Stress, in everyday terms, is a feeling that people have when they are overloaded and struggling to cope with demands.
These demands can be related to finances, work, relationships, and other situations, but anything that poses a real or perceived challenge or threat to a person’s well-being can cause stress.
Stress can be a motivator. It can be essential to survival. The “fight-or-flight” mechanism can tell us when and how to respond to danger. However, if this mechanism is triggered too easily, or when there are too many stressors at one time, it can undermine a person’s mental and physical health and become harmful.
According to the annual stress survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA), average stress levels in the United States (U.S.) rose from 4.9 to 5.1 on a scale from 1 to 10 in 2015. The main reasons given are employment and money.
Fast facts on stress:
Here are some key points about stress. More detail is in the main article.
Stress helps the body prepare to face danger.
The symptoms can be both physical and psychological.
Short-term stress can be helpful, but long-term stress is linked to various health conditions.
We can prepare for stress by learning some self-management tips.
What is stress?
Each person responds to stress in a different way, but too much stress can lead to health problems.
Stress is the body’s natural defense against predators and danger. It flushes the body with hormones to prepare systems to evade or confront danger. This is known as the “fight-or-flight” mechanism.
When we are faced with a challenge, part of our response is physical. The body activates resources to protect us by preparing us either to stay and fight or to get away as fast as possible.
The body produces larger quantities of the chemicals cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. These trigger an increased heart rate, heightened muscle preparedness, sweating, and alertness. All these factors improve the ability to respond to a hazardous or challenging situation.
Factors of the environment that trigger this reaction are called stressors. Examples include noises, aggressive behavior, a speeding car, scary moments in movies, or even going out on a first date. The more stressors we experience, the more stressed we tend to feel.
Changes to the body
Stress slows normal bodily functions, such as the digestive and immune systems. All resources can then be concentrated on rapid breathing, blood flow, alertness, and muscle use.
The body changes in the following ways during stress:
blood pressure and pulse rate rise
breathing is faster
the digestive system slows down
immune activity decreases
the muscles become tense
a heightened state of alertness prevents sleep
How we react to a difficult situation will affect how stress affects us and our health. A person who feels they do not have enough resources to cope will be more likely to have a stronger reaction, and one that can trigger health problems. Stressors affect individuals in different ways.
Some experiences that are generally considered positive can lead to stress, such as having a baby, going on a trip, moving to a nicer house, and being promoted.
This is because they often involve a major change, extra effort, new responsibilities, and a need for adaptation. They are also steps into the unknown. The person wonders if they will cope.
A persistently negative response to challenges can have a detrimental effect on health and happiness. However, being aware of how you react to stressors can help reduce the negative feelings and effects of stress, and to manage it more effectively.
The APA recognizes three different types of stress that require different levels of management.
This type of stress is short-term and is the most common way that stress occurs. Acute stress is often caused by thinking about the pressures of events that have recently occurred, or upcoming demands in the near future.
For example, if you have recently been involved in an argument that has caused upset or have an upcoming deadline, you may feel stress about these triggers. However, the stress will be reduced or removed once these are resolved.
It does not cause the same amount of damage as long-term, chronic stress. Short-term effects include tension headaches and an upset stomach, as well as a moderate amount of distress.
However, repeated instances of acute stress over a long period can become chronic and harmful.
Episodic acute stress
People who frequently experience acute stress, or whose lives present frequent triggers of stress, have episodic acute stress.
A person with too many commitments and poor organization can find themselves displaying episodic stress symptoms. These include a tendency to be irritable and tense, and this irritability can affect relationships. Individuals that worry too much on a constant basis can also find themselves facing this type of stress.
This type of stress can also lead to high blood pressure and heart disease.
This is the most harmful type of stress and grinds away over a long period.
Ongoing poverty, a dysfunctional family, or an unhappy marriage can cause chronic stress. It occurs when a person never sees an escape from the cause of stress and stops seeking solutions. Sometimes, it can be caused by a traumatic experience early in life.
Chronic stress can continue unnoticed, as people can become used to it, unlike acute stress that is new and often has an immediate solution. It can become part of an individual’s personality, making them constantly prone to the effects of stress regardless of the scenarios they come up against.
People with chronic stress are likely to have a final breakdown that can lead to suicide, violent actions, heart attacks, and strokes.
Different situations can trigger stress for different people.
abortion or miscarriage
driving in heavy traffic or fear of an accident
fear of crime or problems with neighbors
pregnancy and becoming a parent
excessive noise, overcrowding, and pollution
uncertainty or waiting for an important outcome
Some situations will affect some people and not others. Past experience can impact how a person will react.
Sometimes, there is no identifiable cause. Mental health issues, such as depression, or an accumulated sense of frustration and anxiety, can make some people feel stressed more easily than others.