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Everyone experiences stress at some point in their lives. But what’s stressful to you may not be the same as what’s stressful to others. You might also have your own way of managing that stress.
The intensity and duration of your stress response will depend on many factors that range from your personality to your support system.
And although it may often feel unpleasant, stress is an evolutionary necessity. More importantly, it can be managed. When it isn’t, though, it may develop into an acute or chronic stress disorder.
Stress is the body’s natural response to a stressor. A stressor is a trigger that may cause you to experience physical, emotional, or mental distress and pressure.
In other words, stress is a physical sensation and a feeling of being overwhelmed and not able to deal with the pressures caused by a stressor.
Your mental and physical reactions to a stressor serve a purpose.
For example, in a hazardous situation, stress puts your body in “fight or flight” mode. In this heightened state of alert, your body and brain are doing everything possible to increase your chances of surviving that perceived or real threat.
You may also have a stress reaction to events that might not be life-threatening, like job deadlines or school assignments. In these scenarios, when managed well,
When stress has this potential for a positive outcome, it’s usually referred to as eustress. When, on the other hand, stress leads you to feel overwhelmed and unable to cope, we refer to it as distress.
In the short and long run, distress may impact your mental health and sense of well-being.
Mental health professionals usually consider three main types of negative stress responses. They each have their own signs and symptoms and may vary in duration too.
Acute stress disorder (ASD)
To reach a diagnosis of acute stress disorder, symptoms must last between 3 days and 1 month. A trigger is usually a traumatic event that causes an intense reaction.
Symptoms of acute stress disorder include:
- feeling emotionally detached or numb
- dissociative amnesia
- derealization and depersonalization
- flashbacks or recurring images from the traumatic event
- hypervigilance and constant state of alert
- anxiety symptoms
For example, after experiencing a jarring car accident, you might start:
- avoiding vehicles altogether
- feeling muscle tension when riding in a car
- having nightmares about the car accident
- experiencing panic attacks with or without an evident cause
If symptoms last for more than a month, a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is possible.
Episodic acute stress disorder
Folks with episodic acute stress disorder experience intense and heightened distress from everyday challenges. In other words, if you live with this condition, you periodically experience intense and extreme stress reactions to relatively simple stressors.
Contrary to acute stress disorder, which is caused by one traumatic experience, episodic acute stress is a response to several stressors that might not be considered such by people without the condition.
For example, if you have episodic acute stress disorder, you might have an intense stress response from deciding what to do for lunch today, and again later on from thinking about an important report you need to submit tomorrow.
Some people with type A personality develop this condition.
Symptoms of episodic acute stress disorder may include:
- irritability and poor anger management
- heart palpitations and shortness of breath
- muscular stiffness and pain
- panic attacks and other signs of anxiety
- chronic illnesses
Left unchecked, stress responses can become a chronic condition such as generalized anxiety disorder.
Ongoing stress keeps your nervous system in overdrive. Your cortisol and adrenaline levels are constantly coursing at higher levels, and your body and mind don’t get the opportunity to wind down.
While acute and episodic stress symptoms will eventually ease, chronic stress holds the sympathetic nervous system hostage in a heightened state for an extended and undefined amount of time.
Triggers for chronic stress can vary from person to person, and they may include chronic illness, abuse, racism, and lack of rest and sleep.
Some signs and symptoms of chronic stress include:
- difficulty sleeping
- frequent headaches
- brain fog
- physical conditions like acid reflux, cardiovascular disease, and cognitive disorders
Maybe you’re late to an appointment because of traffic, or you’re a new parent who hasn’t gotten enough sleep for a while. Life is full of potential stressors, and your threshold for managing these triggers depends on many factors.
What may cause you stress is not necessarily what stresses someone else. We are all unique in our responses and in how we interpret events. While some people get excited by speaking in public, others may experience a panic attack in the same situation.
There are also a few important life events that tend to be more stressful for everyone.
