A woman looks out of a window with a thoughtful expression on her face. A woman looks out of a window with a thoughtful expression on her face.

Key signs of stress affecting mental health

Stress can have several effects on people’s lives, both physically and mentally. Each person reacts to stress differently, and stressors that may affect one person may not affect another. Left unchecked, stress can cause many health problems. While our bodies are equipped to handle small doses of stress, we are not designed to handle long-term or chronic stress without consequences. That’s why it’s important to know the key signs of stress that could be affecting coworkers’ mental health.

Interesting facts about stress:1

  • Stress can cause hair loss and premature graying. Cleveland Clinic’s integrative medicine physician, Yufang Lin, MD, states that stress can cause a condition called telogen effluvium, which disrupts the normal cycling of the hair follicles. This can cause hair to fall out more easily or to stop growing.
  • Stress can cause hot flashes. Assistant Professor of Medicine at Emory University School of Medicine, Sharon Bergquist, MD, says hot flashes could be caused by a reaction of your fight or flight response that excites the sympathetic nervous system, which naturally causes more sweating.
  • Stress can cause a heightened sense of smell and ringing in the ears. Studies show an increased level of stress hormones can cause people to identify smells more accurately. Lin states that stress causes the body to function in a hyperaware state so the brain works harder to figure out potential threats, thus heightening some senses.
  • Stress can cause people to get sick more often. Stress releases a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol reduces the number of lymphocytes, which is a type of white blood cell that helps the body fight illness. The more stress, the more cortisol and the fewer lymphocytes to fight sickness.
  • Stress can reduce fertility. Fertility, in both men and women, can be affected by stress. Bergquist suggests that while the body is in a stressed state, it conserves any energy for the flight or fight response, thus reducing the energy the body has for “non-essential” functions, including fertility.

What are the key signs of stress affecting mental health?

There are many symptoms of stress. Employees may be blaming recent headaches, lack of sleep, or decreased productivity at work on an illness, but it could be stress.2

Stress can affect your employees physically, mentally, and/or emotionally. For example, stress could cause muscle tension or pain, which in turn leads to restless and sleepless nights, which could lead to angry outbursts due to irritability from lack of sleep.3 What started out as a tightness in the shoulders could result in a behavioral change.

Stress can cause agitation, frustration, moodiness, the feeling of being overwhelmed, low energy, rapid heartbeat, poor judgment and more.4 Chronic stress can cause more serious health problems, including serious mental health disturbances. If left to fester, stress can exacerbate mental health problems including anxiety, depression and personality disorders.5

Another critical sign of stress is the need or desire to withdraw or socially isolate. Psychoanalyst Gail Saltz, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at New York Presbyterian Hospital, notes that there is a fine line between someone taking a break to address burnout and someone self-isolating due to stress, anxiety or depression.6 Saltz adds that a professional evaluation is a good approach if a person wants to understand the underlying causes of and possible treatment for their symptoms.7

The American Institute of Stress explains that while there are many ways to combat stress, people need to find an approach that fits their needs.8 Physical activities can help relieve stress and tension. Mindfulness techniques, like meditation, can calm emotional response to stress. Speaking with a professional can help identify root causes and ways to avoid stress.

For more information about stress, the effects of stress and how to help employees manage stress, check out our previous stress article.

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1Ashley Abramson, “9 Weird Things That Stress Can Do To Your Body,” The American Institute of Stress, last accessed September 9, 2021, https://www.stress.org/9-weird-things-that-stress-can-do-to-your-bodyOpens in new window.

2“Stress symptoms: Effects on your body and behavior,” Mayo Clinic, last accessed September 9, 2021, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-symptoms/art-20050987Opens in new window.

3“Stress symptoms: Effects on your body and behavior.”

4Hedy Marks, “Stress Symptoms,” WebMD, last accessed September 9, 2021, https://www.webmd.com/balance/stress-management/stress-symptoms-effects_of-stress-on-the-bodyOpens in new window.

5“Stress symptoms: Effects on your body and behavior.”

6Sarah Elizabeth Adler, “4 Symptoms of Stress You Should Never Ignore,” AARP, last accessed September 9, 2021, https://www.aarp.org/health/conditions-treatments/info-2021/stress-symptoms.htmlOpens in new window.

7“4 Symptoms of Stress You Should Never Ignore.”

8Eleesha Lockett, “Emotional Signs of Too Much Stress,” Healthline, last accessed September 9, 2021, https://www.healthline.com/health/emotional-symptoms-of-stressOpens in new window.

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