Understanding Stress

Updated May 4, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Despite the ubiquitous nature of stress in human lives, it was only until recently that stress disorders were considered a mental health condition that deserved therapeutic attention. In 1994, acute stress disorder was introduced into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-IV). According to the National Center for PTSD,  there is a 6% to 33% chance that an individual will develop an acute stress disorder in their lifetimes (due to car accidents, natural disasters, assault, work accidents, or in witnessing a crime or traumatic event). 

Stress is a very real and imminent biological state that can and most likely will affect people’s lives, many of whom will develop a stress-related disorder. This is a guide to tell you about some of the stress signs and symptoms, the various types of stress disorders that individuals struggle with, and treatment options that have been found to be useful to do on your own and with an individual therapist.

Wondering If Stress Is Affecting Your Mental Health?

Stress Explained

Stress is biologically defined as a physiological and psychological reaction to any event or situation perceived as challenging or threatening by the brain. Every day people experience events that are considered stressful according to this definition, as evidenced by American stress statistics, whether it be a conflict with your spouse or being late for work because of traffic.

Other definitions of stress include a state of physical, mental, or emotional tension or "a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize." When considering stress in the context of stress disorders, these demands can overwhelm an individual and lead to difficulty in daily functioning and symptoms that affect a person’s quality of life and a general sense of well-being. When a stress disorder emerges, it is important those affected seek the help of a licensed mental health therapist or talk to their healthcare provider to help diagnose and treat symptoms.  

Types of Stress

Acute Stress

This is the most common form and is typically short-term. Stress signs include emotional distress, physical tension throughout their bodies, gastrointestinal issues, and physical issues of the heart, head, and chest.

Episodic Acute Stress

This is for individuals who suffer from recurrent bouts of acute stress, most commonly due to disordered living. Their lives often involve frequent chaos and crisis. They will most often display emotional symptoms such as irritability, tension, and anger.

Chronic Stress

This is the type of stress that always seems to be there. It can wear people down and have significant emotional and physical tolls on the person suffering with it. It is the type of stress that most often leads to suicide, violence, heart attacks, strokes, and potentially even cancer. This feels like it will never be resolved to the person suffering, and sometimes stems from childhood trauma.

If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help immediately. The Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255 and is available to assist 24/7

Statistics About Stress According To The APA

According to the APA (American Psychological Association), the majority of adults (more than three-quarters) reported managing symptoms of stress, including fatigue, sleeping issues, and headaches. Concomitantly, almost half of all adults in the United States reported that stress has negatively affected their behavior. Other statistics reported by the APA include the following stressors:

  • Many adults cited inflation (83%), violence and crime (75%), the current political climate (66%), and the racial climate (62%) as significant sources of stress.

  • More than three-quarters of adults (76%) said that the future of the U.S. nation is a significant source of stress in their lives.

  • 75% of Black adults said that the racial climate in the U.S. is a significant source of stress as 70% of Latino/a adults, 69% of Asian adults and 56% of white adults reported the same.

  • Almost half of all women (49 %) surveyed said their stress has increased over the past five years, compared to four in 10 (39 %) men.

  • Women are more likely to report physical and emotional symptoms of stress than men, such as having had a headache (41 % vs. 30 %), having felt as though they could cry (44 % vs. 15 %), or having had an upset stomach or indigestion (32 % vs. 21 %) in the past month.

  • Married women report higher levels of stress than single women, with one-third (33 %) reporting that they have experienced a great deal of stress in the past month (8, 9 or 10 on a 10-point scale) compared with one in five (22 %) of single women. Similarly, significantly more married women report that their stress has increased over the past five years (56 % vs. 41 % of single women). Single women are also more likely than married women to say they feel they are doing enough to manage their stress (63 % vs. 51 %).

  • Married women are more likely than single women to report they have experienced the following due to stress in the past month: feeling as though they could cry (54 % vs. 33 %), feeling irritable or angry (52 % vs. 38 %), having headaches (48 % vs. 33 %) and experiencing fatigue (47 % vs. 35 %).

