What is stress?
Stress is a feeling of emotional or physical tension; it's a natural reaction to a threat, demand, or challenge. Your body reacts to these stimuli with physical and emotional responses.
Stress can have a variety of effects on our behavior and mood. Stress also impacts various systems, organs, and tissues all throughout the body.
Signs and symptoms of stress
Stress affects your entire body, causing widespread physical symptoms. Stress manifests physically in these body systems:
Oftentimes, stress throws your body into a "fight or flight" response, in which stress hormones, like adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol, cause your heart rate to increase. Stress causes stronger contractions of the heart muscle. Also, the blood vessels that direct blood to the large muscles and the heart dilate, which elevates your blood pressure, increasing your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
Your digestive system may also experience upset from a rush of stress hormones, rapid breathing, and increased heart rate. You may have constipation, diarrhea, heartburn or acid reflux, cramping or stomach pain, and even nausea and vomiting.
Over time, stress hormones can weaken your immune system. If you're chronically stressed, you're more susceptible to viral illnesses and other infections.
When your brain perceives a threat, it sets off a series of events involving the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This results in an uptick in production of steroid hormones — including cortisol, which is known as the primary stress hormone.
When you’re stressed, your muscles may tense up. Though muscles usually relax as your stress levels go down, chronically stressed individuals may be tense all the time.
Acute stress may cause men to produce more testosterone. However, chronic stress can cause a decrease in testosterone, which may cause erectile dysfunction or reduce sperm production. Chronic stress may also increase the risk of infection in male reproductive organs.
Stress can affect women's menstrual cycles in the form of heavier, irregular, or more painful periods. Chronic stress may also worsen symptoms of menopause. Stress can affect the pregnancy process, including struggles to conceive.
If you're experiencing stress, you'll likely breathe faster. This occurs because your body is attempting to quickly distribute oxygen-rich blood throughout your body. If you already have a breathing condition, like asthma, you may struggle to handle the extra lung exertion.
Emotional signs of stress
Chronic stress can cause a variety of emotional symptoms and affect your overall well-being and mental health. Emotional symptoms of chronic stress can include:
Causes of stress
Situations and events that cause stress are known as stressors, which are external factors. Stress can also be caused by internal factors, like how you perceive and process your life.
Common external causes of stress are:
- Your job or schoolwork
- Your relationships and family
- Your finances
- Your living situation
- Your schedule
Common internal causes of stress are:
- Lack of flexibility or rigid thinking
- Negative self-talk or low self-esteem
- Negativity or pessimism
- Desire for control or inability to accept uncertainty
It is important to note that stressors vary between individuals. A stressful situation for one person might be an enjoyable or exhilarating situation for another person.
When to see the doctor for stress
Over time, stress can have a major impact on your physical or mental health. If you have tried to manage your stress on your own but are still struggling, reach out to your doctor. They may be able to offer more techniques or refer you to a mental health counselor for additional support.
Diagnosis for stress
Stress is considered a disruption of normal homeostasis. Under stress, your body responds physiologically to an increased activity of both the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathoadrenal system (SAS). This means that a diagnosis depends on a multitude of factors and is complex. Diagnostic tools may include questionnaires, biochemical measures, and physiologic techniques.
Treatments for stress
There are several treatment options for stress, including:
Make lifestyle changes
Eliminate the source of your stress
If your stress is caused by your job, consider talking to your supervisor about your workload. If you're stressed because you're busy, start saying “no” to plans when you're already overbooked. If your stress is caused by overbearing or difficult people in your life, try opening up a conversation with them about how they make you feel — or avoid them altogether.
There are also integrative treatments available for stress management:
Meditation and mindfulness
Meditation is an ancient practice that helps you reach a relaxed state by focusing on breathing and awareness of the body in the present moment. Meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is a program that draws on the principles of meditation to help you become more aware of how negative thoughts impact your physical state. Other benefits of MBSR include improved memory and focus, greater resilience, and fewer mood swings.
Cognitive behavioral therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is talk therapy that aims to identify and question negative or intrusive thoughts. Research shows that CBT can be as effective as other forms of therapy or anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications. It can also help to augment these other treatments.
Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese tradition. In a session, a licensed professional acupuncturist uses tiny needles to stimulate your immune and nervous systems. There is evidence that acupuncture decreases the stress response in the body.
Massage can help to treat a variety of stress-related disorders, including anxiety and insomnia. Massage increases endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine, helping to reduce stress. Massage can also decrease cortisol levels, increase tissue elasticity, and soothe tense muscles.
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