What Is Psychological Stress?

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Stress is something everybody experiences throughout life. It is how the body and brain react to any need or demand that it sees as a challenge or obstacle. However, it is not necessarily a negative, as some people see short-term stress as motivating, as with an exam or job interview.

Stress in Medicine

Within medicine, stress is the “body’s response to physical, mental, or emotional pressure.”

In one study that also examined an association with social media use, the Pew Research Center used the Perceived Stress Scale to evaluate the stress levels of American adults. The average score was 10.2 out of 30, with 0 being no stress and 30 being the highest level. They also found that women and men had different stress levels, with women being significantly more stressed overall. Older adults and those who are employed tend to have lower levels of stress.

Stress comes in several forms and causes different symptoms, which all depend on the person. Read more about psychological stress in this overview.

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Types of Psychological Stress

There are different types of stress, which can all have effects on emotional and physical health. Situations and events that cause stress, called stressors, can occur once, briefly, or over a longer period of time.

Types of stress include:

  • Routine stress. This relates to the persistent pressures of school, work, relationships, and other responsibilities. 
  • Sudden negative stress. Examples of this type of stress include illness, losing a job, financial difficulty, or divorce. 
  • Traumatic stress. This is caused by a major event like an accident, assault, disaster, or any event where someone is fearful they may be seriously hurt or killed.

Acute Stress

This is caused by a short-term stressor, and it goes away quickly. Everybody experiences this at some point in their lives, and it is caused by a variety of situations. Examples of acute stress include:

  • Taking an exam 
  • Job interview 
  • Exhilarating short events, like skiing down a mountain
  • Brief surprising events, like hitting the brakes to avoid a car accident
  • Having an argument 

Chronic Stress 

This is stress that lasts for a longer period of time, for weeks or months. Someone may become used to it and not recognize it as stress or believe it is a problem. Examples of chronic stress include:

  • Financial problems 
  • Unhappiness in a relationship or marriage 
  • Difficulty at work or school 
  • Having a chronic illness 
  • Problems at home or in your personal life 

Psychological Stress Symptoms

When responding to pressure, the body releases stress hormones, like epinephrine and norepinephrine. This causes an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels, which is supposed to help you escape an immediate threat. As a result, stress affects multiple body systems, and it affects every person differently. Severity depends on the cause and person. 

Cognitive, or thinking-related, effects of stress include:

  • Difficulty focusing 
  • Memory issues
  • Negative thoughts
  • Lack of self-confidence 
  • Worrying 
  • Trouble making decisions

Emotional symptoms can include:

  • Changes in mood 
  • Irritability 
  • Hopelessness
  • Feeling tense, anxious, or nervous
  • Unhappiness
  • Inability to relax

Other physical symptoms caused by stress include:

  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension 
  • Digestive problems, such as nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Decreased interest in sex
  • Increased heart rate 
  • High blood pressure
  • Fatigue 

Changes in behavior can also occur. These symptoms include:

  • Eating or sleeping pattern changes 
  • Withdrawing from social life 
  • Nervous habits, like fidgeting, nail-biting, teeth grinding
  • Increase in use of caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs 
  • Decrease in work or academic productivity

Diagnosis

A lot of stress can be managed with coping strategies and self-care. However, when it becomes more than that, it is important to seek help from a mental health professional or another healthcare provider, especially if you are experiencing overwhelming stress or stress affecting your functioning in life or health. Your healthcare provider may provide a referral to a mental health professional, like a therapist or psychiatrist. This could prevent long-term effects and help diagnose a possible mood or anxiety disorder that needs treatment.

Chronic Stress & Health Conditions

Chronic stress can increase the risk of multiple health conditions, including:

  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure 
  • Diabetes 
  • Obesity
  • Depression or anxiety 
  • Skin conditions, like eczema or acne
  • Changes in menstruation (periods)

Coping

There are many ways to cope with stress, and everybody has different preferences when it comes to managing their stress. Self-care methods people use, as well as good lifestyle changes, include:

  • Relaxation techniques: These can help release tension, and some common methods include progressive relaxation and deep breathing
  • Mindfulness meditation: This increases focus and concentration on the present moment, which may help reduce stress. 
  • Journaling
  • Exercise combined with proper diet and nutrition
  • Prioritize sleep

A Word From Verywell

Stress is inevitable, but there are ways to cope with it when it happens to you. Depending on the type of stress and how long it lasts, it can have different effects on your body and life. If it begins to overwhelm you, your life, and how you function daily, it is important to speak with your healthcare provider or mental health professional. They can provide resources and potential treatments if necessary.

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7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institute of Mental Health. 5 things you should know about stress.

  2. National Cancer Institute. Psychological stress and cancer.

  3. Pew Research Center. Psychological stress and social media use. Updated January 15, 2015.

  4. MedlinePlus. Stress and your health. Updated May 5, 2020.

  5. Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Stress.

  6. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Stress. Updated January 2020.

  7. National Institute of Mental Health. I’m so stressed out!