Causes Of Stress, Associated Signs And Symptoms, And Management Strategies

Common Causes Of Stress

While each person reacts and responds to stress and adversity, there are common causes of stress that can make managing it increasingly difficult. On any given day, a person may face not only one, but several significant stressors that they are unable to control. In fact, a recent poll conducted by the APA reported that 27% of all people in the U.S. say they are so stressed they cannot function. The following lists encapsulate many of the stressors that affect people today:

Work Stressors - Unhappiness in a current position. Feeling as if you cannot manage your responsibilities and assigned tasks. Having a poor work-life balance. Poor organizational, time management, and problem-solving skills. Working in a hazardous environment. Fearing termination, suspension, or probation in your position. Fear of public speaking. Suffering from workplace harassment and discrimination.

Life Stressors -Unresolved grief, going through a divorce, being fired from your job, being the family's primary breadwinner, feeling the pressure of financial obligations, upcoming wedding, moving for a job or due to the loss of a job, and suffering from a chronic illness or injury. Suffering from depression, anxiety, anger, or other mental illness, low self-esteem, being a primary caretaker for an ailing partner or parent, and suffering from trauma are all stress signs.

Stress Symptoms And Signs

You may notice the following symptoms and signs in yourself or in others:

Restlessness, Anger, And Irritability - You find it difficult to relax and find yourself on guard for something to happen or go wrong. You become easily angered and irritable with those around you. Things that used to not bother you, now seem like a major issue to you.

Headaches And Migraines - You may or may not have had a history of migraines and headaches. Whatever the case, they are now more frequent, and are typically more intense in nature is a common stress sign.

Poor Memory, Focus, And Concentration - You are finding it harder and harder to focus on tasks that need to be done. You struggle to recall information on the spot, if at all. Your concentration is significantly impacted, and you find it difficult to concentrate on a particular task or item that needs to be done. You are easily distracted and on edge.

Lack Of Motivation Or Fear Of Activities - You find it very difficult to participate in the tasks of everyday life. You find it difficult to imagine gathering the energy and focus to work, watch your children, exercising, eating, or speaking with those in your life. You are afraid that if you go out, something bad will happen to you.

Sadness And/or Depression - You start to feel increased feelings of sadness. This is often associated with feeling like you are unable to do the things you once could, you are unable to turn off the stressful thoughts, and are increasingly unmotivated with low energy levels.

Rapid Heartbeat And/or Chest Pains - Your stress and worry cause an increase in your heart rate, raise your blood pressure, and can cause you to feel pain in your chest. Many people may think they are having a heart attack. If you have chest pain or are concerned you are having a heart attack, seek medical attention immediately. 

Increased Fatigue With Associated Sleep Issues - Too much sleep, too little sleep, trouble falling asleep, trouble staying asleep, tossing and turning all night, and daytime drowsiness. The most common issue is not being able to turn your thoughts off at night and not being able to fall asleep.

Changes In Sex Drive And/or Performance Anxiety - You find that you have a decreased sex drive, as you are unable to focus on this need over the fears and stress. The high-stress levels can cause an inability to perform, or an inability to maintain arousal.

Nausea And/or Vomiting - In understanding stress we have learned that our thoughts have a strong impact on our body. Some people will become experience increased nausea and may vomit.

Changes In Appetite - This can be eating too much or too little. You may find yourself having virtually no appetite and losing weight. Stress can cause a major reduction in appetite. You may also find yourself binge-eating unhealthy foods to fill the void stress is leaving in your life. This behavior is most common when you are bored or stressed.

Increased Substance Use - You are drinking or using drugs to numb yourself and detach from the emotional pain and to quiet the stressful thoughts. You are so fearful of something happening to you, that abusing substances feels like the only way to quiet your thoughts.

Isolation And Withdrawal From People In Your Life - You pull away from people in your life. You stop returning calls and messages, you cancel plans, and you feel like telling them how you are feeling would be a burden. You fear going out to meet them, as you are afraid of what might happen to you. Social situations cause you tremendous stress, as people are unknown, and you are very concerned with being able to escape places quickly.

Medical Conditions Causing Stress

It is important that you get the support you need to help develop stress management strategies and build resilience with the help of a clinical specialist. However, any many cases the symptoms may not only be related to stress or anxiety. If you are experiencing the physical symptoms of stress, be sure to visit your healthcare provider as soon as possible. There are several medical conditions that have the same physical symptoms as stress. 

The following list are examples of medical conditions with similar symptoms as anxiety or stress.  

