Stress has become a part of everyday life for many people. In more recent years, this trend has received increasing public attention due to the negative effects on mental and physical health and overall well-being that stress may have. Results from a 2022 survey reflect that 27% of US adults report feeling so stressed most days that they can't function. These numbers are even higher for younger people, Black individuals and other people of color, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community. 76% of US adults also report their lives being negatively impacted when they feel stressed.
Feelings of stress can be caused by a number of situations, from the political climate or pressure at work to experiences like car accidents, natural disasters, work accidents, assault, or other traumatic events. Read on to learn more about the mental and physical effects of the stress response, what causes stress, when it escalates into a clinical disorder, and management and treatment options that are available.
The Basics Of The Physiological Stress Response
According to the American Psychological Association, the stress response is defined as physical and mental reactions to external or internal stressors. When a threat or other stressor has been perceived, a part of the human brain called the hypothalamus initiates a "stress alarm," which triggers an increase in the levels of certain hormones. In particular, cortisol and adrenaline are released from the adrenal glands to elevate your heart rate, increase your blood pressure, and boost energy to your limbs and muscles to enable you to respond to the threat. This process all happens in a matter of seconds, often even before you have time to become aware of the changes.
The process described above is also known as the “fight-flight-freeze” response because it can lead to any of these three reactions to the threat at hand:
- Fight: physically or verbally fighting back to defend oneself
- Flight: running away or hiding from the threat
- Freeze: freezing; struggling to speak or move
When stress is prolonged, severe, and inescapable, the freeze and fawn responses may be more likely. In addition, repeated and inescapable stress may cause the body’s stress-response system to remain in fight-flight-freeze mode for longer than expected, causing multiple physical and emotional distress symptoms. In some cases, significant and/or long-term exposure to the stress of a traumatic event(s) can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or complex PTSD (c-PTSD).
Types Of Stress
The physiological stress response is complex, and it’s designed to enable us to react to a wide variety of stressful or threatening events. For example, situations that may trigger the stress response can include a high-pressure job, relationship conflict, a busy schedule, chronic pain or illness, insomnia, a traumatic event, the loss of a loved one, or an unsafe or unstable living situation. As a result, it’s possible to experience different types of stress depending on the circumstances. Some of the most common types include the following.
This form of stress is known as “the positive stress response.” It may be experienced when a person undergoes a challenging but rewarding task that has the potential to leave them with a sense of achievement or happiness. Examples may include the stress a person may feel before giving a speech or performance, having a child, applying for a promotion at work, or publishing a book. This type of stress is usually short-term and not typically associated with adverse health effects.
Acute stress is a short-term stress response that is engaged to help an individual deal with an immediate stressor or danger. It can be a healthy response to a threat and may help people have the energy and motivation to cope with a situation so that they can survive or thrive. The acute stress response may end within a few minutes or a few days, depending on the situation, after which the system can return to its normal state.
Episodic Acute Stress
Episodic acute stress occurs when acute stressors are frequent and repeated. Your body's systems may return to normal between episodes, but such frequent engagement can cause the stress system to eventually malfunction, which may cause adverse symptoms. Repeated exposure to stressors may eventually turn into chronic stress and could even escalate into complex PTSD.
Chronic stress occurs when the body's stress systems remain agitated due to a constant or near-constant perceived threat or stressor. In some cases, the stress response may remain heightened if an individual has a trauma- and stressor-related disorder like PTSD, which can cause them to interpret daily events as threatening. Long-term stress has been associated with multiple adverse mental and physical health impacts.
Finally, certain types of stress may fit the criteria for a stress disorder such as acute stress disorder (ASD), PTSD, or c-PTSD. They may all manifest with similar symptoms that can vary in intensity depending on the individual, the trauma experienced, when the trauma was experienced, and any comorbid mental health conditions they may have. Note that ASD may turn into PTSD if left untreated, and PTSD may turn into c-PTSD if the traumatic event continues to recur, such as in cases of abuse. Treatment for all of these conditions usually consists of talk therapy, sometimes in combination with medication.
If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse in any form, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for immediate support, advice, and assistance.
Common Symptoms Of Stress
Stress can have many different impacts on the body and mind depending on the person, their overall health, their age, and the type of stress they’re experiencing. Becoming familiar with the most common symptoms of stress can help you recognize when you may be experiencing unhealthy amounts so you can take the appropriate action.
Common physical symptoms of stress can include:
- Migraines or tension headaches
- An upset stomach
- Acid reflux
- Shallow breathing
- Tightened or tensed muscles
- Chronic pain
- A weakened immune system
- Sweating or clamminess
- Hair loss
- Shakiness or trembling
- A fast heart rate or palpitations
- Feeling faint
- Heat or cold intolerance
- Chest pain
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Changes in appetite and weight
Stress can also have effects on a person’s mind and mood. Some of the mental and emotional effects of stress can include:
- Frequent feelings of sadness, fear, or anger
- Racing thoughts
- Difficulty concentrating
- Apathy about life and/or a lack of motivation
- Diagnosis of a mental health condition like anxiety or depression
- Risky behaviors like excessive substance use
Stress-Relief Techniques To Consider Trying
There are many different strategies that may help you manage your stress levels in a healthy way. These can be important to consider, since stress can have many negative impacts on your health and overall well-being. Consulting your doctor for their advice and then trying the techniques they recommend is usually a good place to start. They may suggest some of the following.
