man experiencing emotional stress

3 Ways your body is expressing stress

PUBLISHED: 8 October 2019 | LAST UPDATED: 7 September 2022

Living abroad can be exciting for many, but it can also come with stress and nervousness. At AXA, our recent Mind Health research found that the pandemic has been the biggest source of stress for expats over the past year, with lockdowns impacting freedoms and the subsequent economic and political consequences.

More than half (59%) of expats reported a stress level of 6 or above out of 10 over the last 12 months, compared to 55% of local nationals. Looking closer at the data, the number of stressed respondents was alarmingly high, especially in countries such as Hong Kong (54%), Ireland (52%), UK and Italy (51%), and China (50%).

It is normal – and even healthy - to feel a little stressed. But if it gets out of control, stress can be a stepping stone to more severe mental health conditions. So, it’s important to recognise the signs and symptoms of stress to help prevent getting into unhealthy coping habits. 

Identifying where your stress comes from and what type of stress you’re suffering from is an important part of the process. The four main types of stress are:

  • Acute stress: Acute stress is a very short-term type of stress that can either be positive or more distressing; this is the type of stress we most often encounter in day-to-day life.
  • Chronic stress: Chronic stress is stress that seems never-ending and inescapable, like the stress of an extremely taxing job. It can also stem from distressing experiences and childhood trauma.
  • Episodic acute stress: Episodic acute stress is acute stress that seems to run rampant and be a way of life, creating a life of ongoing distress.
  • Eustress: Eustress is fun and exciting - a positive type of stress that can keep you energised. It's associated with surges of adrenaline, such as meeting deadlines or doing something thrilling.  

It’s important to remember that stress comes with symptoms, just like an illness. Being able to recognise those symptoms can help you take care of them. There are three main ways that stress might manifest itself in your body:

1. Physical symptoms 

When you’re stressed, your autonomic nervous system, which controls our heart rate, breathing, vision and more, will go into overdrive. So, it might produce some of these physical symptoms of stress:

  • Stiff or tense muscles, teeth grinding, tension heachaches
  • Sweating
  • Feeling faint
  • Feeling of choking or difficulty swallowing
  • Stomach ache, nausea, vomiting, loosening of bowels, or constimpation
  • Frequency and urgency of urination
  • A lower sex drive
  • Tiredness
  • Shakiness or tremors
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Palpitations
  • Changes to menstrual cycle
  • A poor immune system, causing frequent colds and infections

2. Mental symptoms

It’s normal to feel stress emotionally too, which can cause some of these cognitive symptoms:

  • Anxious thoughts or fearful anticipation
  • Excessive rumination or catastrophising
  • Poor concentration and memory difficulties
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness, inability to relax
  • Depression

3. Behavioural symptoms

You can also show symptoms of stress through your behaviours that are unusual for your typical personality, such as:

  • Procrastination
  • Sleep problems
  • Fidgeting
  • Crying
  • Lack of self-care
  • Self medication through alcohol, drugs, food, sex, or gambling
  • Avoidance of being alone
  • Self-isolation, and difficulties in relating to self and others

Keeping a diary to track these signs for 2-4 weeks can help you pinpoint your stress triggers, so that you can figure out how you operate under pressure and develop better coping mechanisms. This might help you identify a cause and remove the stress, but the diary will also help with more complex stress triggers that would be helpful for your doctor to know, too. Relaxing with mindful breathingeating and walking, might also help you manage your stress. 

If these self-help techniques aren’t working, your doctor or therapist might be able to provide you with a diagnosis and treatment. If you’re worried about going to the doctor, you could even receive this kind of treatment remotely through a tool such as AXA's Mind Health service which is provided by Teladoc Health, with a Virtual Doctor being your first point of contact. The service is set up to support members with mild to moderate conditions and things like anxiety, stress, and bereavement.  

If you need help with symptoms related to stress, AXA members can speak to an expert here.