What is Stress?
Stress is our body’s automatic response to any action or situation that places special physical or psychological demands on us, and that could disturb our balance. These include new or unexpected events, situations that threaten our feeling of self, or things we feel we have little or no control over.
When we encounter anything that appears to be a threat to our wellbeing, this automatic survival mechanism kicks in. It creates physical changes in our body, including the production of stress hormones, which trigger the ‘fight or flight’ response. In addition to being triggered by pressure situations or events, the stress response can also be activated by our perception of – or emotional reaction to – a situation or event, even if it is not actually a threat to us.
The stress response is designed to keep us on high alert, motivated and safe, until the ‘danger’ has passed. It is a normal and healthy reaction, and sometimes is even essential for our survival. It can help us to push through situations that are challenging, scary or intense.
Stressors can be positive or negative:
- Eustress – or positive stress – can be motivating, invigorating and helpful (e.g. when starting a new job, getting married, having a child, moving house, retiring, going on holiday).
- Distress – or negative stress – can be extreme, overwhelming, and make us feel out of control (e.g. loss of a loved one, divorce, injury or illness, abuse or neglect, financial problems, unemployment).
Whichever type of stress we are under, our bodies typically return to a resting state after the stress response has done its job, without any lasting negative effects.
However, there are times when our stress response is repeatedly activated – or persists over extended periods of time – and we are held in a permanent state of ‘fight or flight’. Rather than being beneficial, this heightened or prolonged level of stress will make us feel ill, overwhelmed and unable to cope. A negative stress reaction like this can cause major problems, triggering a range of physical, mental and emotional health disorders.
Factors that can contribute to negative stress reactions include:
- Environmental (e.g. work / home / social pressures)
- Lifestyle (e.g. poor sleep / poor diet / substance use / process addictions)
- Emotional and personal problems (e.g. relationship issues)
- Financial problems
- Physical disorders or poor health.
What contributes to stress can vary hugely from person to person – something that is extremely stressful for one person might not even register in another person’s life. Depending on how frequently or how long the ‘fight or flight’ response is ‘on’ will determine how severely we are affected.
Stress is not a psychiatric diagnosis, but it is closely linked to our mental health. When ‘stress’ is used in a clinical sense, it refers to a situation or event that causes discomfort and distress, that can lead to (or exacerbate) mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression.
There is also growing evidence that the prolonged activation of the stress response disturbs the body’s internal balance, which can contribute to a range of physical illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, chronic fatigue and immune system disorders.
An additional complication can arise when people under stress engage in substance use or other behaviours to help them cope and relieve the symptoms of stress. These may include drugs, alcohol and a range of process addictions like gambling, shopping, sex and internet use. While these activities might provide some temporary relief, they also keep the body in a stressed state and cause more problems in the longer term.
Without professional help, untreated stress can quickly turn into serious illness. It is vital that we seek support to help us learn to manage external pressures and develop internal emotional resilience. In this way, we can begin to effectively manage our stress levels and maintain our wellbeing – so we can enjoy a healthy, happy life.
What are the Different Types of Stress?
Most people think of stress as emotional, but there are actually different types of stress, including: physical, emotional, traumatic and chemical.
Our bodies cannot physically discern the difference between types of stressors and therefore will react in the same way, in a primitive sense, to anything perceived as ‘impending danger’ – the ‘fight or flight’ response. Considering the number of potential stressors we face everyday, it is clear to see how easily our body’s internal balance and stability can be disrupted.
- Physical stress
- Emotional stress
- Traumatic stress
- Chemical stress
Physical stress refers to physical activities and events that put the body under pressure. Examples include travelling, excessive exercise, dental treatment, medical treatment, excessive cold or heat, and excessive noise. Physical stress can also include stress brought on by sleeping too much, not getting enough sleep, hormone imbalances, poor diet, poor posture, falls or working long hours. Physical stress most often affects muscles, tendons and bones and is typically easy to identify and correct.
Emotional stress is the most common type, and can interfere with our daily lives and threaten our wellbeing in many ways. Emotional stress often manifests as anxiety, depressive mood or a conflict in the mind. It may be linked to how we feel about ourselves, how we feel about others, family, relationships, work and finances. Examples include divorce, loss a loved one, financial issues, unpleasant work environment, family tensions, and isolation. Stress-related feelings and emotions can cause physical symptoms in the body too. Often it is not possible to change the stressful situations we find ourselves in, but we can learn ways to change / manage our emotional responses to them.
