How Stress Works
Stress describes the physical and mental response to changes or challenges in our environment. When our minds perceive a threat, whether physical or situational, signals are sent throughout the body to be on high alert. Stress can cause your heart rate speeds up, muscles to tense, and lead to fatigue once the perceived danger has passed.
The symptoms of stress our minds and bodies produce can be either helpful or unhelpful to our overall mental health. For example, if you’re in a dangerous situation, stress activates your “fight or flight,” the mechanism that determines if you should run for your life or fight for your life. Obviously, not all situations are life and death. When consistent stress goes unaddressed in mundane situations, we often feel overwhelmed, exhausted, and burnt out.
That said, stress over a test or a big project is not inherently bad; failing to manage and recover from stress determines when stress becomes a big problem. Some people easily manage stress by balancing intense, stressful moments with relaxation or emotional or physical release. However, for those who struggle to find this balance, stress might take a serious toll on the mind and body if left unchecked.
Signs of Stress
Stress affects everyone differently, depending on many factors. Furthermore, stress is subjective and not measurable through testing. That means only the person experiencing it knows whether it’s present and how severe it feels. One person may physically feel stress in a specific part of the body, while another may experience more emotional symptoms from stress.
Physical Symptoms of Stress
Common physical signs of stress include:
- Shallow breathing, sweating, and racing heartbeat
- Headaches, dizziness, or shaking
- High blood pressure
- Exhaustion or trouble sleeping
- Trouble having sex
- Nausea, indigestion, or cramping in the bowels
- Weight gain or loss from eating too much or too little
- Aches and pains
- Weakened immune system
- Engaging in unhealthy behaviors like over-eating, drinking too much, using drugs, smoking, or scrolling endlessly on social media (sometimes called “doom scrolling”)
Mental Symptoms of Stress
Common mental or emotional signs of stress include:
- Irritability and anger leading to outbursts or withdrawal from family and friends
- Neglecting responsibilities or feeling too overwhelmed to handle responsibilities
- Lower efficiency at tasks or having difficulty concentrating
- Emotional distress, like continuously feeling sad or being tearful
- Chronic stress and anxiety, even when nothing stressful is occurring
- Panic attacks
- Burn out
- Suicidal ideation
Stress vs. Anxiety
Many people struggle to tell the difference between stress and anxiety, and it’s not a surprise. The line between the two terms is very thing; in many cases, the two can be interlinked. Both stress and anxiety are emotional responses, but short-term or long-term external triggers usually cause stress. For example, a police car turns on its light behind you on the road, or a loved one starts a sudden argument with you.
On the other hand, anxiety produces persistent, excessive worries that may arise out of nowhere and refuse to fade, even in the absence of stressful situations or traumatic events. For individuals with anxiety disorders, stress and anxiety frequently go hand in hand, triggering one another constantly. Luckily, the coping methods for both are relatively the same.
Health Effects of Stress
A little bit of stress won’t cause long-term harm, but chronic and persistent stress can wreak havoc on the body and mind, often contributing to existing health issues or even causing new ones. Your physical and mental health can take a beating from continuous stress.
Stress starts in the hypothalamus, the “command center” of the brain. This stimulation starts a chain reaction in the sympathetic nervous system, an involuntary process that engages our fight-or-flight response and produces the stress hormone cortisol.
When a person has long-term and unmanaged stress, continued activation of this heightened state causes wear and tear on the body. The wear and tear of chronic stress can affect brain structure and the musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous, and reproductive systems.
- According to the American Institute of Stress, around 75%–90% of doctor visits in the United States are in some way related to stress.
- Johns Hopkins reports that people under constant stress are 20% more likely to have heart disease.
- Studies from Mental Health Foundation found that 29% of people started drinking or increased their drinking, and 16% reported that they started smoking or increased their smoking due to stress.
Healthy Ways of Managing Stress
Handling stress may seem impossible, especially if you or a loved one have a pre-existing mental health condition. However, even people without mental illness can struggle to cope with their stress.
Here are some healthy, research-based methods of coping with stress:
- Identify patterns in the causes of stress: Pay attention to moments when you’re most stressed. Does it tend to happen more often in loud or quiet environments? Do certain situations in daily life stress you? Are there ways you can avoid them or have loved ones support you?
- Focus on overall well-being: Spending all your energy trying to address what stresses you out can ultimately cause you to fixate on negative thoughts. Instead, focus on the basics—get enough sleep, eat nourishing meals, and do physical activity. While these may sound cliché, research shows that basic care lowers stress levels.
- Learn relaxation techniques: Meditation works well in centering, grounding, and calming the mind, but it isn’t always done by sitting in a quiet room. Going for walks, exercising, and doing repetitive tasks can also be forms of meditation. Don’t underestimate the power of deep breathing, either. You can pair it with meditation or do deep breathing exercises on your own.
- Take breaks from the news and social media: News often emphasizes negative stories, leading to stress about situations you have no control over. Meanwhile, social media can warp your perception of yourself compared to others. Friends, family, and people you look up to only post the good things, which can trick you into believing they have something you don’t. Unplug and focus on what’s in front of you.
- Social support: Stay connected with friends and family members that keep you grounded and calm. Having people who make you happy, provide emotional support, and help you with practical things is invaluable. When you’re drowning in stress, reach out to these people.
A one-size-fits-all cure for stress doesn’t exist, nor would we want to banish stress completely—after all, we need stress for those dangerous situations that truly require quick, life-saving decisions. Instead, focus on coping strategies and stress management when it begins to pile up and weigh you down.