The Mighty Logo

12 Conditions That May Be Misdiagnosed as 'Stress'

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Editor's Note

Any medical information included is based on a personal experience. For questions or concerns regarding health, please consult a doctor or medical professional.

Not all chronic illnesses can be easily diagnosed through a simple test or physical exam, so people who present with symptoms of these conditions often hear a range of other “causes” of their symptoms before finally determining the true root cause. And one of the most common things patients are misdiagnosed with before they receive their actual diagnosis is stress.

Stress can have some physical symptoms, like a racing heart, upset stomach and headache, and is incredibly common, so doctors may truly believe your symptoms are caused by stress. Stress is also an easy thing to blame if doctors doesn’t know the reason for your symptoms — an all-too-common experience for people with invisible illnesses. Women are particularly vulnerable to their chronic illness being written off as stress (how many have heard the, “you’re just too busy with your kids/school/work” line?), but anyone who appears to lead a stressful life may be told to “reduce stress” in order to treat their symptoms. Making this all more complicated is the fact that some chronic illnesses do flare when you are stressed; however the difference is that these illnesses aren’t cured when you are no longer stressed.

Of course, there are some instances where physical symptoms are caused by stress, so it’s important to be mindful of that possibility and not “overdiagnose” yourself, as well as understand how stress affects your own chronic illness. But if you’re diagnosed with stress and there is actually another underlying issue, you may not get the treatment you need. So we asked our Mighty community to help us create a list of conditions that are commonly misdiagnosed as stress. Perhaps you’ll relate to some of the experiences they shared.

No matter what you’re going through, you deserve answers and a medical team who will fight for you.

1. Chronic Lyme Disease

Testing for Lyme disease is not always accurate and many doctors still believe chronic Lyme disease isn’t possible, so people who present with unexplained body pain, cognitive impairment, muscle weakness, flu-like symptoms and fatigue may be brushed off as just needing “rest” because they’re “stressed.”

“I was diagnosed with ‘stress’ because all my testing came back fine! Nobody could find out what was wrong with me so they said I was a stressed teenager and it was all in my head,” Cassidy Schod said. “I never believed them and five years later I was diagnosed with chronic Lyme disease. It’s very common for Lyme patients to be told ‘it’s all stress’ since there’s very little awareness about it and very poor testing.”

2. Intracranial Hypertension

Intracranial hypertension occurs when the pressure of cerebrospinal fluid in the skull is too high, which can lead to headaches, vision disturbances and hearing issues. Since some people do get headaches as a result of stress, doctors may not realize there is a deeper reason for their pain.

Melanie Voll said:

When I first got sick in 2013, I was dealing with my now-ex husband dragging out our divorce and was told it was just stress while all these doctors were grasping for straws! Finally got diagnosed with chronic migraines a few months later and two years after that intracranial hypertension along with the chronic migraines. Because intracranial hypertension doesn’t show on most tests-CT scans, MRIs, etc. didn’t catch it at first, only a spinal tap confirmed it all.

3. Lupus

Like many autoimmune diseases, lupus can cause debilitating fatigue, which may be misinterpreted as simply being caused by your busy lifestyle and obligations. Complicating matters is the fact that for many people, stress can also exacerbate their symptoms. However, lupus is a chronic illness, so even if you are completely stress-free, you won’t be “cured,” and you will still likely experience symptoms and flare-ups sometimes.

Kat Saunders-Seglin said:

I found out I have lupus. At 28, I finally have an answer. I’ve been telling them since I was 18 that I was tired and didn’t feel well. Their response was always, ‘You’re in college, you need to quit staying up late studying.’ Or the quintessential, ‘You’re too young to be that tired.’ Well, for your information, I’m not! Even a rheumatologist disregarded me and said it was Sjögren’s syndrome and nothing more. Nope, it was lupus. I’ve been living with it for 10 years and I’m at the point where it’s almost debilitating. That along with Sjögren’s, fibromyalgia, and lupus, I’m trying to re-learn who I am.