Traumatic stress is caused by events that are shocking and emotionally overwhelming, where there is a big trauma to the body. It typically involves, or threatens, serious injury, death or threat to our physical safety – such as an operation, car accident, third degree burns, a violent attack or even a case of pneumonia. Acute stress disorder (ASD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are both mental health diagnoses often associated with traumatic stress reactions.
Pollution, pesticides, cleaning materials, processed food, personal products and even medication contain chemicals that poison our bodies to some degree and cause us stress. Poor nutrition is also a chemical stress because our bodies do not receive the building blocks they need to maintain good health. Smoking, alcohol and other drugs, that we may use to ease our stress symptoms, are also chemical stressors and have a negative impact on our wellbeing.
In addition to the different types of stress, there are three main categories of stress: acute, chronic and episodic acute. These reflect the difference between the little stresses that we experience on a daily basis, and the more severe stress that can build up when we are exposed to stressful situations over longer periods.
This is the most common type of stress – a short-term type of stress – that we all typically encounter multiple times throughout the day. Acute stress relates to pressures and challenges in the present or near future, such as taking an exam, having an argument with a loved one, work deadlines, and being stuck in a traffic jam. The symptoms of acute stress develop quickly but do not last very long. If we take good care of our health, manage our time well and practice relaxation techniques, it is possible to build resilience and handle acute stress in healthy ways.
Acute stress can also include unexpected life crises, like a death in the family, being a victim of crime or being in a serious accident. These can be more challenging to recover from, as our minds can replay the events and continue to feel the trauma for days or weeks after the event. This can lead to acute stress disorder. If we are suffering from acute stress disorder it is important we seek professional help.
This is the relentless stress that results from being exposed to high-pressure situations for extended periods of time. Our circumstances may seem never-ending and inescapable – like being trapped in an abusive relationship, working in a high-pressure job, poverty, long-term illness and racism. Chronic stress can also develop after a traumatic experience and / or childhood trauma if these are not properly processed at the time.
In cases of chronic stress, the relaxation state between stressful events does not occur often enough, so we are in near-constant state of ‘fight-or-flight’. This can cause the body a lot of damage and ultimately result in a decline of physical, mental and emotional health. Long-term damage can include heart disease, anxiety disorders, depression and memory disorders. In most cases, professional help is needed to ensure a full recovery.
Episodic acute stress
This is when acute stress is experienced on a semi-regular basis. It often affects those who take on too much and have self-imposed pressures and external demands vying for their attention. It also commonly affects those who are prone to worrying, in turn resulting in anxiety or depression. If left untreated, episodic acute stress can contribute to serious illnesses, especially if we turn to unhealthy coping strategies like binge drinking, staying in bad relationships or process addiction behaviours.
What Causes Stress?
There are many different things in life that can cause stress, including work, finances, relationships, parenting, and day-to-day inconveniences. However, some people seem to be more affected by stress than others.
The amount of stress we feel in different situations depends on many factors, such as:
- the amount of other pressures we are under (including physical, mental and emotional stressors)
- our coping strategies / emotional resilience to stressful situations
- our perception of the situation (for example, if we tend to interpret things positively or negatively)
- how much experience we have in dealing with a particular type of pressure
- how important the outcome is to us
- our self-esteem (whether we believe that we are capable of coping with the situation)
- how long the situation affects us
- whether we have any underlying mental health conditions
- the amount of support we are receiving from people around us.
Our attitude, personality and approach to life will all influence how we perceive and respond to stress, in addition to our past experiences and their outcomes.
What are the Signs and Symptoms of Stress
The human body is designed to experience stress and has a built-in stress response – the ‘fight or flight’ response – that is activated when we are in stressful situations. Sometimes stress comes from an obvious source, like a divorce or bereavement, and we are aware that we are feeling under stress. We will have normal and appropriate reactions to these stressors, which we eventually recover from, without any lasting negative effects.
At other times, a build up of small daily pressures – from work, family and friends – can be equally stressful and challenging, but we might not be as aware of the slow build up of pressure. When we experience stress repeatedly, without relief or relaxation in between, stress-related tension builds. Repeated or prolonged activation of the ‘fight or flight’ response will impact negatively on our physical, mental and emotional health, and affect our behaviour.