A well-known tool used by health professionals to measure the amount of stress someone’s experiencing is the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory. According to this scale, the most stressful life events are:
- death of a spouse
- marital separation
- death of a close family member
- major injury or illness
- being fired from a job
- marital reconciliation
- drastic change in the health of a family member
Extreme life changes, such as a pandemic, for example, may also trigger intense stress reactions in many people.
Any stimulus you experience throughout the day has the potential to activate a stress response.
Different stimuli may cause different biological stress reactions, resulting in physical, psychological, or psychosocial stress. Sometimes, the same stimulus might cause more than one type of stress reaction.
Hypothetically, if you procrastinated on your work presentation and found yourself standing in front of your bosses unprepared, you may feel all three types of stress simultaneously: the physical stress reaction of a stomach ache from nerves; the psychological stress of worrying that this will end your chances at promotion; and the psychosocial stress of fearing ostracization for failing to perform to an expected standard.
What else can cause specific stress responses?
- acute or chronic disease
- poor nutrition
- lack of quality sleep
- mental health conditions
- attachment style
Not everyone reacts the same way to these potential stressors. Your body may adapt better to fewer hours of sleep, or you may not find isolation as unpleasant as other people. If this is the case, your reaction to these stressors would not be as intense.
Your personality also plays an important role in the emotional narrative you craft around stress stimuli.
Your genetic makeup, past experiences, negative thinking patterns and cognitive distortions, and tendency to catastrophize can contribute to how intensely you react to a given situation.
At the same time, stressors don’t exist in a vacuum. They can become exacerbated or subdued due to other circumstances in your life.
In general, factors like a strong support network may positively impact overall mental wellness and your ability to manage stress.
You might also overcome a stressful obstacle when the stressor only happens occasionally. When faced with the same stressor every day, though, you’re likely to handle it better on day 1 than on day 82, for example.
In other words, the longer you’re exposed to an stressor, the greater the impact it will have on you.
Examples of long-term stressors include:
- a toxic workplace
- a chronic illness
- racism and discrimination
- relationship conflict
Acute stress effects
When you’re exposed to a stressor, your brain and hormones immediately signal your body to be alert. You can thank the hormone epinephrine, more famously known as adrenaline, for symptoms such as:
- rapid heart rate
- focused vision and alertness
- tensed muscles
- increased lung capacity
If the stressful event is ongoing, your body will release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which causes the adrenal glands to release cortisol. Cortisol keeps your body in this high-performance state until the peril has passed.
Sometimes, the body gets so hyped up on cortisol that it can’t switch off its high state of alert, even after the threat is gone.
Chronic stress effects
A body that won’t wind down from ACTH and adrenaline can be impacted psychologically, physically, and emotionally.
Left in high-stress mode, your body may respond by developing more symptoms.
These symptoms may be physiological, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral.
- weight fluctuation
- high blood pressure
- increased chance of heart disease due to high blood pressure
- sexual dysfunction
- chronic muscle tension
higher severity of acne
- fertility interruptions and irregular periods
- low sex drive
- increased risk of type 2 diabetes
- changes in appetite
- diarrhea or constipation
Emotional and psychological effects
- low energy and motivation
- irritability and anger
- low self-esteem
- changes in mood
- cognitive distortions
- memory challenges
- learning difficulties
- poor concentration
- brain fog
- intrusive thoughts
Social and behavioral effects
- social withdrawal
- changes in routines
- substance abuse
- relationship conflicts
Stress is inevitable throughout your life, but it can be managed to reduce the chance it affects you in the long term.
Consider these tips to better manage your stress reaction:
1. Take a walk in nature
You don’t have to drive to a mountain resort to feel the stress-relieving benefits of nature. To start coping with stress, find any green space, like:
- a park
- a bench under a tree
- a friend’s backyard
A study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that spending just 20 minutes outdoors is associated with the biggest drop in cortisol levels when compared with other stress-reducing initiatives.