Journaling about your day and your emotions can be a simple and cost-effective way to help yourself manage stress. Research suggests that “positive-affect journaling” in particular may help reduce “some aspects of mental distress” improve aspects of well-being, and even increase resilience when practiced regularly over time. If writing isn’t your preferred medium, recording audio notes or video clips to the same end could be helpful as well.
Meditation is an ancient spiritual and cultural practice that originated in India thousands of years ago. Today, it’s practiced by many around the world because of its many potential health benefits. Mindfulness meditation in particular may help reduce stress and improve mood, according to a growing body of research. Deep breathing techniques and body scan exercises are two methods you could try to get started with this practice.
Research continues to indicate the potential physical and mental health benefits of regular aerobic exercise. In addition to reducing your risk for certain physical and mental health conditions, improving sleep, and other possible positive effects, studies suggest that exercise may also help reduce negative mood and physiological reactivity to stress.
Connecting With Others
Humans are social creatures, and connecting with others seems to have a variety of potential benefits beyond simply enjoying time with friends, family, or neighbors. As a 2022 study reports, connecting with others for social support may help bolster our resilience in stressful situations. A loved one can offer validation, support, and advice during stressful times, and having strong relationships can help you feel better equipped to manage such circumstances overall.
Seeking The Support Of A Therapist
There are many ways in which a therapist may be able to support you in better managing your stress. First, they can help you develop skills like setting boundaries, communicating, and listening to your body, which may assist you in avoiding some stressful situations. Next, they can teach you how to engage in cognitive reframing, which may help you reduce or control your stress response in situations where it’s not necessary. They can also help you process past trauma or address symptoms of any mental health conditions that may be contributing to your experience of stress.
Not everyone has the time or ability to travel to in-person sessions with a therapist regularly. In cases like these, online therapy can represent a viable alternative. With a platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist who you can speak with via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging to address the challenges you may be facing. Research suggests that online therapy may help significantly improve stress symptoms over the long term, making this format one option to consider if you’re looking for support in managing your stress levels.
Why is it important to understand stress?
When it comes to stress, understanding its effect on the mind and body is important to avoiding and managing the physical and mental health concerns it may present. While stress is a natural response to high pressure situations, understanding the signs and symptoms is crucial to managing stress and preventing health problems it may lead to in the long term.
What are the symptoms of stress?
Common psychological symptoms of stress include increased irritability, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, and persistent worrying. Physical symptoms often include muscle tension, headaches, fatigue, and changes in sleep patterns, such as insomnia or oversleeping. Stress can also lead to gastrointestinal issues like upset stomach or diarrhea. Additionally, stress can have behavioral effects, such as changes in eating habits, increased use of substances like alcohol or tobacco, and social withdrawal.
What are the causes of stress?
Stress can be triggered by various factors, often called stressors. Stressors can encompass a wide range of situations and conditions that challenge both emotional and physical well-being. Some common stressors include work-related pressures, financial difficulties, relationship conflicts, and major life changes. Additionally, unhealthy habits like excessive caffeine or alcohol consumption, poor diet, and lack of exercise can contribute to stress. Insufficient coping skills and strategies to manage life's demands can also intensify stress levels. In some cases, unexpected events such as loss or natural disasters can be significant stressors.
What can happen if you don't deal with stress?
Failing to deal with stress over a prolonged period can have significant negative consequences on your overall health. Chronic stress contributes to an increased risk of developing serious medical conditions, including heart disease and high blood pressure. Additionally, it can weaken the immune system, and impact mental health over time, leading to conditions like anxiety and depression.
How does stress affect us?
Stress has wide-ranging effects on our physical and mental health. Physical stress effects include symptoms like muscle tension and digestive issues, and it can lead to chronic conditions like heart disease. Mentally, it contributes to anxiety, depression, and difficulty concentrating. Stress also influences behavior, potentially leading to unhealthy coping mechanisms.
What does high stress feel like?
High stress generally feels like an intense surge of pressure triggered by an experience or situation. The body's reaction to stress is both mental and physical, initially marked by increased heart rate, shallow breathing, muscle tension, and heightened alertness. While this is a natural reaction to a stressful situation, prolonged stress can lead to negative consequences.
Can stress make you sick?
Yes. Stress can weaken your immune system, making you more susceptible to illnesses. It can lead to physical symptoms like muscle tension and headaches, and over time, chronic stress can contribute to the development or worsening of various health conditions, including cardiovascular disease and mental health disorders.
How do you know if you're emotionally stressed?
Emotional stress often manifests as heightened anxiety, irritability, mood swings, difficulty concentrating, and a sense of being overwhelmed. It can also lead to low self-esteem, disrupted sleep, physical symptoms like headaches, and social withdrawal.
How can I relieve stress fast?
Some generally effective ways of relieving stress quickly involve the utilization of coping strategies and relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing. The practice of deep breathing requires you to focus on inhaling and exhaling deeply, alleviating stress by calming the body’s response to it.
How do you deal with extreme stress?
Dealing with extreme stress often involves seeking help from reliable support systems such as friends, family, or mental health professions. Through identifying major stressors and addressing any underlying causes, you may develop a more healthy foundation for avoiding and managing stress.
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