Everyone feels stressed from time to time, but what is stress? How does it affect your overall health? And what can you do to manage your stress?
Stress is how the brain and body respond to any demand. Any type of challenge—such as performance at work or school, a significant life change, or a traumatic event—can be stressful. Stress can affect your health. It is important to pay attention to how you deal with minor and major stressors, so you know when to seek help.
Stress affects everyone
Everyone experiences stress from time to time. There are different types of stress—all of which carry physical and mental health risks. A stressor may be a one-time or short-term occurrence, or it can happen repeatedly over a long time. Some people may cope with it more effectively and recover from stressful events more quickly than others.
Examples of stress include:
• Routine conditions related to the pressures of school, work, family, and other daily responsibilities.
• Sudden negative changes, such as losing a job, divorce, or illness.
• Traumatic conditions experienced during an event such as a major accident, war, assault, or natural disaster where people may be in danger of being seriously hurt or killed. People who experience traumatic stress may have very distressing temporary emotional and physical symptoms, but most recover naturally soon after.
Not all stress is bad
In a dangerous situation, stress signals the body to prepare to face a threat or flee to safety. In these situations, your pulse quickens, you breathe faster, your muscles tense, and your brain uses more oxygen and increases activity—all functions aimed at survival and in response to stress. In non-life-threatening situations, stress can motivate people, such as when they need to take a test or interview for a new job.
Long-term stress can harm your health
Coping with the impact of chronic stress can be challenging. Because the source of long-term stress is more constant than acute stress, the body never receives a clear signal to return to normal functioning. With chronic stress, those same lifesaving reactions in the body can disturb the immune, digestive, cardiovascular, sleep, and reproductive systems. Some people may experience mainly digestive symptoms, while others may have headaches, sleeplessness, sadness, anger, or irritability.
Over time, continued strain on your body from stress may contribute to serious health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other illnesses, including mental disorders such as depression or anxiety.
What happens to the body during stress?
The body’s autonomic nervous system controls your heart rate, breathing, vision changes and more. Its built-in stress response, the “fight-or-flight response,” helps the body face stressful situations.
When a person has long-term (chronic) stress, continued activation of the stress response causes wear and tear on the body. Physical, emotional and behavioral symptoms develop.
Physical symptoms include:
• Aches and pains
• Chest pain or a feeling like your heart is racing
• Exhaustion or trouble sleeping
• Headaches, dizziness or shaking
• High blood pressure
• Muscle tension or jaw clenching
• Stomach or digestive problems
• Trouble having sex
• Weak immune system
• Breathing speeds up
• Heightened state of alertness
Emotional and mental symptoms:
• Anxiety or irritability
• Panic attacks
Types of stress
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) recognize two types of stress: acute and chronic. These require different levels of management.
The NIMH also identify three examples of types of stressor:
• routine stress, such as childcare, homework, or financial responsibilities
• sudden, disruptive changes, such as a family bereavement or finding out about a job loss
• traumatic stress, which can occur due to extreme trauma as a result of a severe accident, an assault, an environmental disaster, or war
This type of stress is short-term and usually the more common form of stress. Acute stress often develops when people consider the pressures of events that have recently occurred or face upcoming challenges in the near future.
For example, a person may feel stressed about a recent argument or an upcoming deadline. However, the stress will reduce or disappear once a person resolves the argument or meets the deadline. Acute stressors are often new and tend to have a clear and immediate solution. Even with the more difficult challenges that people face, there are possible ways to get out of the situation.
Acute stress does not cause the same amount of damage as long-term, chronic stress. Short-term effects include tension headaches and an upset stomach, as well as a moderate amount of distress. However, repeated instances of acute stress over an extended period can become chronic and harmful.
This type of stress develops over a long period and is more harmful.
Ongoing poverty, a dysfunctional family, or an unhappy marriage are examples of situations that can cause chronic stress. It occurs when a person can see no way to avoid their stressors and stops seeking solutions. A traumatic experience early in life may also contribute to the same condition. Chronic stress makes it difficult for the body to return to a normal level of stress hormone activity, which can contribute to problems in the following systems:
A constant state of stress can also increase a person’s risk of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), can also appear. Chronic stress can continue unnoticed, as people can become used to feeling agitated and hopeless. It can become part of an individual’s personality, making them constantly prone to the effects of stress regardless of the scenarios that they encounter.
People with chronic stress are at risk of having a final breakdown that can lead to suicide, violent actions, a heart attack, or stroke.
Lets summarise symptoms and complications of stress
The physical effects may include:
• pain in the back or chest
• cramps or muscle spasms
• nervous twitches
• pins and needles sensations
Emotional reactions may include:
• concentration issues
• a feeling of insecurity
• nail biting
Stress-associated behaviors include:
• food cravings and eating too much or too little
• sudden angry outbursts
• drug and alcohol misuse
• higher tobacco consumption
• social withdrawal
• frequent crying
• relationship problems
If stress becomes chronic, it can lead to several complications, including:
• heart disease
• high blood pressure
• lower immunity against diseases
• muscular aches
• sleeping difficulties
• stomach upset
• erectile dysfunction (impotence) and loss of libido
• European Heart Journal, Volume 34, Issue 34, Hermann Nabi et al
• National Institute of Mental Health. 5 Things You Should Know About Stress. Accessed 2/4/2021.
• American Psychological Association. Stress relief is within reach. Accessed 2/4/2021.
• Office on Women’s Health. Stress and your health. Accessed 2/4/2021.
• US Department of Health and Human Services. Manage Stress. Accessed 2/4/2021.
• American Academy of Family Physicians. Stress: How to Cope Better With Life’s Challenges. Accessed 2/4/2021.
• Mental Health Foundation. Stress. Accessed 2/4/2021.
• National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Stress. Accessed 2/4/2021.