Is stress an emotion? Stress, anxiety, and the body

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated January 4, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Some people may describe stress as a feeling that has arisen or comes and goes periodically. This language might seem innocuous, but labeling chronic stress this way could cloud the many mechanisms involved in stress responses. Understanding what occurs when one "feels" stress might allow you to care for your body and seek support if stress becomes unhealthy.  

Although stress can be unhealthy, it can also positively affect the human body in limited amounts. However, when stress is prolonged, constant, or unwarranted, it can impact almost all the systems in your body and may be connected to mental health conditions like anxiety or depression. 

Managing stress is possible with help

What are the symptoms of stress?

Short or long-term stress can accompany several physical and mental symptoms, including the following. 

Tight muscles 

Clenching in the jaw, tightening in the throat and chest, and tightening in the legs can all indicate the presence of stress. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), over 77% of US adults experience physical manifestations of their stress. This statistic shows how overlooking physical pain, tension, or distress may cause one not to notice they're experiencing chronic or unhealthy stress. 


Feeling overwhelmed is a common and immediate effect of stress. When you feel overwhelmed, your body or brain may signal too much stimulation in your environment or too much pressure in your mind. Removing yourself from an overwhelming environment to take a break to breathe may be beneficial when you have this symptom. 

Increased exhaustion

Stress can connect with the body's need to rest and reset and may place physiological strain on an individual, leading to increased exhaustion. If you have chronic day-to-day stress, you might be experiencing mental burnout, which can deplete your mental and physical resources for essential tasks like self-care. 


Shaking can be another immediate effect of stress. Shaking might be slight, limited to the hands, or an all-over trembling sensation, like shivering. Shaking indicates a flood of stress hormones released into the body, which could be uncontrollable and scary for some people. 

Clammy palms 

Sweat and constricted blood vessels can be incited by stress, leading to the feeling of cold, sweaty hands and feet.

What do these symptoms mean? 

Each of these symptoms may suggest the presence of acute or chronic stress. These symptoms can occur in negative and positive situations. For example, a parent who meets their firstborn for the first time might feel shaky, exhausted, and overwhelmed while also feeling joy, excitement, and love. In addition, a person who has lost their job might feel shaky, exhausted, and overwhelmed without the presence of positive sensations or productivity.  

When is stress positive? 

Stress causes a response in the body that produces adrenaline and other stress-related hormones. The hormones that are released allow individuals to leap to action during times of danger. 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 rebuild following rigorous exercise. Quick, intermittent stress responses make up an essential part of the human body's function, and they keep people safe by alerting them to danger and risk. In addition, stress can occur as a way to understand the importance of a situation, such as the birth of a new baby. 

When is stress unhealthy? 

The most significant dangers associated with stress are associated with chronic stress. Stress has a vital function in the body, and an appropriate amount of stress can encourage health and wellness. However, chronic stress is a long-term state of stress associated with significant health consequences, often targeted to the nervous system. 

There are two recognized aspects of the nervous system concerning stress: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. Understanding these systems can help you understand why stress is more than an emotion. It is a full-body response. 

The parasympathetic nervous system controls the body at rest and is responsible for bodily functions while calm. The sympathetic nervous system, conversely, is responsible for the mechanisms that take shape in a state of stress, often known as the fight-flight-freeze response

Chronic stress can cause 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 mental illness and numerous physical symptoms, including high blood pressure, hormonal imbalance, and neurotransmitter damage.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh

How to manage and reduce stress

Managing stress may involve a multi-varied approach of numerous interventions. A fast-paced job could incite a stress response, as could an unhealthy relationship. The possible reasons for stress vary, and how stress is managed and processed can differ from person to person. For this reason, there are several categories reducing stress might fall into, including the following. 

Dietary intervention 

Highly processed foods can have a taxing effect on the human body, which can limit the ability to respond appropriately 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 valuable way to manage stress and create barriers to the onset of chronic stress in the future. Mental health intervention might involve therapy, outpatient care, massage, meditation, yoga, or another service that benefits your mental health. Mental health professionals are trained to help clients develop strategies to foster relaxation, confidence, and competency.