4. Dysautonomia

Dysautonomia is a malfunction of the autonomic nervous system, which includes body functions like heart rate and blood pressure. People with dysautonomia may present with symptoms like a rapid heart rate, lightheadedness and fainting which can appear to be symptoms of anxiety or stress. The key difference is that people with dysautonomia will experience these symptoms even if they are just running errands or getting out of bed, and not feeling stressed at all.

“When I was 10 I started having episodes of extremely rapid heart rate. They just said I was stressed… Thanks to my persistence and a good cardiologist, at 28 I was finally diagnosed with a form of dysautonomia called inappropriate sinus tachycardia,” Kim Madsen said.

“My former doctor was aware I have hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (hEDS). I complained at eight visits over six months that when I walk the dog or grocery shop, I felt like my heart was racing and I was getting dizzy and very faint. He kept saying it was ‘anxiety and stress’ and that I ‘needed to relax.’ I went to a new doctor, who referred me to a cardiologist. Turns out I have postural orthostatic tachycardia (POTS), a common comorbidity of hEDS,” Susan North explained.

5. Crohn’s Disease

The abdominal pain, fatigue, weight loss and diarrhea caused by Crohn’s disease can appear to be stress-related, especially since some people do experience these symptoms when they are stressed or anxious. However, Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory disorder of the bowel and cannot be cured by lowering stress. It is treated using medication and, in some cases, surgery.

“I was diagnosed with ‘stress’ when I was a little child. ‘She’s just nervous,’ doctors kept telling my mother. When I was 36 I was rushed to the emergency room near death. Finally, after a lot of tests and a colonoscopy, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. The worst two days of my life ended up saving it. Since then I’ve been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, ME/CFS and neural mediated hypotension. Don’t stop until you get answers, you are not ‘crazy!’” Julie Pearson said.

“‘Nervous stomach…’ it was Crohn’s disease,” Amber Oppenheimer said.

6. Endometriosis

Endometriosis is not rare, and yet women are often brushed off or not believed when they describe symptoms including pelvic pain and irregular periods. Doctors may view endometriosis as “just a bad period,” anxiety or stress, though the condition is a disorder in which tissue similar to the uterine lining grows outside the uterus and is not connected to stress.

Alexandra Alexandra Des Merveilles said:

I was diagnosed with ‘stress’ for about nine years. The stress which supposedly caused my stomach aches and which flared up a possible IBS. When pain became daily and I was at the ER all the other day, I started searching for the right doctor. I was told by a radiologist that I might have endometriosis, but my gyno brushed it off as it was the most ridiculous idea. I had to wait another full year to be finally diagnosed.

7. Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Although they may sometimes look similar from the outside, stress and anxiety are not the same thing. Stress is typically caused by a specific event or task, while anxiety, as Mighty contributor Annie O. explained, “can be about said events/tasks, but is usually about something more beneath the surface, something irrational and highly unlikely to occur.”

“I have generalized anxiety disorder (clinically diagnosed by a previous doctor) and because my chart says that I have GAD, which a lot of doctors think is basically just stress, I was blown off when I got sick. I eventually got diagnosed with fibromyalgia because after seeing five doctors that blew off my concerns, I finally found one who would listen,” Jordan Higby said.

8. Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome

Like many “invisible” chronic conditions, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome does not necessarily mean you will have outward, obvious “signs,” and the condition remains under-diagnosed since many doctors are unfamiliar with it and may chalk up the pain it causes to stress. EDS is a genetic disorder of the connective tissue, so stress does not factor in to whether or not someone has it.

Hannah Wingert said:

I went to the doctor because I had been feeling awful, having muscle spasms, extreme fatigue, severe pain, etc. and she told me it was caused by stress from planning my wedding since all my tests came back normal. I figured it would go away after I got married. It didn’t, but seven months after getting married, we found out we were expecting our first child so I wrote it all off to being pregnant, and then postpartum, and then pregnant again, etc. When my fourth and youngest child was a baby, it got bad enough that I went back to the doctor and finally found out that I have Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.

