Everyone experiences stress from time to time. It is a normal reaction to the pressures of everyday life. However, too much stress can have a negative impact on our physical and mental health. This blog explores the signs, effects and causes of stress, and how to seek professional help if you, or a loved one, feel constantly overwhelmed and unable to cope.
What is stress?
Many situations or events can trigger stress – from everyday responsibilities, like work and family, to serious life events such as the death of a loved one, divorce or redundancy. In the short term, stress can be positive as it is the body’s way of protecting us in an emergency. When we sense danger, the body releases hormones that increase our heart and breathing rates, and gets our muscles read to respond. Its built-in stress trigger, known as the fight-or-flight reaction, helps the body face stressful situations. In fact stress can be a lifesaver by helping us stay focused, alert and ready to react quickly.
However, there is a point at which stress stops being beneficial and starts causing major problems. Prolonged (or chronic) stress can harm our physical health, mental well-being, relationships, productivity and quality of life.
The effects of chronic stress
The body is not very good at distinguishing between emotional and physical threats. It can react just as strongly to work pressure as it would to a life-or-death situation. Our natural fight-or-flight response is designed to protect us in an emergency but when the body is in a heightened state of stress most of the time, it can lead to serious health problems.
Chronic stress can harm nearly every part of the body. It can weaken the immune system, interfere with the reproductive system, disrupt the digestive system, put pressure on the muscular system and increase the risk of heart attacks. Long-term stress can also make people more vulnerable to depression, anxiety (including panic attacks) and other mental health conditions.
Causes of stress
Situations that cause stress are known as stressors. We usually think of stressors as being negative but anything that causes us to feel anxious, tense or afraid can be stressful. This includes positive life events such as getting married, moving house or getting promoted at work. The perception of stress depends on each individual’s response. What can be stressful for one person may be exciting for someone else.
External and internal causes of stress
Sometimes stress is caused by external factors over which we lack control. The Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, highlights the top 10 stressful life events for adults:
- Death of a spouse
- Marriage separation
- Death of a close family member
- Injury or illness
- Job loss
- Marriage reconciliation
Other stressors are internal and can be exacerbated by worrying about things that may or may not happen. Common internal causes of stress include the inability to accept uncertainty, lack of flexibility and unrealistic expectations. Internal and external stressors can have the same physical and psychological effects.
Types of stress
There are three main types of stress: acute, episodic acute and chronic stress. Understanding the different types of stress – and how your body responds to them – can help you, or a loved one, recognize when to seek professional help.
Acute stress is stress that is experienced for a short period of time – for example a work deadline, family argument or burglary. Sometimes acute stress is more severe: witnessing a serious accident, receiving a life-threatening diagnosis or the sudden death of a loved one. Severe acute stress can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Occasional, acute stress does not generally cause physical or mental health problems. However, it can cause more serious issues if it starts to happen frequently. This is called episodic acute stress (see below).
Episodic acute stress
Episodic acute stress is when someone suffers from acute stress on a regular basis. People experiencing this type of stress may feel like they are constantly under pressure which can be physically and mentally exhausting. It can be caused by a highly-demanding work project, taking on too much responsibility or interpersonal difficulties. If left untreated, episodic acute stress can have a number of negative effects including irritability, uncontrolled anger and relationship problems. Someone suffering from episodic acute stress may need to make some lifestyle changes.
Chronic stress is constant stress that results from long-term emotional pressure. For example, a demanding job, abusive relationship or financial worries. Someone with chronic stress experiences the fight-or-flight response too frequently to recover between episodes. This means their nervous system is constantly activated which can cause physical and mental health problems. It can be difficult to change what is triggering the chronic stress but it is usually possible to manage the effects it has on the body.
Symptoms of stress
The symptoms of stress can be physical, behavioral and emotional. Here are 30 of the most common symptoms of stress:
Physical symptoms of stress
- Headaches and dizziness
- Exhaustion and sleep issues
- High blood pressure
- Stomach and digestive problems
- Rapid breathing
- Pounding heart
- Weakened immune system
- Aches and pains
- Fertility problems.
Behavioral symptoms of stress
- Struggling to make decisions
- Racing thoughts or constant worry
- Unable to switch off
- Avoiding situations that are stressful
- Snapping at those around you
- Unable to remember things or concentrate
- Uninterested in life
- Eating too much or too little
- Smoking or drinking more than usual
- Being tearful.
Emotional symptoms of stress
How to manage stress
Sometimes, people try to manage stress by engaging in unhealthy behaviors, such as drinking alcohol, gambling, taking drugs, smoking or overeating.
Although it is not possible to avoid stress altogether, there are ways of managing it more healthily:
- Learn to say no when you are too busy or stressed.
- Get moving and exercise when you feel symptoms of stress coming on.
- Trying relaxation activities such as yoga, tai chi or meditation.
- Look after your body by eating well, exercising and getting enough sleep.
- Set goals for the day, week and month to help you feel more in control.
- Focus on what you have accomplished at the end of each day.
- Connect with people who make you feel calm and happy.
Treatment for stress
If you – or a loved one – are struggling to cope with the symptoms of stress, our highly-qualified team can provide online therapy tailored to your needs. A dedicated counselor will help you regain your emotional well-being and get your life back on track.
At Kindbridge, we understand the impact that stress can have on the whole family. Get started today by booking a free 30-minute consultation where we can discuss your stress levels and answer any questions.