Here’s How Stress Affects Your Mind and Body
Stress is a normal biological and psychological response to events that threaten or upset your body or mind. The threatening "danger" that causes strress varies for each individual and can be real or imagined. During a threatening situation, your body activates its fight-or-flight mode, commonly referred to as "survival mode," to prepare you to respond to the issue at hand.
Your body’s response to stress is to secrete certain hormones that are helpful in that given situation. For example, if the stressor is a large, angry bear chasing you, your body knows to put your digestive processes on hold while also secreting adrenaline to power you through your escape. However, if stress becomes chronic, it can cause many negative effects to both your physical and mental health.
Not All Stress Is Bad
Generally, there are two types of stress: eustress, which is "good" stress, and distress, which is "bad" stress. Eustress can be understood as the thrill of riding a roller coaster or the feeling you get after a tough workout at the gym. Though the situation may be scary or difficult, the outcome is a positive reaction, like increased energy or a sense of accomplishment.
Distress is most likely what you think of when you think of stress, as it has a negative overall effect on your health and, in some cases, your happiness. While acute stress is normal and almost unavoidable, chronic stress is something you want to try to prevent if possible. Chronic distress can not only significantly impact your quality of life, but it can also lead to potentially serious medical conditions in the future.
What Are Some Common Stressors?
Each one of us responds to stress indicators differently, both psychologically and biologically. Below are some of the more common causes of stress that can make us experience its uncomfortable effects.
- Workplace/School Issues: One of the biggest causes of stress for a lot of people is the workplace. Individuals who hold extremely demanding jobs or work long hours are most prone to stress. Stress will almost undoubtedly increase in times of higher responsibility and pressure, such as layoffs, high turnover rates or the pressure to learn a new technology. Other factors, such as workplace harassment, unreasonably demanding managers or office gossip can also increase your stress levels. Similarly, for children and adults alike, school can be a contributor to stress. Academic deadlines, athletic or extracurricular demands, and exams can become overwhelming and lead to symptoms of chronic stress. As teenagers reach puberty, other social issues such as fitting in with peers, hormonal changes, body image and social bullying can become further sources of stress.
- Finances: Financial issues are another common cause of stress for many people, and they’re often tied indirectly to work-related stress. People who are deep in debt or who have multiple loans and payments tend to be more stressed. Other common finance-related causes of stress include worry about paying bills and maintaining a steady source of income.
- Relationships: Within your family, you might see stress reactions due to role expectations, sibling rivalries or problems between parents. In romantic relationships, issues such as unplanned pregnancy, infidelity or communication difficulties may lead to chronic stress.
- Physiological Reactions to Stress: During times of stress, your body produces the fight-or-flight hormones cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones help you react appropriately to hostile environments that may threaten your wellbeing. Cortisol and adrenaline increase your heart activity, raise your blood pressure and dilate your pupils.
While this reaction is natural (and even beneficial in small doses), your body isn’t meant to be in a constant state of stress or constantly releasing stress hormones. Having elevated cortisol levels for a prolonged period of time can lead to weight gain, acne, fatigue, high blood pressure and problems with concentration.
Warning Signs of Stress
Because stress warning signs and symptoms can easily blend in with your lifestyle without affecting you overtly, stress can creep up on you without any real notification. Often, you might not realize just how seriously stress is impacting your quality of life or your friends and family until you’ve relieved it or until someone else has pointed it out.
Signs of stress are generally categorized as cognitive, emotional, physical or behavioral. While the degree of symptoms may vary from person to person, the following are general indicators of chronic stress:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Lapses in judgment
- Negative outlook
- Increase in anxiety
- Mood swings
- Irrational anger
- Shortened temper
- Loss of pleasure or enjoyment
- Feelings of loneliness or isolation
- General dissatisfaction or unhappiness
- New aches and pains
- Irregular bowel movements, such as diarrhea or constipation
- Chest pains
- Decrease in sex drive
- Frequent and lingering colds
- Unexplained skin inflammation
- Change in eating habits
- Change in sleeping habits
- Isolation from interaction with others
- Procrastinating on work, school or family duties
- Substance dependency
- Development of nervous habits or tics
If you or someone close to you seems to be exhibiting some or many of the warning signs above, consider speaking to a professional. If left untreated, chronic stress can negatively impact your health in both direct and indirect ways. Sometimes, signs of stress are caused by other psychological or medical problems, and fixing these existing troubles may help alleviate stress and increase your quality of life.
Effective Ways to Manage and Prevent Stress
Studies show that chronic stress can contribute to serious conditions such as anxiety, obesity, depression and suicidal ideation. While everyday, acute stress may be difficult to avoid completely, it’s not as harmful as chronic stress. Consider the following methods to improve acute stress and prevent chronic stress:
- Exercise: Studies have shown that physical exercise can help relieve both physical and mental stress through the release of chemicals called endorphins. Exercise is a form of eustress, or stress that has an overall positive impact. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that adults get 150 minutes of activity per week, with additional weight-training sessions twice per week. Exercise has a multitude of positive health benefits beyond managing stress, but it’s certainly an effective method of stress reduction, too.
- Diet Changes: Changing what you eat is another method to possibly treat and prevent chronic stress. An increased intake of the omega fatty acids found in salmon and tuna has been shown to reduce physiological stress. Fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as vitamin supplements (especially vitamins B, C, D and E), have anti-inflammatory properties that counter the inflammatory effects of cortisol. Foods high in antioxidants, such as dark chocolate and certain berries, can also help strengthen your immune system and tissues by eliminating free radicals.
- Meditation: Healing modalities such as meditation, acupuncture and massage may be effective in reducing psychological stress. Many people find that deep breathing exercises during times of acute stress can also help alleviate their immediate physical symptoms. Yoga, which has become an extremely popular form of stress relief, weaves together both physical and psychological forms of stress reduction.
- Lifestyle Changes: Small lifestyle modifications may help you improve your stress symptoms. For example, finding and enjoying a hobby can greatly reduce the negative effects you feel from work or school stress. People who have strong social circles are less prone to developing chronic stress as well due to the presence of an emotional support system. Lastly, practicing a positive and optimistic mindset may help improve your interpretation of the situations you find stressful.
- Medication and Therapy: If your stress negatively impacts your psychological or physical health, it may be time to see a medical professional. Your healthcare provider can discuss non-prescription methods for reducing your stress levels and can also address the possibility of seeking psychological treatment, such as therapy. They may also suggest medication you can use in conjunction with the aforementioned methods of reducing stress.
Everyone perceives and responds to stress differently, so you may need to find your stress-relief method through trial and error. If you feel at a loss for how to begin, consult a healthcare professional so they can help you determine the most effective way of treating your chronic stress.
Medical content reviewed by Dr Samantha Miller, MBChB