Understanding Stress: Physiology, Types, Symptoms, And Solutions

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated July 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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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 the management and treatment options that are available. We’ve also highlighted resources for those who’d like to speak with a mental health professional to better understand the types of stress they’re experiencing. 

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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, stress triggers the release of cortisol and adrenaline are released from the adrenal glands; this can 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 a physical reaction to the threat at hand. These physical reactions may include:

  • Fight: physically or verbally fighting back to defend oneself 

  • Flight: running away or hiding from the threat

  • Freeze: freezing; struggling to speak or move 

Some people who have experienced certain types of traumatic events may also engage in what’s known as the "fawn" response. This type of stress reaction usually involves attempting to defend oneself from repeated stressful or threatening events by trying to appease another person by any means necessary.

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.

Eustress

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 significant health problems.

Acute stress

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

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.

Stress disorders

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.

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.

Getty/AnnaStills

Common physical symptoms of stress can include:

  • Migraines or tension headaches

  • An upset stomach

  • Acid reflux 

  • Shallow breathing 

  • Physical tension or tightness in the muscles

  • Chronic pain 

  • A weakened immune system 

  • Fatigue 

  • Inflammation

  • Short-term instances of high blood pressure

  • 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 

  • Overwhelm 

  • Irritability

  • Racing thoughts

  • Restlessness

  • 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. If you are experiencing stress on a regular basis, your doctor may suggest some of the following.

Journaling

Journaling about your day and your emotions can be a simple and cost-effective way of managing 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

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 anxiety, as well as boost overall mood, according to a growing body of research. Deep breathing techniques and body scan exercises are two mindfulness methods you could try to get started with this practice.

Exercising regularly

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, emotional support, and advice during stressful times, and having strong relationships can help you feel better equipped to manage such circumstances overall.

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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 reactions in situations where they are 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. Understanding the impact of these contributing factors may allow your therapist to formulate a treatment plan that could have more long-term effectiveness.

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.

Takeaway

Stress is the body and brain’s response to a perceived threat. While stress itself is natural and can be helpful in some situations, prolonged or chronic stress contributes (in many cases) to negative mental and physical health effects. If stress is negatively impacting your life, talking to a therapist for further guidance and support may be beneficial.
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