What Is Stress and How Can I Recognize It?

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Stress is our body's natural physical and mental response to challenges or changes. It may help you overcome obstacles and push yourself to new levels of personal growth.

When your body’s stress response system starts dysfunctioning, though, the same feelings can become barriers and limit your ability to perform at your best. Research has even shown that stress can trigger or aggravate several conditions and impair the functioning of different body systems.

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Symptoms

The body’s autonomic nervous system controls your heart rate, breathing, and other body processes that take place without conscious effort. It triggers the fight-or-flight response during stressful situations, causing an increased heart rate, dilated pupils, and more. Continued activation of this response can cause wear and tear on the body and result in physical and emotional symptoms.

Physical symptoms of stress include:

  • Muscle tension
  • Tension-type headaches or body pains
  • Back pain
  • Chest pain or a feeling that your heart is racing
  • Stomachaches
  • Paleness or flushed skin
  • Headaches, dizziness, or shaking
  • Shortness of breath or rapid breathing
  • Increased heart rate and elevated blood pressure
  • Exhaustion or trouble sleeping
  • Digestive issues like bloating, diarrhea, or nausea 

Emotional and mental symptoms of stress can include:

  • Anxiety or irritability
  • Depression
  • Panic attacks
  • Sadness

How Common Are Stress Symptoms?

According to the American Psychological Association’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.

Recognizing Stress

Ways to recognize stress include:

  • Paying attention to how deeply you are breathing
  • Taking note of any overeating, compulsive shopping, or other unhealthy behaviors since many people engage in these behaviors to relieve stress
  • Considering how many conflicts you’re experiencing with other people 
  • Keeping a log of your moods over a month to see how they fluctuate
  • Asking yourself how you are sleeping at night and how rested you feel

There will be times when you experience heightened levels of stress and where it seems like everything that can go wrong, does. At such moments, it can be more useful to consider not if you’re stressed, but how stressed you actually are.

Some online screening tools can help you check in with yourself are:

Causes

There are so many things that can trigger the fight-or-flight response, which is your body's natural reaction to stress. When something or someone triggers the stress response, your body goes into immediate action to either confront the threat or flee.

Physically, when you feel stressed, what you’re actually feeling is your nervous system signaling a flood of hormones to be released from your adrenal glands, such as cortisol (the stress hormone) and epinephrine (adrenaline). Adrenaline is responsible for the physical symptoms you experience, such as a rapid heartbeat.

Risk Factors

We are all wired to feel stress, but some people have a greater risk of experiencing unhealthy levels of stress than others, including:

  • People who are over 50 and the caregiver of a family member
  • People who have obesity
  • People who have depression

Other risk factors include life stressors like:

  • Growing up in a challenging environment 
  • Not learning or using stress management skills
  • Living with chronic illness
  • Being a victim of crime or abuse
  • Experiencing family or financial stress, including custody and housing issues
  • Not having a work-life balance
  • Living in poverty
  • Being homeless
  • Not having a support system 
  • Abusing substances

Types

Acute stress

Acute stress, or sudden stress, is stress that comes on quickly and resolves when the perceived or actual threat is removed. People often experience this type of stress after an unexpected life crisis like an accident, a loss, or other types of trauma.

Chronic stress

Chronic stress is long-term stress. With this type of stress, the body never receives a clear signal to return to normal functioning. Over time, continued strain on your body from stress may contribute to serious health problems. Chronic stress is associated with immune system dysfunction and diseases, especially those related to your heart. 

Eustress

Eustress means beneficial stress. It is associated with excitement or motivation, such as riding a roller coaster or going to your first day at a new job.

Episodic acute stress

Episodic acute stress is when someone experiences intense stress on a regular basis. It can happen in professionals who face a great deal of high-stress situations, such as law enforcement officers, firefighters, and emergency responders.

Side Effects

Side effects of stress may include:

  • Becoming easily distracted
  • Neglecting self-care
  • Losing sleep and developing insomnia
  • Taking your stress out on others 
  • Overextending your energy

Complications

Physical and mental health conditions that can be triggered by stress or worsened by stress include:

  • Metabolic disorders like obesity or diabetes
  • Depression
  • Immune disorders
  • Heart conditions
  • Stress ulcers 
  • Anxiety disorders

Treatment

Before you can address any long-term stress issues, you need to get a handle on your current levels of stress. Talk to your healthcare team about ways you can integrate some or all of the following treatment options into your everyday routine.

Therapy

A therapist can help you see any patterns or connections between your current issues and stress. Therapists can also help you address underlying beliefs contributing to your stress and conflicts. When you gain better clarity of what’s causing your reactions, you are better equipped to change your stress response in the future.

Medications

Sometimes medications may be necessary to help you through a particularly stressful time. Your doctor may prescribe the following medications:

  • Benzodiazepines like Valium (diazepam), Xanax (alprazolam), Klonopin (clonazepam), and Ativan (lorazepam)
  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), including medications like Paxil (paroxetine), Prozac (fluoxetine), Zoloft (sertraline), and Lexapro (escitalopram)
  • Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) like Effexor (venlafaxine), Cymbalta (duloxetine), and Pristiq (desvenlafaxine)
  • Tricyclic antidepressants like Elavil (amitriptyline), Norpramin (desipramine), and Sinequan (doxepin)

Alternative Medicine

You can try the following alternative treatments for relieving stress:

  • Acupuncture
  • Herbal remedies (teas, oils, tinctures)
  • Meditation 
  • Massage therapy

Lifestyle

You can’t avoid stress, but you can stop it from becoming overwhelming by practicing some daily strategies, including:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Stay connected. Keep in touch with people who can provide emotional support and practical help. Ask for help from friends, family, and community or religious organizations.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does a stress rash look like?

Stress can trigger a variety of skin flare-ups in susceptible individuals. Stress rashes vary in appearance, but most resemble hives, which are red, raised areas of skin that may be bumpy. The rash can also itch, tingle, or burn.

How do you stop stress eating?

You can stop stress eating by becoming more mindful of your eating behavior and triggers and by developing other techniques to deal with stress. You can get help from a dietitian, a doctor, or a mental health professional. 

How do you make stress your friend?

You can make stress your friend by recognizing its importance and keeping it within healthy levels with daily stress-relieving activities and a healthy lifestyle. This should include a balanced diet, proper sleep, and regular exercise. 

Why do men and women handle stress differently?

Men and women are said to handle stress differently to some degree because they generally have different levels and fluctuations of key hormones, including oxytocin. 

Summary

Stress can motivate us, but it can also stop us from doing our best, especially when it becomes a chronic health issue. When you are stressed, you experience symptoms that are a result of your body's fight-or-flight response.

Prolonged activation of this response can potentially lead to serious health problems like heart disease. The best way to manage stress is to develop healthy coping mechanisms, such as practicing deep breathing exercises, and a healthy lifestyle.

A Word From Verywell

We all experience some level of stress at times. However, if it’s becoming a persistent problem or you’re not sure how to cope in healthy ways, it’s time to talk to a professional.

There are many external factors in our world that can contribute to stress. Although we can't control many of these, we can more readily deal with the stress we have in our homes and workplaces if we learn healthy ways of coping with it and minimizing its impact on our daily lives.

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Article Sources
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