8. Thyroid Disorders

Having an underactive (hypo) thyroid can lead to symptoms including fatigue, brain fog and depression, while having an overactive (hyper) thyroid can lead to symptoms like nervousness, fast heart rate, increased sweating and concentration problems. A person with a thyroid disorder may actually feel like they are stressed, but with proper treatment, thyroid levels can go back to healthier levels and symptoms should subside.

Michelle Fogarty said:

I was actually put on stress leave from work and told by my doctors I was having a mental breakdown. Everyone in my life thought this was true and I was under a psychiatrist. Then they gave me antidepressants and I had a seizure and small stroke. They rushed me to hospital and said I’d had a reaction. Sent me home with a new one. However, a series of blood tests caught the real culprit and I was rushed back to hospital. My thyroid had actually stopped working. I mean undetectable thyroid hormone. They can’t believe I was conscious. It took 18 months to get half normal. Psychiatrist refused to see me after that, made his secretary message me in hospital and say I no longer needed to see him. Hashimoto’s, Graves’ disease. Not stress.

9. Food Allergies/Sensitivities

If particular foods cause stomach pain and digestive issues but you are undiagnosed, you or your doctors might think you’re simply reacting to stress (and as the example below shows, you might consume this food in response to stress!). By removing the food, however, you should also remove the stress-like symptoms.

“I had ‘stress’ wind up being a reaction to dairy. I would get sick with regularity because my comfort food was Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, but I was getting sick even when I was not stressed. I kept getting a diagnosis of stomach upset due to stress, but it turned out it was a problem with digesting dairy proteins,” Cassie Dupras said.

10. Stomach Ulcer

It’s common to tell someone who’s experiencing high levels of stress, “You need to relax, you’ll give yourself an ulcer!” It’s not confirmed exactly what role stress plays in ulcers; one theory suggests stress can lead to excessive stomach acid secretion and cause an ulcer, while more recent research has suggested ulcers may be caused by bacterial infection. In any case, medication and possible surgery can treat ulcers — a simple reduction in stress doesn’t make an ulcer “go away.” And, doctors shouldn’t assume someone who doesn’t appear to lead a stressful life couldn’t possibly have an ulcer.

Alyson Ahern Knop said:

When I was a kid, I had bad stomach pains that lessened slightly after eating but were generally always present. My mom thought I might have stomach ulcers, which run in the family. My doctors didn’t even think it could be stress (’13-year-olds don’t have stress’) but said I was trying to get out of school. I stopped complaining about it and, a few months later, had to be rushed to the hospital with a perforated pyloric ulcer. Almost killed me.

11. Fibromyalgia

People with fibromyalgia are experiencing real, widespread body pain — they are not “making it up” and can’t just “be positive” to make the pain go away. Many people notice that decreasing stress does help manage symptoms, but there is currently no cure and scientists are still not sure exactly what causes it. Fibromyalgia is a real illness and should not be written off as “just stress.”

“First it was ‘growing pains’ then it was stress and about five wrong diagnoses before they finally got it right with fibromyalgia,” Amanda Morelli said.

12. Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS)

Sometimes brushed off as “yuppie flu” and claimed to be a result of too much stress and the (bizarre) theory that a patient simply doesn’t want to move, research has increasingly shown that ME/CFS has a biological basis and may one day be diagnosable through a blood test.

“I was diagnosed with stress-related anxiety, given antidepressants and sent to physio after several years of severe muscular pain, headaches, and flat-out exhaustion. All blood tests were normal. Physio made it all worse. Meds did help my mood, however all the other symptoms persisted. Finally diagnosed with CFS/ME after about three years of symptoms and I’m probably one of the lucky ones!” Emma Hill said.

Originally published: October 10, 2018
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home