What is stress?

The physical signs of stress include issues with the cardiovascular system, digestive system, immune system, endocrine system, muscular system, reproductive system, and respiratory system. The emotional signs of stress are irritability or moodiness, anxiety, depression, feeling overwhelmed or unmotivated, and loneliness and isolation.
The physical signs of stress include issues with the cardiovascular system, digestive system, immune system, endocrine system, muscular system, reproductive system, and respiratory system. The emotional signs of stress are irritability or moodiness, anxiety, depression, feeling overwhelmed or unmotivated, and loneliness and isolation.

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:

Cardiovascular system

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.

Digestive system

When you're stressed, your liver will produce extra blood sugar (glucose) to boost your energy. This influx of blood sugar over time may increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

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.

Immune system

Over time, stress hormones can weaken your immune system. If you're chronically stressed, you're more susceptible to viral illnesses and other infections.

Endocrine system

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.

Muscular system

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.

Reproductive system

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.

Respiratory system

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:

  • Irritability or moodiness
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Feeling overwhelmed or unmotivated
  • Loneliness and isolation

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
  • Perfectionism
  • 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.

Call your doctor immediately if your stress is causing you to have suicidal thoughts or use drugs or alcohol more frequently. They can provide resources and guidance to help you manage your stress.

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.

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Treatments for stress

There are several treatment options for stress, including:

Make lifestyle changes

Prioritize exercise and a balanced diet. Eat more fruits and vegetables, cut back on sugar, and start an exercise routine that's manageable for your schedule and fitness level.

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

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

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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Medically Reviewed on 1/11/2021
References
The American Institute of Stress: "Stress Effects."

American Psychological Association: "Stress effects on the body."

John Hopkins Medicine: "Stress Busters: 4 Integrative Treatments."

Help Guide: "Stress Symptoms, Signs, and Causes."

Metabolism: "Diagnosis of Stress."

The National Institute of Mental Health Information Resource Center: "5 Things You Should Know About Stress."

NHS Inform: "Struggling with stress?"

Yale Medicine: "Stress, Anxiety, or Depression? Treatment Starts With the Right Diagnosis."