Stress: Physical, Behavioral & Emotional Reactions

Stress has been considered the most common cause of ill health in American Society for over two decades (Cleveland Clinic, 2012). Stress triggers our “fight or flight” response, which releases hormones that increase our heart rate and other processes in order to give us immediate energy required to handle the stressor. For this reason, it is important to be able to identify the symptoms of stress in patients and then work to identify the stressors they deal with in order to help them. Unfortunately, more often than not, providers merely treat the symptoms.

Physical Reactions to Stress

  • Fatigue/Insomnia
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches/Stiffness
  • Heart palpitations
  • Flushing/Sweating
  • Abdominal Upset

Behavioral Reactions to Stress

  • Overeating
  • Pacing/Fidgeting
  • Drinking
  • Smoking
  • Angry Outbursts
  • Nervous Habits

Emotional Reactions to Stress

  • Anxiety
  • Nervousness
  • Worry/Fear/Frustration
  • Lack of Focus
  • Sadness/Depression
  • Short Temper

(Miller & Huffman, 2013)

If you are able to identify some of these specific reactions to stress in your patient, take the time to ask them open-ended questions to learn more about their perceived level of stress, specific stressors, and anything they are doing to cope with the stress (either medication, activities or perhaps negative behaviors such as smoking). Then, give them some suggestions to improve their level of stress such as exercising more, eating better, and/or getting more sleep. Use problem solving skills to involve them in the identification and improvement of their stressors and, if necessary, enlist behavioral health support if the patient is declining rapidly or if he or she is unsafe.



Cleveland Clinic. (2012). “Diseases & Conditions: Stress And Physical Health”, Retrieved August 14, 2012 from

Miller, C. & Huffman, M. (2013). Evidence-based Health Coaching for Healthcare Providers Program Manual (3rd Edition).

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