Breathing, Difficulty - Aortic Insufficiency, Asthma, Bronchitis, Cardiac Arrhythmia, Collagen Disease, Emphysema, Guillain-Barre Syndrome, Hemothorax, Left Ventricular Failure, Lupus, Mitral Stenosis, Myasthenia Gravis, Ovarian Cancer, Pericardial Effusion, Pleural Effusion, Pneumoconiosis, Pneumothorax, and Pulmonary Edema.

Chest Pain - Angina Pectoris, Coronary Artery Disease, Heart Attack, and Lupus. Concentration, or lack thereof: Alzheimer's Disease, Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Brain Cancer, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Depression, Insomnia, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Premenstrual Syndrome.

Dizziness - Benign Positional Vertigo, Cerebral Embolism, Cerebral Hemorrhage, Cerebral Thrombosis, Dental Problems, Ear Infections, Fibromyalgia, Food Allergy, Food Poisoning, Head Injury, Heat Exhaustion, Hypertension, Insect Bites and Stings, Labyrinthitis, Meniere's Disease, Menopause, Miscarriage, Motion Sickness, Myocardial Infarction, Nystagmus, Postural Orthostatic Hypotension, Stroke, Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction, and Transient Ischemic Attacks.

Dyspnea (Breathing Discomfort Or Breathlessness) - Anemia, Asthma, Bronchitis, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, Collagen disease, Colorectal Cancer, Congestive Heart Failure, Edema, Emphysema, Endocarditis, Food Allergy, HIV and AIDS, Hyperkalemia, Hypoxia, Insect Bites and Stings, Laryngitis, Leukemia, Lupus, Myocardial Infarction, Ovarian Cancer, Pericarditis, Pharyngitis, Pulmonary Edema, Pulmonary Fibrosis, Pulmonary Hypertension, and Thyroiditis.

Fatigue - Allergic Rhinitis, Anemia, Atherosclerosis, Bone Cancer, Bronchitis, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Cirrhosis, Colorectal Cancer, Congestive Heart Failure, Crohn's Disease, Cystic Fibrosis, Depression, Diabetes Mellitus, Endocarditis, Erythema, Fibromyalgia, Heat Exhaustion, Hepatitis, Viral, Herpes Zoster and Varicella Viruses, Hyperkalemia, Hypoglycemia, Influenza, Insomnia, Intestinal Parasites, Leukemia, Lupus, Lyme Disease, Lymphoma, Mononucleosis, Motion Sickness, Multiple Sclerosis, Myeloproliferative Disorders, Osteomyelitis, Ovarian Cancer, Pericarditis, Premenstrual Syndrome, Pulmonary Hypertension, Radiation Damage, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Sarcoidosis, Sleep Apnea, Systemic Lupus Erythematosus, Tension Headache, and Tuberculosis.

Heart Symptoms - Palpitations - one becomes aware or heart irregularities, Arrhythmia - irregular heart rhythm, tachycardia - fast heart rate, Hyperthyroidism, Extrasystole, Coronary artery disease, Post-myocardial infarction, Heart Attack, Infections, and Pericarditis.

Hypervigilance – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Stress

Irritability - Common Cold, Depression, Diabetes Mellitus, Herpes Simplex Virus, Hypoglycemia, Hypothermia, Insomnia, Meningitis, Menopause, Migraine Headache, Osteomyelitis, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Premenstrual Syndrome, Seizure Disorders, Sleep Apnea, and Tension Headache.

Muscle Tension - Stress, Near-syncope (sudden loss of consciousness or weakness), Brain Cancer, Food Allergy, Migraine Headache, Pulmonary Hypertension and Stroke.

Palpitations - Anemia, Hyperkalemia, Hypoglycemia, Lyme disease, and Pulmonary Hypertension.

Sleep Disorders - Alcoholism, Alzheimer's Disease, Amyloidosis, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Dementia, Depression, Fibromyalgia, Hyperthyroidism, Insomnia, Menopause, Premenstrual Syndrome and Sleep Apnea.

Sweating - Anaphylaxis, Asthma, Heat Exhaustion, Hyperthyroidism, Hypoglycemia, Lung Cancer, Motion Sickness, Pancreatitis, Radiation Damage, Seizure Disorders, Syncope and Thyroiditis.

Stress Management Strategies 

Wondering If Stress Is Affecting Your Mental Health?

