For those lying awake at night worried about health care, the economy, and an overall feeling of divide between you and your neighbors, there’s at least one source of comfort: Your neighbors might very well be lying awake, too.

Almost two-thirds of Americans, or 63%, report being stressed about the future of the nation, according to the American Psychological Association’s Eleventh Stress in America survey, conducted in August and released earlier this month. This worry about the fate of the union tops longstanding stressors such as money (62%) and work (61%) and lookout, here comes the holidays, another big source of stress for Americans.

What Is Stress?

Stress is the body’s reaction to harmful situations — whether they’re real or perceived. When you feel threatened, a chemical reaction occurs in your body that allows you to act in a way to prevent injury. This reaction is known as “fight-or-flight,” or the stress response. During stress response, your heart rate increases, breathing quickens, muscles tighten, and blood pressure rises. You’ve gotten ready to act. It is how you protect yourself.

Stress Symptoms

While a little stress is OK — some stress is actually beneficial — too much stress can wear you down and make you sick, both mentally and physically.

The first step to controlling stress is to know the symptoms of stress. But recognizing stress symptoms may be harder than you think. Most of us are so used to being stressed, we often don’t know we are stressed until we are at the breaking point.

Stress means different things to different people. What causes stress in one person may be of little concern to another.

How Can You Recognize Stress

Stress can affect all aspects of your life, including your emotions, behaviors, thinking ability, and physical health. No part of the body is immune. But, because people handle stress differently, symptoms of stress can vary. Symptoms can be vague and may be the same as those caused by medical conditions. So it is important to discuss them with your doctor. You may experience any of the following symptoms of stress.

Emotional Symptoms of Stress:

• Becoming easily agitated, frustrated, and moody

• Feeling overwhelmed, like you are losing control or need to take control

• Having difficulty relaxing and quieting your mind

• Feeling bad about yourself (low self-esteem), lonely, worthless, and depressed

• Avoiding others

Physical symptoms of stress:

• Low energy

• Headaches

• Upset stomach, including diarrhea, constipation, and nausea

• Aches, pains, and tense muscles

• Chest pain and rapid heartbeat

• Insomnia

• Frequent colds and infections

• Loss of sexual desire and/or ability

• Nervousness and shaking, ringing in the ear, cold or sweaty hands and feet

• Clenched jaw and grinding teeth

• Cognitive symptoms of stress include:

• Constant worrying

• Racing thoughts

• Forgetfulness and disorganization

• Inability to focus

• Poor judgment

Behavioral symptoms of stress:

• Changes in appetite — either not eating or eating too much

• Procrastinating and avoiding responsibilities

• Increased use of alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes

• Exhibiting more nervous behaviors, such as nail biting, fidgeting, and pacing

What Are the Consequences of Long-Term Stress?

A little stress every now and then is not something to be concerned about. Ongoing, chronic stress, however, can cause or exacerbate many serious health problems, including:

• Mental health problems, such asdepression, anxiety, and personality disorders

• Cardiovascular disease, including heart disease, high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, heart attacks, and stroke

• Obesity and other eating disorders

• Sexual dysfunction, such as impotence and premature ejaculation in men and loss of sexual desire in both men and women

• Skin and hair problems, such as acne, psoriasis, and eczema, and permanent hair loss

• Gastrointestinal problems, such as GERD, gastritis, ulcerative colitis, and irritable colon

Help Is Available for Stress

If you or a loved one is feeling overwhelmed by stress, talk to your doctor. Many symptoms of stress can also be signs of other health problems. Your doctor can evaluate your symptoms and rule out other conditions. If stress is to blame, your doctor can recommend a therapist or counselor to help you better handle your stress.

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