Stress is a biological response to a perceived threat. It’s caused by chemicals and hormones surging throughout your body. It can help you respond to a particular problem, but too much can harm your health.
Stress triggers your fight-or-flight response in order to fight the stressor or run away from it. Typically, after the response occurs, your body should relax. Too much constant stress can have negative effects.
Is all stress bad?
Stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s what helped our hunter-gatherer ancestors survive, and it’s just as important in today’s world. It can be healthy when it helps you avoid an accident, meet a tight deadline, or keep your wits about you amid chaos.
We all feel stressed at times, but what one person finds stressful may be very different from what another finds stressful. An example of this would be public speaking. Some love the thrill of it and others become paralyzed at the very thought.
Stress isn’t always a bad thing, either. Your wedding day, for example, may be considered a good form of stress.
But stress should be temporary. Once you’ve passed the fight-or-flight moment, your heart rate and breathing should slow down and your muscles should relax. In a short time, your body should return to its natural state without any lasting negative effects.
On the other hand, severe, frequent, or prolonged stress can be mentally and physically harmful.
And it’s fairly common. When asked, 80 percent of Americans reported they’d had at least one symptom of stress in the past month. Twenty percent reported being under extreme stress.
Life being what it is, it’s not possible to eliminate stress completely. But we can learn to avoid it when possible and manage it when it’s unavoidable.
Stress is a normal biological reaction to a potentially dangerous situation. When you encounter sudden stress, your brain floods your body with chemicals and hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.
That gets your heart beating faster and sends blood to muscles and important organs. You feel energized and have heightened awareness so you can focus on your immediate needs.
When you sense danger, the hypothalamus at the base of your brain reacts. It sends nerve and hormone signals to your adrenal glands, which release an abundance of hormones.
These hormones are nature’s way of preparing you to face danger and increase your chances of survival.
One of these hormones is adrenaline. You might also know it as epinephrine, or the fight-or-flight hormone. In rapid fashion, adrenaline works to:
- increase your heartbeat
- increase your breathing rate
- make it easier for your muscles to use glucose
- contract blood vessels so blood is directed to the muscles
- stimulate perspiration
- inhibit insulin production
While this is helpful in the moment, frequent adrenaline surges can lead to:
- damaged blood vessels
- high blood pressure, or hypertension
- higher risk of heart attack and stroke
- weight gain
Although adrenaline is important, it isn’t the primary stress hormone. That’s cortisol.
As the main stress hormone, cortisol plays an essential role in stressful situations. Among its functions are:
- raising the amount of glucose in your bloodstream
- helping the brain use glucose more effectively
- raising the accessibility of substances that help with tissue repair
- restraining functions that are nonessential in a life-threatening situation
- altering immune system response
- dampening the reproductive system and growth process
- affecting parts of the brain that control fear, motivation, and mood
All this helps you deal more effectively with a high-stress situation. It’s a normal process and crucial to human survival.
But if your cortisol levels stay high for too long, it has a negative impact on your health. It can contribute to:
- weight gain
- high blood pressure
- sleep problems
- lack of energy
- type 2 diabetes
- mental cloudiness (brain fog) and memory problems
- a weakened immune system, leaving you more vulnerable to infections
It can also have a negative impact on your mood.
There are several types of stress, including:
- acute stress
- episodic acute stress
- chronic stress
Acute stress happens to everyone. It’s the body’s immediate reaction to a new and challenging situation. It’s the kind of stress you might feel when you narrowly escape a car accident.
Acute stress can also come out of something that you actually enjoy. It’s the somewhat-frightening, yet thrilling feeling you get on a roller coaster or when skiing down a steep mountain slope.
These incidents of acute stress don’t normally do you any harm. They might even be good for you. Stressful situations give your body and brain practice in developing the best response to future stressful situations.
Once the danger passes, your body systems should return to normal.
Severe acute stress is a different story. This kind of stress, such as when you’ve faced a life-threatening situation, can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other mental health problems.
Episodic acute stress
Episodic acute stress is when you have frequent episodes of acute stress.
This might happen if you’re often anxious and worried about things you suspect may happen. You might feel that your life is chaotic and you seemingly go from one crisis to the next.
Certain professions, such as law enforcement or firefighters, might also lead to frequent high-stress situations.
As with severe acute stress, episodic acute stress can affect your physical health and mental well-being.
When you have high-stress levels for an extended period of time, you have chronic stress. Long-term stress like this can have a negative impact on your health. It may contribute to:
- cardiovascular disease
- high blood pressure
- a weakened immune system
Chronic stress can also lead to frequent ailments such as headaches, an upset stomach, and sleep difficulties. Gaining insights into the different types of stress and how to recognize them may help.
