Stress is a common experience amongst many individuals. In many cases stress is seen as bad or something to avoid, but other times, stress can be helpful. Stress can impact an individual’s physical and mental health, even if an individual is unaware of how stress is impacting them. Many times people confuse symptoms of stress to be the symptoms of another illness, but in reality are linked to high levels of stress. It is important to note that although stress is a common experience, it can be the case that stress can be overwhelming. Learning ways to cope with stress in a healthy manner, as well as knowing when to ask for help from a mental health professional is key to not letting stress negatively impact an individual’s life. 

What is Stress:

Stress is how the brain and body respond to any demand or threat. The stress response is the body’s way of protecting people. In short bursts, stress can be positive, such as when it helps you avoid danger or meet a deadline. But when stress lasts for a long time, it may harm your health. When an individual senses danger the body’s automatic process, known as “fight-or-flight” kicks in, and is also known as the “stress response.”

When an individual feels threatened, the nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which rouse the body for emergency action. The heart consequently pounds faster, the muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and the senses become sharper.

These physical changes increase strength and stamina, speed up reaction time, and enhance focus. This prepares to either fight or flee from the danger at hand. The stress response is the body’s way of keeping people safe, and depending on the situation, a stress response can save a life in a dangerous situation, or keep an individual alert and focused during a work presentation.

Stress can be caused by various situations and pressures, that are also known as stressors. Stress can also be caused by internal factors or self- generated. What is considered stressful is very dependent on the individual themselves and how they cope with symptoms of stress. Below is a list of possible causes of stress (HelpGuide, 2019): 

Common external causes of stress include: 

  • Major life changes
  • Work or school
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Financial problems
  • Being too busy
  • Children and family

 

Common internal causes of stress include:

  • Pessimism
  • Inability to accept uncertainty
  • Rigid thinking, lack of flexibility
  • Negative self-talk
  • Unrealistic expectations / perfectionism
  • All-or-nothing attitude

 

Good Stress vs. Bad Stress:

When talking about stress, it is mostly discussed in a ”negative” light, but there can be “good” stress and “bad stress.” Good stress, also referred to as eustress, is the type of stress that individuals feel when they are excited. Similarly to when the body feels threatened, when the body is experiencing excitement, like a first date or on a rollercoaster, the heart pounds or an individuals pulse may rise. This kind of stress keeps us excited about life and feeling alive.

Good stress can help people meet daily challenges or motivate individuals to reach certain goals and is short-term. Good stress can help focus energy and sometimes improve memory. Bad stress, also known as distress, is what causes anxiety, short-term or long-term,  and feels unpleasant. This type of stress is what can lead to mental and physical problems. 

Common Effects of Stress:

A universal problem with stress is that many individuals become accustomed to experiencing stress that they normalize it without coping with it. Many individuals are not aware of how the stress they are experiencing is impacting them, especially if the amount of stress is consistent and intense, like chronic stress. Acute stress on the other-hand, triggers the stress response as well, but in itself, does not take a heavy toll if the individual relaxes quickly. It is crucial to be aware of the common warning signs and symptoms of stress overload. Below is a list of symptoms related to stress (HelpGuide, 2019):

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Memory problems
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Poor judgment
  • Seeing only the negative
  • Anxious or racing thoughts
  • Constant worrying

 

Emotional symptoms:

  • Depression or general unhappiness
  • Anxiety and agitation
  • Moodiness, irritability, or anger
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Loneliness and isolation
  • Other mental or emotional health problems

 

Physical symptoms:

  • Aches and pains
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Nausea, dizziness
  • Chest pain, rapid heart rate
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Frequent colds or flu

 

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Eating more or less
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Withdrawing from others
  • Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
  • Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax
  • Nervous habits (e.g. nail biting, pacing)

 

Tips to Managing Stress:

There are various ways to manage stress but the first is being able to recognize the signs. After recognizing the signs of stress, choosing the next steps to cope with stress is key to improving both mental and physical health. Listed below are some suggestions for managing stress:

  • Speaking with a general practitioner or mental health professional– Sometimes stress can be so overwhelming or if an individual is unsure the sources of their stress, it may be necessary to receive professional help.
  • Relaxation techniques- Engaging in relaxation techniques like meditation, yoga, and breathing exercises on a regular basis. For more information visit: www.nccih.nih.gov/health/stress
  • Regular physical activity- Getting regular physical activity can boost mood and reduce stress.
  • Reach out to friends and family- Receiving emotional and other support from friends and family, as well as spending time with loved ones can assist in reducing stress. 
  • Engage in fun activities- Setting aside time for activities like reading books for pleasure or taking vacations, simply engaging in enjoyable activities, can reduce stress.
  • Set goals and prioritize- Deciding on what can wait to be completed and what must get done can alleviate stress. Creating boundaries on workload and recognizing accomplishments may also alleviate stress.