Exploring What Stress Looks Like And What It Can Do To You

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated October 30, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Many medical professionals refer to stress as the “silent killer” because it can have serious and unexpected effects on your mental, physical, and emotional health if left untreated. According to the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America Survey in 2022, “76% of adults said they have experienced health impacts due to stress in the prior month, including headache (38%), fatigue (35%), feeling nervous or anxious (34%), and/or feeling depressed or sad (33%).” 

Below, we’ll explore the psychological and physical effects of stress and ways to mitigate stress before it becomes unmanageable. 

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Do You Have Healthy Ways To Cope With Your Stress?

What Is Stress?

Stress involves a set of psychological and physical reactions you feel due to tense or adverse experiences. When you experience stress, your body produces and releases stress hormones, which act as neurotransmitters, conveying the message to various body systems that you are in danger. Stress hormones travel through the nervous system, inducing physical reactions such as increasing your heart rate to make running easier, pumping more blood (and oxygen) to your muscles, or triggering your fight-or-fight evolutionary response.

According to the World Health Organization, stress “affects both the mind and the body. A little bit of stress is good and can help us perform daily activities. Too much stress can cause physical and mental health problems. Learning how to cope with stress can help us feel less overwhelmed and support our mental and physical well-being.” 

Types Of Stress

  • Acute: Short-term stress reactions in response to stressors. This is the most common type of stress. 

  • Chronic: Persistent stress that results from long-term situations such as challenging work environments or relationship troubles. Chronic stress can feel inescapable.

  • Episodic Acute: Habitual reactions to stressors, which may then lead to further stress. Episodic acute stress can feel like a way of life. 

  • Eustress: Positive, motivating stressors that can help you push through to complete something. Eustress may feel energizing or even fun in some situations, such as the rush of energy when spotting the finish line of a race. 

How Stress Can Affect Your Life

Stress can present differently for everyone, but mental health professionals have identified several common symptoms seen in many people feeling stressed. 

Common Stress Symptoms

  • Physical symptoms may include headaches, chest pain, muscle tension, persistent fatigue, shifts in sex drive, changes in sleep habits, and stomachaches.

  • Emotional symptoms may include restlessness, lack of motivation, feelings of being overwhelmed, sadness or depression, anxiety, difficulty focusing, and irritability.

  • Behavioral symptoms can include over- or under-eating, substance or alcohol use, out-of-character outbursts, decreased physical activity, and social withdrawal.

What Causes Stress?

Many things can cause stress. Your body may be physically stressed by illness or disease that inhibits proper function; emotional stress can influence your thoughts, actions, and feelings; and psychological stress can trigger your fight-or-flight response. You may feel stressed about pressure at work, arguments with your children, financial difficulties, relationship problems, or any situations that put strain or pressure on you. 

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Why Do Some People Process Stress Differently?

Some people process stress differently than others. While researchers have some ideas about why some have trouble coping with stress, many medical professionals believe it’s due to variations in temperament and personality, genetic characteristics, environmental factors, and natural stress tolerances. 

Stress-Related Disorders

  • Anxiety disorders

  • Depression

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

  • Acute stress disorder (ASD)

  • Adjustment disorders

  • Unclassified or unspecified trauma disorders

  • Reactive attachment disorder (RAD)

  • Disinhibited social engagement disorder (DSED)

  • Dissociative disorders

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorders

What Untreated Or Chronic Stress Can Do To Your Body

When you’re stressed, your body tends to experience heightened levels of stress hormones. When that stress is chronic or untreated, it can put extra wear and tear on your body, possibly making you age faster than you would have otherwise and harming your overall health and well-being. 

Nervous System

Untreated stress for long periods can affect your brain and nervous system in various ways. From “rewiring” your cognitive processes and changing how your body processes certain neurochemicals and emotions, stress can frequently lead to mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, insomnia, and difficulty concentrating or making decisions. 

