Honing your stress management skills can help improve common behavioral symptoms of stress like nail biting, skin picking, and overeating.

Stress happens when your body responds to a challenge. It can be from controlled stimuli, like lifting a heavy weight, or it can occur in response to real or perceived threats.

Your stress response is there to help you manage the challenge at hand. In the short term, it gives you a needed boost of energy and alertness. Stress that sticks around too long, however, and becomes repeated or chronic, can start to wear you down.

When you’re feeling stressed, stressed out, or stress-ing, you may start to notice the symptoms of prolonged stress. Because behavioral symptoms of stress are external, they’re often the ones recognized first.

Stress can affect everyone uniquely. Two people in the same exact situation of stress may have extremely different reactions.

According to Michelle English, a licensed clinical social worker from San Diego, California, stress reactions typically fall into four categories:

  • Physical: experiences like headaches, muscle tension, fatigue
  • Emotional: persistent feelings of anxiety, worry, anger, sadness
  • Cognitive: poor concentration, memory changes, learning impairment
  • Behavioral: social withdrawal, overeating, hair twirling, substance misuse

Within these, the lines aren’t always clear. You can have a behavioral reaction, for example, that’s also emotional, like snapping at a loved one during conversation.

“Oftentimes, people don’t recognize that the physical, emotional, and behavioral changes they are experiencing are a response to stress,” says English. “It can be easy for someone to misattribute their reactions to something else or ignore them altogether.”

Behavioral symptoms of stress can be tricky to spot. They may be subtle, like picking at the skin around your fingers, or they can be more obvious, like going on a shopping spree.

According to the Stress in America 2020 report, nearly half of all adults report that stress negatively impacts their behavior in some way.

Examples include:

  • nail biting
  • skin picking
  • lip chewing
  • hair twirling/pulling
  • pacing
  • fidgeting
  • foot tapping
  • overeating
  • teeth grinding/clenching
  • excessive sleeping/insomnia
  • rapid speech
  • argumentativeness
  • smoking
  • drinking alcohol
  • substance misuse
  • unsafe sexual engagements
  • social withdrawal
  • decreased exercising
  • increased spending habits
  • neglecting personal care
  • gambling

Behavioral symptoms of stress vary widely, and everything from your genetics to your personality type can be influential.

“Just as we inherit physical traits, our genes can also make us more susceptible to experiencing heightened stress responses,” explains Dr. Raffaello Antonino, a counseling psychologist and senior lecturer at London Metropolitan University, London, England.

“Some individuals might have a genetic makeup that makes them more reactive to stress, influencing their brain chemistry and hormonal fluctuations.”

In addition to genetics, Antonino indicates behavioral stress symptoms are influenced by:

Personal history and past experiences

Experiencing trauma, abuse, or neglect, may cause you to become more sensitive to future stressors.

Current coping mechanisms

People who can confront stress head-on, says Antonino, may dissipate its effects more quickly compared to those who default to avoidance coping strategies.

Available support systems

The more support systems you have, the less likely you may be to let stress build up to the point of behavioral symptoms.

Environment and lifestyle

“Chronic work pressure, unhealthy lifestyles, or being in a consistently negative environment can amplify stress responses,” says Antonino.

Cultural and societal norms

Cultural expectations and stigmas can affect whether stress is internalized, resulting in more emotional and cognitive distress, or externalized into more behavioral symptoms.

Personality type

“Certain personality types, like perfectionists or those with high neuroticism, may be more prone to displaying intense behavioral reactions to stress,” Antonino states. “On the contrary, those with a naturally optimistic or resilient disposition might exhibit fewer outward signs.”

Behavioral symptoms of stress can be managed in many of the same ways as other symptoms of stress.

Building support

“Developing and maintaining relationships with supportive people in your life can help you create a strong support system that will be there when times are tough,” says English.

When you have working support systems, you’re able to ease the burden of stress through sharing and connecting with others.

Developing new coping options

English also recommends cultivating alternative ways to cope with stress. This includes engaging in physical exercise, nature exposure, or participating in hobbies or crafts when you need to relieve some tension.

Antonino adds that practicing mindfulness can be a way to create a space between stressors and your reaction to them, providing an opportunity to choose a more beneficial response.

Establishing boundaries

Setting clear boundaries for yourself and those around you can help limit how often you’re put in situations that feel overwhelming and stressful.

Lifestyle changes

Eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, and getting plenty of sleep can help reduce the impact of stress.

Other beneficial lifestyle changes include limiting alcohol consumption, smoking cessation, and eliminating substance use.

Seeking professional guidance

It’s OK to seek help for managing stress. Mental health professionals are there to help you develop coping skills and address the underlying causes of stress.

“… cognitive restructuring techniques such as reframing your thoughts or challenging
negative thinking can help you manage emotional reactions and behaviors associated with stress,” English says.

Behavioral symptoms of stress are your external responses when coping with challenging situations. Hair twirling, nail biting, fidgeting, and skin picking are all subtle examples.

Not everyone experiences behavioral symptoms when dealing with stress. Genetics, personal history, current coping mechanisms, and your support networks can all play a role in the type of symptoms you experience.

Like other stress reactions, behavioral symptoms of stress can be managed through lifestyle changes, cultivation of new coping strategies, and seeking professional help when necessary.