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.
Everyone experiences stress to some degree. The way you respond to stress, however, makes a big difference to your overall well-being.
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.
Some common signs of stress include:
- 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.
If you think stress might be affecting you, there are a few things you can watch for:
- 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. 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. 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.
Types of Stress
Not all types of stress are harmful or even negative. Some of the different types of stress that you might experience include:
- 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 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.
Stress also takes an emotional toll. While some stress may produce feelings of mild anxiety or frustration, prolonged stress can also lead to burnout, anxiety disorders, and depression.
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