Is Stress An Emotion? Why Stress Is More Than A Feeling

By BetterHelp Editorial Team|Updated July 8, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

“I’m just feeling a little stressed.” “I have been feeling really stressed lately.” These are common ways to describe a state of stress—as a feeling that has arisen or comes and goes periodically. This type of language might seem innocuous, but labeling stress this way—as a feeling—could cloud the many mechanisms involved in stress responses and could discourage people from seeking help to develop stress management techniques. What exactly is stress, if not an emotion?

The Role of Stress in the Body

Do You Want To De-Stress And Enjoy Life? Therapy Can Help

Although stress is often seen as an enemy, it has both positive and negative effects on the human body. Stress is a necessary mechanism designed to protect humans from danger and instigate a flood of responses that enable humans to escape high-risk situations, cope with unexpected events, and handle challenging tasks. Consequently, stress should not be viewed as something to eradicate entirely, or wholly avoid; stress is, in part, what allows parents to move at seemingly super-human speeds to protect their children, and is, in part, what allows muscles to break down and grow stronger. It is when stress is prolonged, constant, or unwarranted that it becomes problematic.

Common Stress Symptoms

Most people have had some experience with stress, whether it came from the stress of adding a new little person to a family structure, or from losing a job. To determine whether or not you are stressed, there are some hallmark features of this experience. They include:

  • Tight muscles. Clenching in the jaw, tightening in the throat and chest, and tightening in the legs can all indicate the presence of stress.
  • Feelings of overwhelm. Feeling overwhelmed is one of the most common and immediate effects of stress. When you feel overwhelmed, it is often your body or brain signaling that either there is too much stimulation occurring in your environment, or that there is too much pressure being placed on your mind.
  • Stress can trigger the body’s need to rest and reset and can place a lot of physiological strain on an individual, leading to an increased need to rest.
  • Shaking is another immediate effect of stress. Shaking might be slight, limited to the hands, or could be an all-over trembling sensation, not unlike shivering. Shaking indicates that there is a flood of stress hormones being released.
  • Clammy palms. Sweat and constricted blood vessels can both happen as a result of stress, which can lead to the feeling of cold, sweaty hands and feet.

Each of these symptoms suggests the presence of acute stress. These symptoms can occur in both negative and positive situations; a mother who has just been handed her baby for the first time might feel shaky, exhausted, and overwhelmed, just as much as someone who has just lost their job might feel shaky, exhausted, and overwhelmed. Typically, the difference in stress symptoms lies not in the symptoms themselves but in the reaction people have to their symptoms.

The Benefits of Stress

Stress triggers a response in the body that promotes the production of adrenaline and other stress-related hormones, in addition to prompting the growth of new cells. The hormones that are released allow individuals to leap to action when the danger has presented itself. Stress hormones can instigate a freeze response, the response to run, or the response to begin fighting back. Stress hormones in the body can also encourage muscles to break down and come back stronger following rigorous exercise. Quick, intermittent stress responses make up an important part of the human body’s function, and human beings would not be equipped to handle day-to-day life without them.

Stress Dangers

The most significant dangers associated with stress are associated specifically with chronic stress. As discussed above, stress itself is not something to be demonized; stress has an important function in the body, and the necessary, appropriate amount of stress can actually encourage health and wellness. Chronic stress is never an optimal stress response, and always has significant health consequences, the most pressing of which is its effect on the nervous system.

There are two recognized aspects of the nervous system in relation to stress: the sympathetic nervous system, and the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system controls the body at rest and is responsible for bodily functions that occur while in a state of calm. The sympathetic nervous system, conversely, is responsible for the mechanisms that take shape in a state of stress (more commonly known as “fight or flight”). Chronic stress can create a condition known as Sympathetic Nervous System Dominance, which describes a state in which the fight or flight response becomes the norm for an individual, rather than a state of calm or rest. Prolonged Sympathetic Nervous System Dominance can lead to a cascade of mental illness and numerous physical symptoms, including high blood pressure, hormonal imbalance, and neurotransmitter damage.

