What Is Stress?
Stress can be defined as any type of change that causes physical, emotional, or psychological strain. Stress is your body’s response to anything that requires attention or action.
Sometimes, the best way to manage your stress involves changing your situation. At other times, the best strategy involves changing the way you respond to the situation.
Developing a clear understanding of how stress impacts your physical and mental health is important. It’s also important to recognize how your mental and physical health affects your stress level.
Stress can be short-term or long-term. Both can lead to a variety of symptoms, but chronic stress can take a serious toll on the body over time and have long-lasting health effects.
- Changes in mood
- Clammy or sweaty palms
- Decreased sex drive
- Difficulty sleeping
- Digestive problems
- Feeling anxious
- Frequent sickness
- Grinding teeth
- Low energy
- Muscle tension, especially in the neck and shoulders
- Physical aches and pains
- Racing heartbeat
Stress is not always easy to recognize, but there are some ways to identify some signs that you might be experiencing too much pressure. Sometimes stress can come from an obvious source, but sometimes even small daily stresses from work, school, family, and friends can take a toll on your mind and body.
- Psychological signs such as difficulty concentrating, worrying, anxiety, and trouble remembering
- Emotional signs such as being angry, irritated, moody, or frustrated
- Physical signs such as high blood pressure, changes in weight, frequent colds or infections, and changes in the menstrual cycle and libido
- Behavioral signs such as poor self-care, not having time for the things you enjoy, or relying on drugs and alcohol to cope
There are many different things in life that can cause stress. Some of the main sources of stress include work, finances, relationships, parenting, and day-to-day inconveniences.
Stress can trigger the body’s response to a perceived threat or danger, known as the fight-or-flight response.2 During this reaction, certain hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are released. This speeds the heart rate, slows digestion, shunts blood flow to major muscle groups, and changes various other autonomic nervous functions, giving the body a burst of energy and strength.
Originally named for its ability to enable us to physically fight or run away when faced with danger, the fight-or-flight response is now activated in situations where neither response is appropriate—like in traffic or during a stressful day at work.
When the perceived threat is gone, systems are designed to return to normal function via the relaxation response.3 But in cases of chronic stress, the relaxation response doesn’t occur often enough, and being in a near-constant state of fight-or-flight can cause damage to the body.
Stress can also lead to some unhealthy habits that have a negative impact on your health. For example, many people cope with stress by eating too much or by smoking. These unhealthy habits damage the body and create bigger problems in the long-term.4
- Acute stress: Acute stress is a very short-term type of stress that can either be positive or more distressing; this is the type of stress we most often encounter in day-to-day life.
- Chronic stress: Chronic stress is a stress that seems never-ending and inescapable, like the stress of a bad marriage or an extremely taxing job; chronic stress can also stem from traumatic experiences and childhood trauma.
- Episodic acute stress: Episodic acute stress is acute stress that seems to run rampant and be a way of life, creating a life of ongoing distress.
- Eustress: Eustress is fun and exciting. It’s known as a positive type of stress that can keep you energized. It’s associated with surges of adrenaline, such as when you are skiing or racing to meet a deadline.
Impact of Stress
The connection between your mind and body is apparent when you examine the impact stress has on your life.
Feeling stressed out over a relationship, money, or your living situation can create physical health issues. The inverse is also true. Health problems, whether you’re dealing with high blood pressure or you have diabetes, will also affect your stress level and your mental health. When your brain experiences high degrees of stress, your body reacts accordingly.
Serious acute stress, like being involved in a natural disaster or getting into a verbal altercation, can trigger heart attacks, arrhythmias, and even sudden death. However, this happens mostly in individuals who already have heart disease.5
Chronic stress can have a serious impact on your health as well. If you experience chronic stress, your autonomic nervous system will be overactive, which is likely to damage your body.
- Hair loss
- Heart disease
- Sexual dysfunction
- Tooth and gum disease
Stress is not a distinct medical diagnosis and there is no single, specific treatment for it. Treatment for stress focuses on changing the situation, developing stress coping skills, implementing relaxation techniques, and treating symptoms or conditions that may have been caused by chronic stress.
Some interventions that may be helpful include therapy, medication, and complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).
Some forms of therapy that may be particularly helpful in addressing symptoms of stress including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). CBT focuses on helping people identify and change negative thinking patterns, while MBSR utilizes meditation and mindfulness to help reduce stress levels.
Medication may sometimes be prescribed to address some specific symptoms that are related to stress. Such medications may include sleep aids, antacids, antidepressants, and anti-anxiety medications.
Complementary and Alternative Medicine
Some complementary approaches that may also be helpful for reducing stress include acupuncture, aromatherapy, massage, yoga, and meditation.
Although stress is inevitable, it can be manageable. When you understand the toll it takes on you and the steps to combat stress, you can take charge of your health and reduce the impact stress has on your life.
- Learn to recognize the signs of burnout. High levels of stress may place you at a high risk of burnout. Burnout can leave you feeling exhausted and apathetic about your job.6 When you start to feel symptoms of emotional exhaustion, it’s a sign that you need to find a way to get a handle on your stress.
- Try to get regular exercise. Physical activity has a big impact on your brain and your body. Whether you enjoy Tai Chi or you want to begin jogging, exercise reduces stress and improves many symptoms associated with mental illness.7
- Take care of yourself. Incorporating regular self-care activities into your daily life is essential to stress management. Learn how to take care of your mind, body, and spirit and discover how to equip yourself to live your best life.8
- Practice mindfulness in your life. Mindfulness isn’t just something you practice for 10 minutes each day. It can also be a way of life. Discover how to live more mindfully throughout your day so you can become more awake and conscious throughout your life.9
If you or a loved one are struggling with stress, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.
For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.