Recognizing stress and anxiety

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Learn about how stress works, how you can recognize when you are feeling stress, and the signs of body and mind stress.

Key points

  • Stress triggers a 'fight or flight' response in your body, and when this goes on for too long your muscles become tense, your heart rate increases and you may start to feel sick or tired.
  • Stress looks different for everyone, so it is important to spend time figuring out how you react to stress, both physically and emotionally.
  • Physical signs of stress include cold or sweaty hands, change in appetite, upset stomach and a racing heartbeat.
  • Signs of mind stress include feeling easily irritated, nervous, worried or overwhelmed.

Now that you have thought about some of the things that cause you stress, it is important to learn more about how stress works so you can recognize it.

How does stress work?

When you are under stress, your muscles get a big dose of energy called adrenaline. This energy prepares you to fight back or run (often called the ‘fight or flight’ response). In other words, stress makes you more alert and ready to act. But if you have too much stress or if it goes on for a long time, your muscles can become tense, your heart beats faster and your body may start feeling sick or tired. As a result, stress can actually make your cancer symptoms and treatment side effects such as pain, fatigue or nausea feel worse.

How can I recognize when I am feeling stress?

Stress looks and feels different for different people. Something that is stressful to you may not be stressful to someone else. Many young people don’t realize when they are experiencing stress. You may need to spend some time figuring out how your body and your mind react to stress.

Signs of body stress

When we are stressed or anxious, our bodies will start to show physical signs of tension. Here are some common signs of body stress. Check which ones you might have felt and think about anything else you may experience when you are stressed.

  • Cold or sweaty hands and skin
  • Change in appetite – eating too much or not enough
  • Upset stomach (butterflies in stomach) or headaches
  • Fast, irregular or racing heartbeat
  • Feeling fidgety or biting your nails
  • Fast and shallow breathing
  • Tight muscles that cannot relax in your face, neck or back
  • Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Low energy or feeling tired for no obvious reason

Signs of mind stress

Sometimes a bad feeling, anger, nervousness or sadness can be a clue that you are stressed or anxious. You may have difficulty concentrating or feel like you can’t stop worrying about something. You might feel really hopeless. These are signs of mind stress.

Here is a list of feelings you may have when you feel stressed.

Check which ones you may have felt. Think about any other feelings you have when you are stressed.

  • Easily irritated or feeling on edge
  • Nervous, jumpy or restless
  • Worried
  • Racing thoughts or constant thoughts about certain things
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Feeling out of control
  • Feeling sad or depressed
  • Finding it difficult to concentrate or make decisions
  • Wanting to escape or run away

Stress and bad feelings: a negative cycle

Stress can have a negative effect on your thoughts and emotions. In turn, unhelpful thoughts and emotions can also cause you to worry and feel more anxious. Eventually, the stress, emotions and anxiety cause tension in your body.

Feeling tense in your body makes stress seem bigger and even more overwhelming. It’s like a negative cycle – stress can lead to bad feelings that make us more anxious and tense and these make us even more stressed. We can reduce stress by breaking this cycle at any point!

Last updated: September 3rd 2019