Presuming you have to walk to your nature destination, getting outside also has the stress-reducing bonus of some light exercise to help stabilize your sympathetic nervous system.
2. Learn new breathing techniques
Perhaps the most accessible stress reliever is built right into your body. Deep breathing and breathing techniques like belly breathing signal to your brain that it’s time to chill out.
Focusing on your breath is a long-held tenet of meditation for stress.
Learning to control your breathing can keep you anchored in the present moment. Sometimes, reminding yourself of what’s real and happening right now calms your nerves about the future and frustrations about the past.
3. Develop routines that work for you
Change is part of life. But a large part of life is also under your control. Developing a solid routine that promotes your mental wellness is a healthy way to minimize the potential stressful impact of change.
For example, sticking to a routine might help you maintain better sleep or eating habits.
When you know that certain parts of your day are guaranteed to happen, it prevents last-minute decisions that can result in stress.
Particularly during the pandemic, when the days may seem long and unformed, introducing some structure can help our brains and bodies adjust and reduce stress levels.
4. Power down blue screens
Are you using your phone as a tool, or are you addicted to scrolling?
To curb your phone use, consider setting limits on the time you spend with it, particularly before bedtime.
Shutting the phone down 30 minutes before bedtime has been
5. Organize your stress triggers
You know what may push your buttons. It may be overdue bills or setting up a doctor’s appointment.
Ignoring unpleasant tasks may feel easier than confronting them in the moment. But out of sight doesn’t always mean out of mind, and not resolving things as they arise could clutter your mind with stress.
Consider tackling the junk drawer, making the appointment today, and revamping your important document filing system.
Developing a systematic approach to areas of your life that cause routine stress may leave you feeling lighter and more competent.
Even if you know how to manage stress, there are times when stressors have a greater impact and your responses may be more intense.
It’s natural to need extra help once in a while.
If you feel stress is impacting your day-to-day life, it may be time to reach out for professional help.
It is especially important to seek this support if you’re experiencing symptoms of acute stress disorder.
Getting the necessary help can help manage stress before it impacts other aspects of your life.
What is the Stress Response?
Firstly, our body judges a situation and decides whether or not it is stressful. This decision is made based on sensory input and processing (i.e. the things we see and hear in the situation) and also on stored memories (i.e. what happened the last time we were in a similar situation).
If the situation is judged as being stressful, the hypothalamus (at the base of the brain) is activated.
The hypothalamus in the brain is in charge of the stress response. When a stress response is triggered, it sends signals to two other structures: the pituitary gland, and the adrenal medulla.
These short term responses are produced by The Fight or Flight Response via the Sympathomedullary Pathway (SAM). Long term stress is regulated by the Hypothalamic Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) system.
Sounding the alarm
The stress response begins in the brain (see illustration). When someone confronts an oncoming car or other danger, the eyes or ears (or both) send the information to the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing. The amygdala interprets the images and sounds. When it perceives danger, it instantly sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus.
When someone experiences a stressful event, the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. This area of the brain functions like a command center, communicating with the rest of the body through the nervous system so that the person has the energy to fight or flee.
The hypothalamus is a bit like a command center. This area of the brain communicates with the rest of the body through the autonomic nervous system, which controls such involuntary body functions as breathing, blood pressure, heartbeat, and the dilation or constriction of key blood vessels and small airways in the lungs called bronchioles. The autonomic nervous system has two components, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system functions like a gas pedal in a car. It triggers the fight-or-flight response, providing the body with a burst of energy so that it can respond to perceived dangers. The parasympathetic nervous system acts like a brake. It promotes the "rest and digest" response that calms the body down after the danger has passed.