Journal About The Cause Of Stress And The Thoughts And Feelings Associated With It

  • Writing out the thoughts, feelings, and actions associated is a great way in overcoming stress.

Incorporate A Healthy Diet And Exercise Into Your Daily Routine

  • Exercise helps produce hormones and chemicals that control mood.

  • A healthy diet lets the entire body better itself, including your mood.

Cut Down On Alcohol, Nicotine, And Caffeine

  • Alcohol causes disrupted sleep.

  • Cigarettes stimulate the system causing wakefulness.

  • Caffeine causes wakefulness and stimulates the system.

Learn Grounding Techniques From Your Therapist To Address Stressful And Intrusive Thoughts

  • Grounding can be soothing, physical, or mental.

Stop Isolating Yourself And Get Together With Friends And Family.

  • Reconnect with friends and family and do activities you once enjoyed.

  • Take part in local group activities to make new friends.

  • Attend Social Anxiety groups.

Focus On What You Have Control Over And Remove What You Do Not

  • Decide the things in your life you have control over.

  • Decide what you have no control over.

  • Make a list of small and manageable steps to work toward.

  • Remove the items you can't control.

Learn To Get Organized  And Work On Procrastination

  • Develop organizational systems that work best for you.

  • Get a physical planner and write down due dates, meetings, and appointments.

  • Make a visual planner so that you always know what needs to be done and when.

  • Make sure that you complete a task at the time it is due.

Identify The Situations, People, Places, And Things That Stress You

  • Identify the stressors that cause your .

  • Once you know what your stressors are, develop strategies to manage them, or learn techniques to minimize your stress levels.

Learn To Express Your Feelings And Ways To Compromise

  • Learn techniques to be assertive and get your needs met.

  • Learn the art of compromise, and what you are willing to give up in order to have what you want most.

Learn Time Management Skills

  • If time is an issue for you, set multiple alarms.

  • Write down that you need to be placed earlier.

  • Break tasks down so they are not so overwhelming.

Learn Coping Tools And Relaxation Techniques For Overcoming Stress

  • Learn deep breathing.

  • Learn progressive muscle relaxation.

  • Learn meditation and guided imagery.

Set Boundaries With Those Who You Need To, And Learn To Say No

  • Discuss what it would mean to set healthy boundaries and stick to them.

  • Learn when you are taking on too much, and that it is ok to say no.

  • Do not continue to do things that you do not want to do.

Schedule Self-care Into Your Day

  • Schedule 30-60 minutes each day just for you.

  • Start the day with coffee, a paper, a podcast, or something enjoyable.

  • Go for a jog or do yoga to calm yourself down.

  • If you decide it is essential, you will find the time.

Getting Help For Stress With Mental Health Therapy

As you can see, stress can have a major impact on people's health and well-being, both physically and emotionally. It can intensify emotions (such as fear) and may cause you to stop doing the things that you once enjoyed in your life. Stress disorders can also have an impact on personal relationships, your ability to work effectively, and your ability to form new relationships. If you are concerned you have a stress disorder, make an appointment with a mental health professional. Only licensed and experienced professionals can diagnose and treat mental health disorders, including stress disorders. 

In therapy, you will learn to identify what is causing your stress and learn several new coping strategies that will help you manage and recover from its effects. Additionally, your therapist will help you build strategies that promote resilience that empowers your ability to manage current and future stressful events. 

Making appointments and meeting new people, especially healthcare providers, can be a stressful experience for most people. But, for people under excessive stress, the effort it takes to attend in-person therapy may be keep them from getting the help they need.  If you are having a difficult time following through, consider scheduling an appointment with an online psychologist. 

Research also supports the efficacy of online therapy. For example, in a recent study published in Technology in Mental Health, therapists reports that they were able to reach a diverse  population of clients who appreciated the convenience and therapeutic alliance that was developed during counseling sessions. The authors of the study concluded that online therapy offers distinct qualities not found with in-person therapy sessions. One of which is an increased psychological connectedness between the therapist and client because of less distractions that are often created in a physical environment. 

BetterHelp has qualified licensed psychologists who have experience with helping people manage stress and associated stress disorders. If stress is getting in the way of your comfort and ability to function, reach out. 

For additional help & support with your concerns

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet Started