Cardiovascular System

Many people living with chronic stress experience higher blood pressure, increased heart rate, and elevated cholesterol, which can all be risk factors for serious cardiovascular issues like stroke and heart disease. 

Digestive System

Long-term stress often leads to problems with the digestive system, such as frequent stomachaches and diarrhea.

Immune System

When you have elevated stress hormones in your body for an extended time, your immune system can be damaged. A weaker immune system means your body may have more trouble fighting off infections, and you may get sick more easily.

Appetite And Weight Changes

Many people with untreated stress experience drastic shifts in their eating habits, either overeating or undereating, which can lead to weight gain or loss.

What Can You Do? Exploring Healthy Ways To Cope With Stress

You have multiple options for finding healthy ways to manage your stress symptoms and minimize how much they influence your mood and behaviors.

Psychotherapy

Talk therapy can be a valuable tool for addressing your reactions to stress. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a therapeutic approach that tends to focus on the connection between the way you think and how you feel. CBT aims to help people identify unhealthy thought patterns and behaviors so that they can shift them toward healthier habits and make positive lifestyle changes. 

Medication

Anti-anxiety medications can help you manage your stress symptoms so they don’t interfere with your ability to function. However, medicine only treats the symptoms and not the underlying cause. 

Self-Care

Self-care involves finding ways to care for your physical, mental, and emotional well-being. When your mind and body are healthy, it can be easier to maintain emotional balance. For many people, working with a licensed therapist can be a valuable part of a robust self-care plan. 

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Do You Have Healthy Ways To Cope With Your Stress?

Lifestyle Changes

If you're trying to find healthy ways to make meaningful lifestyle changes to promote symptom management, you might consider working daily stress relief strategies into your routine. For example, when you start feeling stressed, consider taking a walk outside or getting some physical activity to help your body release endorphins. The following are some other strategies for reducing stress:

Evidence-Backed Strategies To Cope With Stress

  • Educate yourself about stress and how it can affect you physically, mentally, and emotionally. 

  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet and pay attention to your body’s needs. 

  • Avoid using maladaptive coping skills and unhealthy methods to manage stress. 

  • Practice a mindful lifestyle with yoga, meditation, deep breathing exercises, and relaxation techniques to help you find emotional balance. 

  • Make time to do things that make you laugh or feel joy. 

  • Maintain healthy sleep hygiene. 

  • Keep a daily journal to track your stressful events, triggers, and practical coping skills. 

  • Stress can alter your perception of a situation. If you’re feeling especially stressed, you might challenge those thoughts and try to evaluate the circumstances objectively. 

  • Maintain connections with your social circle. 

  • Spend time with your pets, which can release the neurochemical oxytocin into your bloodstream. 

When To Reach Out For Help

Stress symptoms may be problematic if they cause significant distress, interfere with your ability to function in one or more areas of your life, and persist for at least two weeks. If that describes your situation, consider reaching out for professional help.

How Therapy Can Help Manage Stress Symptoms

If your stress symptoms are interfering with your ability to function in daily life and causing you distress, consider working with a licensed therapist online through a virtual therapy platform such as BetterHelp. A licensed therapist may be able to teach healthy coping skills to manage your stress, identify and address harmful behavior or thought patterns, and help you make meaningful lifestyle changes to minimize the impact of stress symptoms. 

Many therapists treating stress use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to examine the connection between how you think and feel. Studies show that , often with shorter wait times and lower costs. Many people have said that discussing personal details with the therapist was easier due to the physical separation involved with online therapy.

Takeaway

Everybody feels stressed sometimes; it tends to be an unavoidable part of being human. However, that doesn’t mean you have to live with untreated stress symptoms. Help is available, and a therapist may be able to teach you practical strategies for managing your stress, which may reduce the physical and emotional impact of stress. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with a licensed online therapist who has experience helping people learn to address their stress before it becomes harmful skillfully. Take the first step toward relief from stress and reach out to BetterHelp today.

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