After the amygdala sends a distress signal, the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system by sending signals through the autonomic nerves to the adrenal glands. These glands respond by pumping the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) into the bloodstream. As epinephrine circulates through the body, it brings on a number of physiological changes. The heart beats faster than normal, pushing blood to the muscles, heart, and other vital organs. Pulse rate and blood pressure go up. The person undergoing these changes also starts to breathe more rapidly. Small airways in the lungs open wide. This way, the lungs can take in as much oxygen as possible with each breath. Extra oxygen is sent to the brain, increasing alertness. Sight, hearing, and other senses become sharper. Meanwhile, epinephrine triggers the release of blood sugar (glucose) and fats from temporary storage sites in the body. These nutrients flood into the bloodstream, supplying energy to all parts of the body.
All of these changes happen so quickly that people aren't aware of them. In fact, the wiring is so efficient that the amygdala and hypothalamus start this cascade even before the brain's visual centers have had a chance to fully process what is happening. That's why people are able to jump out of the path of an oncoming car even before they think about what they are doing.
As the initial surge of epinephrine subsides, the hypothalamus activates the second component of the stress response system — known as the HPA axis. This network consists of the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands.
The HPA axis relies on a series of hormonal signals to keep the sympathetic nervous system — the "gas pedal" — pressed down. If the brain continues to perceive something as dangerous, the hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which travels to the pituitary gland, triggering the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). This hormone travels to the adrenal glands, prompting them to release cortisol. The body thus stays revved up and on high alert. When the threat passes, cortisol levels fall. The parasympathetic nervous system — the "brake" — then dampens the stress response.
THE PREVALENCE OF STRESS
Stress is everywhere and, it has been on the rise over the last several years. Each of us is acquainted with stress—some are more familiar than others. In many ways, stress feels like a load you just can’t carry—a feeling you experience when, for example, you have to drive somewhere in a crippling blizzard, when you wake up late the morning of an important job interview, when you run out of money before the next pay period, and before taking an important exam for which you realize you are not fully prepared.
Nearly half of U.S. adults indicated that their stress levels have increased over the last five years (Neelakantan, 2013).
Stress is an experience that evokes a variety of responses, including those that are physiological (e.g., accelerated heart rate, headaches, or gastrointestinal problems), cognitive (e.g., difficulty concentrating or making decisions), and behavioral (e.g., drinking alcohol, smoking, or taking actions directed at eliminating the cause of the stress). Although stress can be positive at times, it can have deleterious health implications, contributing to the onset and progression of a variety of physical illnesses and diseases (Cohen & Herbert, 1996).
The scientific study of how stress and other psychological factors impact health falls within the realm of health psychology , a subfield of psychology devoted to understanding the importance of psychological influences on health, illness, and how people respond when they become ill (Taylor, 1999). Health psychology emerged as a discipline in the 1970s, a time during which there was increasing awareness of the role behavioral and lifestyle factors play in the development of illnesses and diseases (Straub, 2007). In addition to studying the connection between stress and illness, health psychologists investigate issues such as why people make certain lifestyle choices (e.g., smoking or eating unhealthy food despite knowing the potential adverse health implications of such behaviors). Health psychologists also design and investigate the effectiveness of interventions aimed at changing unhealthy behaviors. Perhaps one of the more fundamental tasks of health psychologists is to identify which groups of people are especially at risk for negative health outcomes, based on psychological or behavioral factors. For example, measuring differences in stress levels among demographic groups and how these levels change over time can help identify populations who may have an increased risk for illness or disease.
The results of three national surveys in which several thousand individuals from different demographic groups completed a brief stress questionnaire the surveys were administered in 1983, 2006, and 2009 (Cohen & Janicki-Deverts, 2012). All three surveys demonstrated higher stress in women than in men. Unemployed individuals reported high levels of stress in all three surveys, as did those with less education and income retired persons reported the lowest stress levels. However, from 2006 to 2009 the greatest increase in stress levels occurred among men, Whites, people aged 45–64, college graduates, and those with full-time employment. One interpretation of these findings is that concerns surrounding the 2008–2009 economic downturn (e.g., threat of or actual job loss and substantial loss of retirement savings) may have been especially stressful to White, college-educated, employed men with limited time remaining in their working careers.