It is not always easy to recognise when we are suffering from stress – as it can affect people in different ways, in different situations – but some common signs and symptoms include:
Stress, especially chronic stress, can wear down the body's natural defenses, leading to a variety of physical symptoms:
- headaches or dizziness
- muscle tension, aches and pains
- nausea and vomiting
- digestive issues (including indigestion and acid reflux symptoms)
- chest pain or palpitations
- teeth grinding or jaw clenching
- panic attacks
- low energy, tiredness, exhaustion
- high blood pressure
- changes in eating habits / weight gain or loss
- changes in sleeping pattern
- frequent colds or infections
- changes in libido.
Research has also linked long-term stress to gastrointestinal conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and stomach ulcers, allergies, asthma, autoimmune syndromes and cardiovascular disease.
- impaired thinking - especially higher-order thinking
- reduced productivity
- poor concentration
- difficulties with memory / forgetfulness
- racing thoughts or constant worry
- difficulty making decisions
- low self-esteem, lack of confidence.
Research has shown there are connections between stress and mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, psychosis and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some of the emotional and behavioural symptoms of stress overlap with those of mental health disorders, which can make it hard to distinguish where one begins and the other ends.
When we are stressed we may experience many different feelings, including anger, sadness, anxiety or frustration. These sometimes feed off each other and can produce physical symptoms, making us feel even worse. Emotional signs of stress include:
- irritable, impatient or aggressive
- mood swings – often upset and tearful
- anxiety, nervousness or a sense of dread
- constant worry about our health
- feeling lonely or neglected
Emotional stress has also been shown to result in hormonal imbalances (e.g. adrenal, pituitary and thyroid) that interfere with healthy immune functioning, increasing our susceptibility to infectious and immune-related diseases and cancer.
When we are stressed, our behaviours may change and affect how we interact with those around us. Disturbances to our usual eating and sleeping patterns may make us more irritable, tearful or angry. Common behavioural signs of stress may include:
- changes in appetite - either not eating or eating too much
- sleep disturbances – either sleeping too much or not enough
- an increase in risk-taking behaviours
- not having time for the things we normally enjoy
- procrastination – avoiding people, situations or responsibilities that feel stressful
- lack of attention to self-care
- nervous, restless behaviours, such as nail biting and fidgeting
- social isolation / withdrawal
- addictive or obsessive behaviours, such as gambling, shopping and sex
- increased use of drugs, alcohol or cigarettes to cope
- suicidal talk or behaviour.
Many people feel too embarrassed or ashamed to openly discuss that they are stressed and not coping. It is therefore even more important to be aware of the behavioural signs and symptoms of stress, so that we can remind sufferers that they are not alone, we are there to offer support or to help find them professional help if needed.
What is the Treatment for Stress?
Stress is not a distinct medical diagnosis and therefore there is no single, specific treatment for it. However, there are interventions for stress management that focus on:
- changing the situation to reduce the stress
- increasing tolerance to stress
- developing healthy coping skills
- treating symptoms or conditions that have been caused by chronic stress.
It is important to seek professional help for stress if:
- you feel stressed often
- particular things stress you and you feel they are beyond your control
- you feel your reactions to stress are extreme or worry you
- you feel anxious or depressed.
Some interventions that have proved helpful include psychotherapy, medication, and complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).
- Complementary therapies
Some forms of therapy that may be particularly helpful in addressing symptoms of stress include Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). CBT focuses on identifying and changing negative thinking patterns and behaviours, while MBSR teaches meditation and mindfulness techniques to help reduce and better manage stress levels.
Talking therapies can also help with improving relevant skills, such as problem-solving and time-management skills, which reduce uncertainty and build confidence – reducing the reaction to negative stress-causing situations where these skills can be applied.
Medication may sometimes be prescribed to relieve specific symptoms that are related to stress, including sleep aids, antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications.
Some complementary approaches that are shown to be beneficial for relieving and reducing stress include acupuncture, aromatherapy, yoga, hydrotherapy and massage.
These interventions are all available at White River Manor, so if you or a loved one are suffering from chronic stress and need guidance and support, please contact us so we can help you on your recovery journey today.