Physical intervention 

Physical intervention might involve physical changes like medication to alleviate high blood pressure or introducing exercise to improve physical health and encourage the production of "feel-good" hormones. These interventions could depend on stress's exact effects on the body and can be tailored to match individuals' unique needs. 

Lifestyle intervention 

Lifestyle changes may mean cutting back on commitments or making drastic lifestyle changes. For example, if your job is causing extreme burnout, a lifestyle intervention might require cutting back on hours or seeking a new position to improve stress levels.

How are stress and anxiety related?

Stress and anxiety can be mistaken for one another. However, there is a significant difference between the two. Stress is a bodily response incited by situations and perceived risks, while anxiety is a prolonged state of stress-like symptoms, fear, and worry. Anxiety often occurs regardless of whether there is a perceived or real threat. 

Stress can be a healthy or unhealthy response in the body. However, anxiety is not a typical response and could demonstrate the possibility of a mental health condition. Anxiety symptoms are also different in their presentation than stress and can include the following. 


Many people with anxiety experience feelings of restlessness. These feelings can prompt a desire to move about frequently or from task to task before finishing. Additionally, anxiety might lead to claustrophobia or physical discomfort.

Pervasive fear 

Pervasive feelings of fear are feelings that do not have an apparent cause. For instance, although it can be normal to feel fear if you hear a wolf snuffling about near your tent while camping, it might not be healthy to experience fear of a wolf appearing while you are at home with your pets. 

Increased heart rate 

A standard physical set of symptoms of anxiety include increased heart rate, increased respiratory rate, and sweating. These increases can be incremental, steadily climbing until high blood pressure and difficulty breathing appear. These symptoms could lead to or be a part of a panic attack, which can be common in anxiety disorders like panic disorder.

Difficulty concentrating 

Anxiety may be associated with difficulty concentrating. For some, this response could be due to racing thoughts and fears taking center stage; for others, restlessness and exhaustion could be a factor. 

Sleep disturbances 

Anxiety may be a cause of sleep disturbances, whether they occur in the form of insomnia or hypersomnia. In some individuals, anxiety prompts an increased need for sleep, resulting in lethargy and sluggishness. In others, anxiety can encourage the onset of racing thoughts, high blood pressure, and nervousness, which might keep someone awake during the night. 

Gastrointestinal distress 

Anxiety can cause GI distress, including bloating, constipation, and diarrhea. These symptoms may also be a sign of a medical condition, so it can be beneficial to reach out to your primary care provider for testing if you are experiencing these symptoms on a long-term basis. 


Avoidance involves any action taken not to have to experience or face a situation, person, object, thought, idea, location, or concept. It may be done to reduce anxiety symptoms or prevent a panic attack. People might avoid social situations, conflict with others, driving, or other tasks to mitigate the effects of anxiety.

If stress has given way to anxiety symptoms, mental health intervention may be valuable to improve symptoms and learn appropriate stress management techniques. 

Managing stress is possible with help

Counseling options 

Everyday occurrences can cause some stress. In minor amounts, this type of stress can be healthy. However, chronic or prolonged stress is often associated with mental health conditions like anxiety and depressive disorders. In these cases, enlisting the support of a mental health professional may help individuals mitigate the effects of stress and develop strategies to improve stress responses.

For some people experiencing an anxiety disorder, seeking help from a therapist can be challenging, particularly if time and schedule are obstacles. For this reason, many choose to speak to a therapist online instead of in an office. Through an online platform like BetterHelp, clients can receive support from home and choose an appointment outside of standard business hours, which might be beneficial if local therapists aren't available while you work. 

Studies have also backed up the efficiency of mental healthcare online. A 2018 study on chronic stress found that people undergoing internet cognitive-behavioral therapy (ICBT) experienced significant positive impacts and reduced stress that was maintained six months after treatment and allowed substantial improvements in convenience compared to in-person therapy. 


Although stress is often viewed as a feeling that people experience, it is a whole-body event involving emotional, physical, and mental components working together to accomplish a goal. Avoiding stress is often not part of stress management. 

Instead, differentiating between healthy and unhealthy stress and learning how to work with the signs and symptoms of stress is often a goal of stress management techniques. If you want to learn more about stress, consider contacting a counselor for compassionate advice and guidance in these stress reduction techniques.

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