The charts above, adapted from Cohen & Janicki-Deverts (2012), depict the mean stress level scores among different demographic groups during the years 1983, 2006, and 2009. Across categories of sex, age, race, education level, employment status, and income, stress levels generally show a marked increase over this quarter-century time span.
Stress is a normal human reaction that happens to everyone. In fact, the human body is designed to experience stress and react to it. When you experience changes or challenges (stressors), your body produces physical and mental responses. That’s stress.
Stress responses help your body adjust to new situations. Stress can be positive, keeping us alert, motivated and ready to avoid danger. For example, if you have an important test coming up, a stress response might help your body work harder and stay awake longer. But stress becomes a problem when stressors continue without relief or periods of relaxation.
What happens to the body during stress?
The body’s autonomic nervous system controls your heart rate, breathing, vision changes and more. Its built-in stress response, the “fight-or-flight response,” helps the body face stressful situations.
When a person has long-term (chronic) stress, continued activation of the stress response causes wear and tear on the body. Physical, emotional and behavioral symptoms develop.
- Physical symptoms of stress include:
- Aches and pains.
- Chest pain or a feeling like your heart is racing.
- Exhaustion or trouble sleeping. , dizziness or shaking. .
- Muscle tension or jaw clenching.
- Stomach or digestive problems.
- Trouble having sex.
- Weak immune system.
Stress can lead to emotional and mental symptoms like:
Often, people with chronic stress try to manage it with unhealthy behaviors, including:
- Drinking too much or too often.
- Overeating or developing an eating disorder.
- Participating compulsively in sex, shopping or internet browsing.
- Using drugs.
How is stress diagnosed?
Stress is subjective — not measurable with tests. Only the person experiencing it can determine whether is it present and how severe it feels. A healthcare provider may use questionnaires to understand your stress and how it affects your life.
If you have chronic stress, your healthcare provider can evaluate symptoms that result from stress. For example, high blood pressure can be diagnosed and treated.
What are some strategies for stress relief?
You can’t avoid stress, but you can stop it from becoming overwhelming by practicing some daily strategies:
- Exercise when you feel symptoms of stress coming on. Even a short walk can boost your mood.
- At the end of each day, take a moment to think about what you’ve accomplished — not what you didn’t get done.
- Set goals for your day, week and month. Narrowing your view will help you feel more in control of the moment and long-term tasks.
- Consider talking to a therapist or a member of the clergy about your worries.
What are some ways to prevent stress?
Many daily strategies can help you keep stress at bay:
- Try relaxation activities, such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, breathing exercises and muscle relaxation. Programs are available online, in smartphone apps, and at many gyms and community centers.
- Take good care of your body each day. Eating right, exercising and getting enough sleep help your body handle stress much better.
- Stay positive and practice gratitude, acknowledging the good parts of your day or life.
- Accept that you can’t control everything. Find ways to let go of worry about situations you cannot change.
- Learn to say “no” to additional responsibilities when you are too busy or stressed.
- Stay connected with people who keep you calm, make you happy, provide emotional support and help you with practical things. A friend, family member, neighbor or member of your church can become a good listener or share responsibilities so that stress doesn’t become overwhelming.
How long does stress last?
Stress can be a short-term issue or a long-term problem, depending on what changes in your life. Regularly using stress management techniques can help you avoid most physical, emotional and behavioral symptoms of stress.
When should I talk to a doctor about stress?
You should seek medical attention if you feel overwhelmed, if you are using drugs or alcohol to cope, or if you have thoughts about hurting yourself. Your primary care provider can help by offering advice, prescribing medicine or referring you to a therapist.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
It’s natural and normal to be stressed sometimes. But long-term stress can cause physical symptoms, emotional symptoms and unhealthy behaviors. Try relieving and managing stress using a few simple strategies. But if you feel overwhelmed, talk to your doctor.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 01/28/2021.