Some typical causes of acute or chronic stress include:
- living through a natural or manmade disaster
- living with chronic illness
- surviving a life-threatening accident or illness
- being the victim of a crime
- experiencing familial stressors such as:
- an abusive relationship
- an unhappy marriage
- prolonged divorce proceedings
- child custody issues
- caregiving for a loved one with a chronic illness like dementia
- living in poverty or being homeless
- working in a dangerous profession
- having little work-life balance, working long hours, or having a job you hate
- military deployment
There’s no end to the things that can cause a person stress because they’re as varied as people are.
Whatever the cause, the effect on the body can be serious if left unmanaged.
Just as we each have different things that stress us out, our symptoms can also be different.
Although you’re unlikely to have them all, here are some things you may experience if you’re under stress:
- chronic pain
- insomnia and other sleep problems
- lower sex drive
- digestive problems
- eating too much or too little
- difficulty concentrating and making decisions
You might feel overwhelmed, irritable, or fearful. Whether you’re aware of it or not, you may be drinking or smoking more than you used to.
Stress headaches, also known as tension headaches, are due to tense muscles in the head, face, and neck. Some of the symptoms of a stress headache are:
- mild to moderate dull head pain
- a band of pressure around your forehead
- tenderness of the scalp and forehead
Many things can trigger a tension headache. But those tight muscles could be due to emotional stress or anxiety.
A stomach ulcer — a type of peptic ulcer — is a sore on the lining of your stomach that’s caused by:
- infection with helicobacter pylori (H. pylori)
- long-term use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- rare cancers and tumors
Research into how physical stress interacts with the immune system is ongoing. It’s thought that physical stress may affect how you heal from an ulcer. Physical stress can be due to:
- trauma or injury to the brain or central nervous system
- serious long-term illness or injury
- a surgical procedure
In turn, the heartburn and pain of a stomach ulcer can lead to emotional stress.
Some people react to stress by eating, even if they’re not hungry. If you find yourself eating without thinking, binging in the middle of the night, or generally eating way more than you used to, you might be stress eating.
When you stress eat, you take in a lot more calories than you need and you’re probably not choosing the healthiest foods. This can lead to rapid weight gain and a host of health problems. And it does nothing to resolve your stress.
If you’re eating to relieve stress, it’s time to find other coping mechanisms.
Work can be a source of great stress for any number of reasons. This kind of stress can be occasional or chronic.
Stress at work can come in the form of:
- feeling you lack power or control over what happens
- feeling stuck in a job you dislike and seeing no alternatives
- being made to do things you don’t think you should do
- experiencing a conflict with a co-worker
- having too much asked of you, or being overworked
If you’re in a job you hate or are always responding to others’ demands without any control, stress seems unavoidable. Sometimes, quitting or fighting for more work-life balance is the right thing to do.
Of course, some jobs are just more dangerous than others. Some, such as emergency first-responders, call for you to put your life on the line. Then, there are professions — such as ones in the medical field, like a doctor or nurse — where you hold someone else’s life in your hands. Finding balance and managing your stress is important to maintain your mental health.
Stress and anxiety often go hand in hand. Stress comes from the demands placed on your brain and body. Anxiety is when you feel high levels of worry, unease, or fear.
Anxiety can certainly be an offshoot of episodic or chronic stress.
Having both stress and anxiety can have a severe negative impact on your health, making you more likely to develop:
- high blood pressure
- heart disease
- panic disorder
Stress and anxiety can be treated. In fact, there are many strategies and resources that can help for both.
Start by seeing your primary doctor, who can check your overall health and refer you for counseling. If you’ve thought about harming yourself or others, get help immediately.
The goal of stress management isn’t to get rid of it completely. It’s not only impossible, but as we mentioned, stress can be healthy in some situations.
In order to manage your stress, first you have to identify the things that cause you stress — or your triggers. Figure out which of these things can be avoided. Then, find ways to cope with those negative stressors that can’t be avoided.
Over time, managing your stress levels may help lower your risk for stress-related diseases. And it’ll help you feel better on a daily basis, too.
Here are some basic ways to start managing stress:
- maintain a healthy diet
- aim for 7-8 hours of sleep each night
- exercise regularly
- minimize your use of caffeine and alcohol
- stay socially connected so you can get and give support
- make time for rest and relaxation, or self-care
- learn meditation techniques such as deep breathing
If you can’t manage your stress, or if it’s accompanied by anxiety or depression, see your doctor right away. These conditions can be managed with treatment, as long as you seek help. You might also consider consulting with a therapist or other mental health professional.
Online therapy options
Read our review of the best online therapy options to find the right fit for you.
While stress is a normal part of life, too much stress is clearly harmful to your physical and mental well-being.
Fortunately, there are many ways to manage stress, and there are effective treatments for both anxiety and depression that may be connected with it.