How to Manage Stress

Managing stress requires a multi-varied approach, involving numerous interventions to be effective. Stress typically arises as a result of legitimate concerns: the health of a family member might trigger a stress response, as could a trying time in school. A fast-paced job could trigger a stress response, as could an unhealthy relationship. The possible reasons for stress run the gamut, and the manner in which stress is managed and processed is correspondingly large. For this reason, there are several categories reducing stress typically falls into. These include:

  • Dietary Intervention. Highly processed foods can have a taxing effect on the human body, which can limit the ability to appropriately respond to stress on a physiological level. Introducing the appropriate amount of protein, carbohydrates, and lipids into an individual’s diet can help limit the physical effects of stress and improve both physical and mental health.
  • Mental Health Intervention. Mental health intervention can be a useful way to manage stress and create barriers to the onset of chronic stress in the future. Mental health intervention can include simple interventions designed to combat existing stress and can also include the diagnosis of previously unknown disorders that could be contributing to stress. In either case, mental health professionals are trained to help their patients develop strategies to improve mental health, including learning techniques to foster relaxation, confidence, and competency.
  • Physical Intervention. Physical intervention might require physical changes such as medication to alleviate high blood pressure or might include introducing exercise to improve physical health and encourage the production of feel-good hormones. These interventions will depend largely on the exact effects stress has had on the body and will be tailored to match individuals’ unique needs and stressors.
  • Lifestyle Intervention. This is often one of the most difficult interventions because it can mean cutting back on commitments or making drastic lifestyle changes. If your job is creating too significant a stress response, a lifestyle intervention might require cutting back on hours, or seeking out a new position entirely to improve stress levels.

Stress and Mental Health Intervention

Do You Want To De-Stress And Enjoy Life? Therapy Can Help

Some stress is created by typical, everyday occurrences that everyone must deal with. There are also types of stress that come as a result of declining mental health, as is the case with anxiety disorders and some depressive disorders. In both cases, enlisting the help of a mental health professional can be helpful in mitigating the effects of stress, and developing strategies to improve stress responses.

Stress and anxiety can be mistaken for one another, but it is important to understand the difference between the two: stress is a bodily response incurred by situations, while anxiety is a prolonged state of stress-like symptoms, regardless of whether or not there is a distinct entity causing stress to flare up in the body. Stress is a normal, sometimes-healthy response, while anxiety is not a typical response, and demonstrates the possibility of needing mental health intervention. The symptoms of stress were already discussed, but the symptoms of anxiety are different in their presentation. They include:

  • Many people with anxiety experience feelings of restlessness. These feelings can prompt a desire to move about frequently, move from task to task before finishing, and can even lead to feelings of claustrophobia or extreme physical discomfort.
  • Pervasive feelings of fear. Pervasive feelings of fear are fearful feelings that do not have a readily apparent cause. Although it is perfectly normal to feel fear if you hear a wolf snuffling about near your tent while camping, it would not be considered typical to feel a spike of fear while sitting at home, resting with a pet dog.
  • Increased heart and respiratory rates. A common physical set of symptoms of anxiety include increased heart rates and increased respiratory rates. These increases can be incremental, steadily climbing over a period of time, until high blood pressure and difficulty breathing have developed or may be acute, showing up only in the midst of a panic attack or surge of anxiety.
  • Difficulty concentrating. Anxiety can cause individuals to experience difficulty concentrating. For some, this is due to racing thoughts and irrational fears taking center stage, and for others, restlessness and exhaustion are to blame.
  • Sleep disturbances. Anxiety can cause both too little and too much sleep. In some individuals, anxiety prompts an increased need for sleep, resulting in lethargy and sluggishness, while in others, anxiety can encourage the onset of racing thoughts, high blood pressure, and nervousness, all of which can make it difficult to fall and stay asleep.
  • GI distress. Anxiety can cause GI distress, including bloating, constipation, and diarrhea.
  • Avoidance symptoms. Avoidance symptoms are common to anxiety disorders. Avoidance is any action that is taken in order to avoid something—in this case, to avoid a surge of anxiety symptoms. People might avoid social situations, conflict with others, driving, or other tasks to mitigate the effects of anxiety.

If stress has given way to the symptoms of anxiety, mental health intervention may be necessary to improve symptoms and learn appropriate stress management techniques and anxiety treatment. Although stress is often viewed as a feeling people experience, it is actually a whole-body event, involving emotional, physical, and mental components working together to accomplish a goal. Avoiding stress altogether is not the goal of stress management; instead, differentiating between healthy and unhealthy stress and learning how to work with the signs and symptoms of stress is the ultimate goal of stress management techniques.

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