- National Institute of Mental Health. 5 Things You Should Know About Stress. Accessed 2/4/2021.
- American Psychological Association. Stress relief is within reach. Accessed 2/4/2021.
- Office on Women’s Health. Stress and your health. Accessed 2/4/2021.
- US Department of Health and Human Services. Manage Stress. Accessed 2/4/2021.
- American Academy of Family Physicians. Stress: How to Cope Better With Life's Challenges. Accessed 2/4/2021.
- Mental Health Foundation. Stress. Accessed 2/4/2021.
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Stress. Accessed 2/4/2021.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
Stress facts and tips
According to APA’s 2019 Stress in America survey:
More than three-quarters of adults report physical or emotional symptoms of stress, such as headache, feeling tired, or changes in sleeping habits.
44% of adults say they exercise or walk to manage stress and 47% say they listen to music. More than one third (37%) spend time with friends or family.
Nearly half of adults say they have laid awake at night because of stress in the prior month.
Nearly 3 in 5 adults say they could have used more emotional support in the last year.
HOST VULNERABILITY-STRESSOR INTERACTIONS AND DISEASE
The changes in biological set points that occur across the life span as a function of chronic stressors are referred to as allostasis, and the biological cost of these adjustments is known as allostatic load (McEwen 1998). McEwen has also suggested that cumulative increases in allostatic load are related to chronic illness. These are intriguing hypotheses that emphasize the role that stressors may play in disease. The challenge, however, is to show the exact interactions that occur among stressors, pathogens, host vulnerability (both constitutional and genetic), and such poor health behaviors as smoking, alcohol abuse, and excessive caloric consumption. Evidence of a lifetime trajectory of comorbidities does not necessarily imply that allostatic load is involved since immunosenescence, genetic predisposition, pathogen exposure, and poor health behaviors may act as culprits.
It is not clear, for example, that changes in set point for variables such as blood pressure are related to cumulative stressors per se, at least in healthy young individuals. Thus, for example, British soldiers subjected to battlefield conditions for more than a year in World War II showed chronic elevations in blood pressure, which returned to normal after a couple of months away from the front (Graham 1945). In contrast, individuals with chronic illnesses such as chronic fatigue syndrome may show a high rate of relapse after a relatively acute stressor such as a hurricane (Lutgendorf et al. 1995). Nevertheless, by emphasizing the role that chronic stressors may play in multiple disease outcomes, McEwen has helped to emphasize an important area of study.
10 Causes of Stress (and How to Avoid Them)
Everyone encounters stressful situations on an almost daily basis, from minor pressures that we hardly notice, to occasional traumatic situations which can cause ongoing stress. Many of us do not realise that some forms of stress, known as eustress, can have a positive effect on our performance, and instead refer to those experiences which cause us negative distress as stressful.
In recent decades, stress, its causes and our bodily response to stress have been the subject of numerous psychological studies. Today, stressful events tend to fall into one of three key categories:
- Acute - Short-term events which do not last long but if traumatic, can have a lasting impact on us.
- Episodic Stress - Situations which are also short-term but which we find ourselves in regularly, such as rushing to work or other recurring stressful experiences in the workplace.
- Chronic - Ongoing stresses which last into the long-term. These may include the stress of illness or the friction of a fractious relationship.
What are some common examples of these stressors, and what techniques can people use to avoid them or reduce the stress that they cause?
We spend much of waking lives at work, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the workplace is a key source of stress. A survey published by the American Psychological Association in 2012 found that as many as 70% of Americans reported suffering from workplace stress. 1
Professional strain can take its toll on the individual concerned, but can also cost employers dearly, with 13.5 million sick days estimated to have been linked to stress between 2007 and 2008 in the UK alone. 2
Separating work-related tasks from leisure and family time, such as resisting the urge to catch up with emails in an evening, can help prevent workplace stress from spilling into other areas of your life.
