Modern life is full of frustrations, deadlines, and demands. For many people, stress is so commonplace that it has become a way of life. Stress isn’t always bad, though. Stress within your comfort zone can help you perform under pressure, motivate you to do your best, even keep you safe when danger looms. But when stress becomes overwhelming, it can damage your health, mood, relationships, and quality of life.
You can protect yourself by understanding how the body’s stress response works, recognizing the signs and symptoms of stress overload, and taking steps to reduce its harmful effects.
Stress is your body’s way of responding to any kind of demand or threat. When you feel threatened, your nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which rouse the body for emergency action. Your heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and your senses become sharper. These physical changes increase your strength and stamina, speed your reaction time, and enhance your focus.
This is known as the “fight or flight” stress response and is your body’s way of protecting you. When working properly, stress helps you stay focused, energetic, and alert. In emergency situations, stress can save your life—giving you extra strength to defend yourself, for example, or spurring you to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident.
Stress can also help you rise to meet challenges. Stress is what keeps you on your toes during a presentation at work, sharpens your concentration when you’re attempting the game-winning free throw, or drives you to study for an exam when you’d rather be watching TV.
But beyond your comfort zone, stress stops being helpful and can start causing major damage to your mind and body.
The causes of stress
The situations and pressures that cause stress are known as stressors. We usually think of stressors as being negative, such as an exhausting work schedule or a rocky relationship. However, anything that puts high demands on you or forces you to adjust can be stressful. This includes positive events such as getting married, buying a house, going to college, or receiving a promotion.
Of course, not all stress is caused by external factors. Stress can also be self-generated, for example, when you worry excessively about something that may or may not happen, or have irrational, pessimistic thoughts about life.
Common external causes of stress
• Major life changes
• Work or school
• Relationship difficulties
• Financial problems
• Being too busy
• Children and family
Common internal causes of stress
• Chronic worry
• Pessimism
• Negative self-talk
• Unrealistic expectations/Perfectionism
• Rigid thinking, lack of flexibility
• All-or-nothing attitude
What causes excessive stress depends, at least in part, on your perception of it. Something that’s stressful to you may not faze someone else; they may even enjoy it. For example, your morning commute may make you anxious and tense because you worry that traffic will make you late. Others, however, may find the trip relaxing because they allow more than enough time and enjoy listening to music while they drive.
The following table lists some of the common warning signs and symptoms of chronic stress. The more signs and symptoms you notice in yourself, the closer you may be to stress overload.
Cognitive Symptoms
• Memory problems
• Inability to concentrate
• Poor judgment
• Seeing only the negative
• Anxious or racing thoughts
• Constant worrying
Emotional Symptoms
• Moodiness
• Irritability or short temper
• Agitation, inability to relax
• Feeling overwhelmed
• Sense of loneliness and isolation
• Depression or general unhappiness
Physical Symptoms
• Aches and pains
• Diarrhea or constipation
• Nausea, dizziness
• Chest pain, rapid heartbeat
• Loss of sex drive
• Frequent colds
Behavioral Symptoms
• Eating more or less
• Sleeping too much or too little
• Isolating yourself from others
• Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
• Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax
• Nervous habits (e.g. nail biting, pacing)
Keep in mind that the signs and symptoms of stress overload can also be caused by other psychological or medical problems. If you’re experiencing any of the warning signs of stress, it’s important to see a doctor to help determine if your symptoms are stress-related.
Types of Stress
1. Acute Stress
Acute stress is your body’s immediate reaction to a new challenge, event, or demand — the fight or flight response. As the pressures of a near-miss automobile accident, an argument with a family member, or a costly mistake at work sink in, your body turns on this biological response. Acute stress isn’t always caused by negative stress; it’s also the experience you have when riding a roller coaster or having a person jump out at you in a haunted house. Isolated episodes of acute stress should not have any lingering health effects. In fact, they might actually be healthy for you — as these stressful situations give your body and brain practice in developing the best response to future stressful situations.
Severe acute stress such as stress suffered as the victim of a crime or life-threatening situation can lead to mental health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or acute stress disorder.
2. Chronic Stress
If acute stress isn’t resolved and begins to increase or lasts for long periods of time, it becomes chronic stress. Chronic stress can be detrimental to your health, as it can contribute to several serious diseases or health risks, such as heart disease, cancer, lung disease, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide.
