

Difficulty concentrating is also a common anxiety symptom, so do make sure to check in with a medical professional if you're getting distracted regularly. 

5. Feeling anxious or worried

As above, constant worry about anything from whether you remembered to turn your straighteners off, to what you're wearing, to what others think of you can be a common sign of stress, as can catastrophising, that is, always assuming the worst case scenario might happen.

6. Feeling overwhelmed

Ever felt unable to cope with your daily to-do list or simply like you've got too much on? Yep, we've been there too, and this common overwhelm, while not harmful if occurring occasionally, can be damaging if it begins to occur frequently. 

Top tip: Breathwork training or meditation can both be useful tools for coping with overwhelm - breathing deeply and utilising the power of the mind is key when it comes to dealing with any form of stress. That said, nothing can replace time with a qualified professional, so do make sure to book a doctor's appointment, if you find yourself struggling with your day to day.

7. Irritable behaviour

Shouted at your partner, wound up by work or just find that you don't have the headspace to stay calm in situations that usually wouldn't stretch you? 

Then you might be suffering from stress symptoms, and it might be time to book a doctor's appointment. Remember, you are not alone, and stress can affect the best of us.

8. Changes to your appetite

Eating too much or too little? Well, they're both symptoms that you're suffering from stress, as numerous various studies have proven.

Interestingly, science has shown that women are more likely to overeat than men, easing their stress symptoms with food. Sound familiar? 

9. Difficulty falling asleep at night

Finally, while the best of us can be affected by difficulty falling asleep sometimes, if you're suffering from long bouts of insomnia and can't figure out why you, stress might be the culprit. 

When this has affected me before, I've gone back to a more strict bedtime routine. This involves an SAD alarm clock, charging my phone in the hallway to avoid late night scrolling, and reading a chapter of my book before bed. 

5 tips for dealing with chronic stress, plus when to see a doctor

Vandenabeele stresses that there are lots of ways to cope with chronic stress, and it's important to find what works for you. These guidelines may help - as may our guide to stress management techniques.

1. Identify your stressors

First thing's first: identify what makes you feel stressed. "Establishing your main stressors can help you to try to change your thoughts and behaviours when faced with stressful situations," explains Vandenabeele.

2. Schedule relaxation time

Sounds simple and obvious, but relaxation truly is the antidote to stress. "Protect your down time," urges doctor Ounnas.

Try this:

  • Switch off your phone
  • Don’t check emails
  • Avoid social media
  • Try mediation
  • Get moving
  • Focus on some breathing exercises
  • Opt for journaling
  • Connect with nature.

Do read our guide to the many benefits of meditation, while you're here.

3. Don't mask the symptoms

Quick fix medications such as laxatives, energy bars or sleeping pills are not the answer, warns Ounnas. "These are never the answer in the long run - get to the root of your chronic stress as the problem and treat it, rather than masking it," she shares.

4. Talk to someone you trust

Speaking to someone you trust about how you feel can really help, share both doctors.

"Even talking stressful situations over with friends and family may help you to look at the situation differently," explains Vandenabeele.

5. See a professional

If you don't feel comfortable doing that, Ounnas recommends seeing a counsellor or considering online therapy. "If stress is affecting your mental health or leading to developing anxiety, depression or relationship problems, it's time to act," she shares.

Lastly, do remember that if you’re suffering, your doctor is always just a phone call away. They're there to support you - it's their job, after all.

Ally Head
Health, Sustainability and Relationships Editor

Ally Head is Marie Claire UK's Health, Sustainability, and Relationships Editor, eight-time marathoner, and Boston Qualifying runner. Day-to-day, she works across site strategy, features, and e-commerce, reporting on the latest health updates, writing the must-read health and wellness content, and rounding up the genuinely sustainable and squat-proof gym leggings worth *adding to basket*. She regularly hosts panels and presents for things like the MC Sustainability Awards, has an Optimum Nutrition qualification, and saw nine million total impressions on the January 2023 Wellness Issue she oversaw, with health page views up 98% year on year, too. Follow Ally on Instagram for more or get in touch.