Do you worry about spots, wrinkles, weight or balding? If you do, you are in good company. Concerns over our personal appearance can have an exaggerated effect on people&rsquos confidence and their self image.
Take weight worries, for example. Whilst researching the sources of everyday stress, psychologist Allen Kanner and his colleagues developed Hassles and Uplifts Scales, ranking stressors in terms of their impact on people&rsquos lives. Of those surveyed, more than half admitted to worrying about their weight, placing it at the top of Kanner&rsquos Hassles Scale (Kanner et al, 1981). 3
A study published in the International Journal of Sport Psychology reported that undertaking activities such as exercise can help boost self esteem in a study of middle-aged participants (Alfermann and Stoll, 2000). 4
The pressure to conform and be seen to succeed in everyday life can encourage stress, and the aspiration towards ideals and success nurtured in the media can be unrealistic and unhelpful. Ideas of a desirable body image, for example, have been linked to both negative self images and eating disorders.
The stress created by our environment can also have lasting consequences. Iian Meyer of the UCLA School of Law noted the effect that social pressures can have on health. Studying the stress experienced by social minority groups who are commonly subjected to various forms of prejudice, such as being excluded by the wider community, bullied or encouraged to internalise discrimination, Meyer developed the concept of &ldquominority stress&rdquo, the experience of which can in turn lead to mental health problems (Meyer, 2007). 5
Despite the health-related drawbacks of experiencing stress, it can also impact our performance in more positive ways. The pressure we feel to meet a deadline, accomplish a goal or meet the demands of a schedule, for example, can motivate us to improve our performance. In contrast to the distress that we usually refer to as &lsquostress&rsquo, this type of stress is known as eustress .
In competitive sports, eustress can encourage athletes to focus on training for a match and to commit to practise when they would rather do other things, but we all experience it to some degree in the form of pressures in everyday life, such as the need to pass exams at school.
Fears over one&rsquos own health or the wellbeing of a relative or friend are a common cause of stress.
The experience of an illness, and the loss of control over events, can lead to persistent worry about both the current and possible future situations. Paradoxically, the stress caused by health worries can itself lead to problems and the body&rsquos reaction to stress, General Adaptation Syndrome , can have physical effects as we deplete our energy reserves to cope with a stressful situation.
When moving homes, people will often tell you that moving home is one of the most stressful events you will experience in your life. More generally, any situation which requires change, positive or negative, requires us to adapt to new circumstances and can be a source of stress. Such events can include leaving home, commencing a new job and starting a family.
Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe produced an inventory of life-changing events known as the Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS) which, surprisingly, ranks the act of moving home as the 28th most stressful life change. Far more severe are changed in relationships, such as a partner&rsquos death or separation (Holmes and Rahe, 1967). 6
Even outside of a recession, financial worries can affect us all and lead to unnecessary stress which can be a burden to yourself and those close to you.
Loans, ever-increasing bills, the ability to pay off credit cards, being able to live comfortably and retire when we wish all contribute to a sense of financial insecurity.
Kanner&rsquos Hassles Scale found that a feeling of not being able to pay bills and live comfortably, as well as the burden of supporting others financially to be a key strain in our everyday lives (Kanner et al, 1981). 3
Whilst improved management of money can alleviate financial stress, the unique situation of each individual makes a one-size-fits-all solution to this source of stress impossible. Left unaddressed, however, financial worries can have a significant effect on our lives and can impact on relations with close friends and family.