Managing Stress
The goal isn’t to get rid of stress completely — which would be entirely impossible, and not completely healthy. The goal of stress management is to identify a your stressors — things that cause you the most problems, or demand the most energy — and find ways to overcome the negative stress those things normally induce.
The latest research into the brain shows that we, as mammals, have three ways of regulating our nervous systems and responding to stress:
• Social engagement is our most evolved strategy for keeping ourselves feeling calm and safe. Since the vagus nerve connects the brain to sensory receptors in the ear, eye, face and heart, socially interacting with another person—making eye contact, listening in an attentive way, feeling understood—can calm you down and put the brakes on defensive responses like “fight-or-flight.” When using social engagement, you can think and feel clearly, and body functions such as blood pressure, heartbeat, digestion, and the immune system continue to work uninterrupted.
• Mobilization, otherwise known as the fight-or-flight response. When social engagement isn’t an appropriate response and we need (or think we need) to either defend ourselves or run away from danger, the body prepares for mobilization. It releases chemicals to provide the energy you need to protect yourself. At the same time, body functions not needed for fight or flight—such as the digestive and immune systems—stop working. Once the danger has passed, your nervous system calms the body, slowing heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and winding back down to its normal balance.
• Immobilization. This is the least evolved response to stress and used by the body only when social engagement and mobilization have failed. You may find yourself traumatized or “stuck” in an angry, panic-stricken or otherwise dysfunctional state, unable to move on. In extreme, life-threatening situations, you may even lose consciousness, enabling you to survive high levels of physical pain. However, until you’re able to arouse your body to a mobilization response, your nervous system may be unable to return to its pre-stress state of balance.
While it’s not always possible to respond to stress using social engagement, many of us have become conditioned to responding to every minor stressor by immediately resorting to fight or flight. Since this response interrupts other body functions and clouds judgment and feeling, over time it can cause stress overload and have a detrimental effect on both your physical and mental health.
You may feel there’s nothing you can do about stress. The bills won’t stop coming, there will never be more hours in the day, and your work and family responsibilities will always be demanding. But you have more control over stress than you might think. Stress management is all about taking charge: of your lifestyle, thoughts, emotions, and the way you deal with problems. No matter how stressful your life seems, there are steps you can take to relieve the pressure and regain control.
We all respond to stress differently so, there’s no “one size fits all” solution to managing stress. But if you feel like the stress in your life is out of control, it’s time to take action. Stress management can teach you healthier ways to cope with stress, help you reduce its harmful effects, and prevent stress from spiraling out of control again in the future.
No matter how powerless you may feel in the face of stress, you still have control over your lifestyle, thoughts, emotions, and the way you deal with problems. Stress management involves changing the stressful situation when you can, changing your reaction when you can’t, taking care of yourself, and making time for rest and relaxation. The first step is to recognize the true sources of stress in your life.
Stress is your body’s response to certain situations. Stress is subjective. Something that may be stressful for one person — speaking in public, for instance — may not be stressful for someone else. Not all stresses are “bad” either. Graduating from college, for example, may be considered a “good” stress. Stress can affect your physical health, your mental health, and your behavior. In response to stressful stimuli, your body turns on its biological response: chemicals and hormones are released that are meant to help your body rise to the challenge. Your heart rate increases, your brain works faster and becomes razor sharp, you have a sudden burst of energy. This response is natural and basic; it’s what kept our ancestors from falling victim to hungry predators. Stress overload, however, can have harmful effects.

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• Ogden, J. (2007). Health Psychology: a textbook (4th ed.), pages 281–282 New York: McGraw-Hill ISBN 0335214711

• Cohen, S., Doyle, W. J., Skoner, D. P., Rabin, B. S., & Gwaltney Jr, J. M. (1997). Social ties and susceptibility to the common cold. JAMA: the journal of the American Medical Association, 277(24), 1940–1944.

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• Jeronimus, B.F.; Riese, H.; Sanderman, R.; Ormel, J. (2014). “Mutual Reinforcement Between Neuroticism and Life Experiences: A Five-Wave, 16-Year Study to Test Reciprocal Causation”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 107 (4): 751–64. doi:10.1037/a0037009.

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