Stress is a situation that triggers a particular biological response. When you perceive a threat or a major challenge, chemicals and hormones surge throughout your body.
Stress triggers your fight-or-flight response in order to fight the stressor or run away from it. Typically, after the response occurs, your body should relax. When you encounter sudden stress, your brain floods your body with chemicals and hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.
That gets your heart beating faster and sends blood to muscles and important organs. You feel energised and have heightened awareness so you can focus on your immediate needs. Too much constant stress can have negative effects on your long-term health.
When you sense danger, the hypothalamus at the base of your brain reacts. It sends nerve and hormone signals to your adrenal glands, which release an abundance of hormones.
These hormones are nature’s way of preparing you to face danger and increase your chances of survival.
One of these hormones is adrenaline. You might also know it as epinephrine, or the fight-or-flight hormone.
In rapid fashion, adrenaline works to:
While this is helpful in the moment, frequent adrenaline surges can lead to:
Although adrenaline is important, it isn’t the primary stress hormone. That’s cortisol. As the main stress hormone, cortisol plays an essential role in stressful situations.
Among its functions are:
All this helps you deal more effectively with a high-stress situation. It’s a normal process and crucial to human survival.
But if your cortisol levels stay high for too long, it has a negative impact on your health. It can contribute to:
It can also have a negative impact on your mood. You can lower your cortisol levels naturally
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Acute stress happens to everyone. It’s the body’s immediate reaction to a new and challenging situation. It’s the kind of stress you might feel when you narrowly escape a car accident.
Acute stress can also come out of something that you actually enjoy. It’s the somewhat-frightening, yet thrilling feeling you get on a roller coaster or when skiing down a steep mountain slope.
These incidents of acute stress don’t normally do you any harm. They might even be good for you. Stressful situations give your body and brain practice in developing the best response to future stressful situations.
Once the danger passes, your body systems should return to normal.
Severe acute stress is a different story. This kind of stress, such as when you’ve faced a life-threatening situation, can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other mental health problems.
Episodic acute stress is when you have frequent episodes of acute stress.
This might happen if you’re often anxious and worried about things you suspect may happen. You might feel that your life is chaotic and you seemingly go from one crisis to the next.
Certain professions, such as law enforcement or firefighters, might also lead to frequent high-stress situations.
As with severe acute stress, episodic acute stress can affect your physical health and mental well-being.
When you have high-stress levels for an extended period of time, you have chronic stress. Long-term stress like this can have a negative impact on your health. It may contribute to:
Chronic stress can also lead to frequent ailments such as headaches, an upset stomach, and sleep difficulties.
Some typical causes of acute or chronic stress include:
There’s no end to the things that can cause a person stress because they’re as varied as people are.
Whatever the cause, the effect on the body can be serious if left unmanaged.
Just as we each have different things that stress us out, our symptoms can also be different.
Although you’re unlikely to have them all, here are some things you may experience if you’re under stress:
You might feel overwhelmed, irritable, or fearful. Whether you’re aware of it or not, you may be drinking or smoking more than you used to.
Stress headaches, also known as tension headaches, are due to tense muscles in the head, face, and neck.
Some of the symptoms of a stress headache are:
Many things can trigger a tension headache. But those tight muscles could be due to emotional stress or anxiety.
A stomach ulcer — a type of peptic ulcer — is a sore on the lining of your stomach that’s caused by:
Research into how physical stress interacts with the immune system is ongoing. It’s thought that physical stress may affect how you heal from an ulcer.
Physical stress can be due to:
In turn, the heartburn and pain of a stomach ulcer can lead to emotional stress.
Some people react to stress by eating, even if they’re not hungry. If you find yourself eating without thinking, binging in the middle of the night, or generally eating way more than you used to, you might be stress eating.
When you stress eat, you take in a lot more calories than you need and you’re probably not choosing the healthiest foods. This can lead to rapid weight gain and a host of health problems. And it does nothing to resolve your stress.
If you’re eating to relieve stress, it’s time to find other coping mechanisms
Work can be a source of great stress for any number of reasons. This kind of stress can be occasional or chronic.
Stress at work can come in the form of:
If you’re in a job you hate or are always responding to others’ demands without any control, stress seems unavoidable. Sometimes, quitting or fighting for more work-life balance is the right thing to do.
Of course, some jobs are just more dangerous than others. Some, such as emergency first-responders, call for you to put your life on the line. Then, there are professions — such as ones in the medical field, like a doctor or nurse — where you hold someone else’s life in your hands.
Finding balance and managing your stress is important to maintain your mental health.
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Anxiety can certainly be an offshoot of episodic or chronic stress.
Having both stress and anxiety can have a severe negative impact on your health, making you more likely to develop:
Stress and anxiety can be treated. In fact, there are many strategies and resources that can help for both.
Start by seeing your primary doctor, who can check your overall health and refer you for counseling. If you’ve thought about harming yourself or others, get help immediately.
The goal of stress management isn’t to get rid of it completely. It’s not only impossible, but as we mentioned, stress can be healthy in some situations.
In order to manage your stress, first you have to identify the things that cause you stress — or your triggers. Figure out which of these things can be avoided. Then, find ways to cope with those negative stressors that can’t be avoided.
Over time, managing your stress levels may help lower your risk for stress-related diseases. And it’ll help you feel better on a daily basis, too.
Here are some basic ways to start managing stress:
If you can’t manage your stress, or if it’s accompanied by anxiety or depression, see your doctor right away. These conditions can be managed with treatment, as long as you seek help. You might also consider consulting with a therapist or other mental health professional.
There are many resources available online for help breaking the cycle.
Start by reaching out today and talking to someone you trust so you can make a plan on the road to recovery.
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If support from family and friends and positive lifestyle changes aren’t enough, it may be time to seek help from a mental health professional. There are many effective treatments for stress, including:
Effective treatment for stress often includes consulting a therapist who can provide you tools to treat stress from a variety of angles and motivate you to take the action necessary. Therapy can also offer you the skills and insight to manage stress.
When looking for a therapist, seek out mental health professionals who specialise in the treatment of stress. You can ask your doctor or other trauma survivors for a referral, call a local mental health clinic, psychiatric hospital, or counseling center.
Beyond credentials and experience, it’s important to find a therapist who makes you feel comfortable and safe. Trust your gut; if a therapist doesn’t feel right, look for someone else. For therapy to work, you need to feel comfortable and understood.