Even the happiest of relationships can be a source of stress for both parties involved. Cohabiting can bring a host of problems, from the loss of a personal &lsquobreathing space&rsquo to having to adapt to the different habits of a partner. Over time, these demands can impact on relationships and lead to stressful arguments, leading to a vicious circle which can lead to break-ups. Yet, the Hassles and Uplifts Scales (Kanner et al, 1981) rates good relations with partners and friends as the two most significant factors which can help to improve our wellbeing and counteract life&rsquos stresses. 3
Whilst compromise is needed on both sides for a relationship to endure, it is a practise which might not always lead to a reduction in stress for those involved and can even become the focus of arguments. A study in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy has, however, identified &ldquomindfulness&rdquo as a factor in reducing relationship stress (Barnes et al, 2007). This practise requires an awareness of the feelings of the other partner and an understanding of the impact one&rsquos own actions might have on those around us. 7
Understandably, the loss of a loved one can be one of the most painful experiences a person can endure. The shock or enduring worry of losing a friend or relative can lead to stress, especially when the person we lose is a relative or close friend.
Events during and shortly after loss, such as end-of-life care and funeral arrangements contribute to stress and it can take a long time to adjust to not being able to meet or speak to the person, and acceptance of the new circumstance is difficult.
Past events can be a key source of stress. Whilst any danger a person has experienced may have passed, the stress of the trauma can continue to affect them for many years afterwards. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs estimates that around 50% of women experience a traumatic event at least once in their life, and are more prone to be victims of sexual violence than men. However, 60% of men also experience trauma, a difference which it attributes to males being more likely to be involved in accidents. 8
Persistent stress which lasts long after a traumatic event has passed is often identified as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a condition which the NHS estimates to affect a third of people who experience trauma. 9
4. There are ways to manage stress.
If you take practical steps to manage your stress, you may reduce the risk of negative health effects. Here are some tips that may help you to cope with stress:
- Be observant. Recognize the signs of your body’s response to stress, such as difficulty sleeping, increased alcohol and other substance use, being easily angered, feeling depressed, and having low energy.
- Talk to your health care provider or a health professional. Don’t wait for your health care provider to ask about your stress. Start the conversation and get proper health care for existing or new health problems. Effective treatments can help if your stress is affecting your relationships or ability to work. Don’t know where to start? Read our Tips for Talking With Your Health Care Provider.
- Get regular exercise. Just 30 minutes per day of walking can help boost your mood and improve your health.
- Try a relaxing activity. Explore relaxation or wellness programs, which may incorporate meditation, muscle relaxation, or breathing exercises. Schedule regular times for these and other healthy and relaxing activities.
- Set goals and priorities. Decide what must get done now and what can wait. Learn to say “no” to new tasks if you start to feel like you’re taking on too much. Try to be mindful of what you have accomplished at the end of the day, not what you have been unable to do.
- Stay connected. You are not alone. Keep in touch with people who can provide emotional support and practical help. To reduce stress, ask for help from friends, family, and community or religious organizations.
- Consider a clinical trial. Researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and other research facilities across the country are studying the causes and effects of psychological stress as well as stress management techniques. You can learn more about studies that are recruiting by visiting Join a Study or ClinicalTrials.gov (keyword: stress).
Problem-focused coping targets the causes of stress in practical ways which tackles the problem or stressful situation that is causing stress, consequently directly reducing the stress.
In general problem-focused coping is best, as it removes the stressor, so deals with the root cause of the problem, providing a long term solution.
Problem-focused strategies are successful in dealing with stressors such as discrimination (Pascoe & Richman, 2009), HIV infections (Moskowitz, Hult, Bussolari, & Acree, 2009) and diabettes (Duangdao & Roesch, 2008).
However, it is not always possible to use problem-focused strategies. For example, when someone dies, problem-focused strategies may not be very helpful for the bereaved. Dealing with the feeling of loss requires emotion-focused coping.
Problem focused approached will not work in any situation where it is beyond the individual’s control to remove the source of stress. They work best when the person can control the source of stress (e.g. exams, work based stressors etc.).
It is not a productive method for all individuals. For example, not all people are able to take control of a situation, or perceived a situation as controllable.
For example, optimistic people who tend to have positive expectations of the future are more likely to use problem-focused strategies, whereas pessimistic individual are more inclined to use emotion-focused strategies (Nes & Segerstrom, 2006).
APA Style References
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