What Is Stress?

What is stress and how does it affect us?

Stress is a normal part of our everyday lives but, unfortunately for many of us, stress is becoming a health issue. We now know that stress can cause physical symptoms like headaches, insomnia and a weakened immune system; it can cause mental health issues like anxiety, depression and panic attacks; it can lead to unpleasant emotions like irritability, sadness, and anger; and it causes or contributes to long-term health problems like hypertension, heart disease and even obesity.

In this post we’ll look at what stress is, its causes and symptoms, the connection between stress, anxiety and depression, and some of the ways you can learn to manage stress in your life.

What is stress?

Stress is defined as a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances. There is both chronic and acute stress. Chronic stress is the consistent sense of feeling pressured and overwhelmed over a long period of time, whereas acute stress develops quickly but doesn’t last long. Regardless of the type of stress you experience, your body will go through a physical and mental response. The outcomes of prolonged stress and how it negatively impacts your health will be discussed in the next few sections, but firstly, how does the body respond?

The stress response

You have a natural response called the “fight or flight response” in which hormones such as epinephrine (adrenaline) are released, triggering your physical response to stress. The acute response can be seen through dilated pupils, flushed skin due to your blood’s increased circulation through your body to muscles, rapid heartbeat and breathing among other physical responses. You become increasingly alert as your body is getting ready to either run to safety or fight to keep itself safe.

These changes happen so quickly that you may not even realise they’re happening, even though it can take 20 minutes to an hour just to stop the release of hormones and have your body stop the response to stress. It’s important to note that everyone responds differently to stress, so your stress response will be unique to you and your body.

Chronic stress is stress that continues for weeks and months and triggers the body to continue a consistent release of hormones, because your brain perceives an ongoing threat. This sequence of epinephrine release, and other hormones, eventually leads to the release of cortisol which keeps your body in high alert. This is not the ideal state for your body and we discuss below the consequences of chronic stress exposure. What is important to take away is that stress is normal, can be regulated, and our body knows how to naturally respond to it.

You might like to watch this great TED Talk on the positive side of our stress response.

What causes stress?

Many things can cause stress for individuals. Some examples include familial loss, moving home, a break up, and more. Stress can be good or bad and really depends on your response and protective factors present. For example, good stress can come from a transition from high school to college. This is often an exciting time whilst also stress-inducing, because it’s a step into adulthood so a lot may be unknown. However, parents and friends are usually able to help you on your journey. Some can provide emotional support while others can give tangible advice for stress management and help with finding your footing in adulthood.

What’s most often found to be related to bad stress, and showing up as chronic stress, is poverty, dysfunctional relationships, and deep dissatisfaction with life. The effects of stress compound, adding to your allostatic load, defined as the “wear and tear” the body experiences when repeated stress situations lead to continued hormonal release, all based on the evaluation of threat your brain interprets. The only way you can determine what causes your stress is in evaluating some of the symptoms you may be having, as well as a general reflection of where you want to be, compared to where you are. Let’s discuss the symptoms of stress.

What Is Stress?

Symptoms of stress

Stress impacts your physical, mental and emotional wellbeing and can show up as many different symptoms. The following are some immediate symptoms to be aware of.

Physical symptoms of stress:

  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Fatigue
  • Stomach aches
  • Chest and general body aches
  • Acne or breakouts
  • Digestive problems
  • Weak immune system

Mental symptoms of stress:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Panic attacks
  • Food and eating disorders
  • Addictions and/or compulsions
  • Substance abuse

Emotional symptoms of stress:

  • Irritability
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Feeling overwhelmed

What’s also important to recognise is that the symptoms outlined above can be seen primarily in acute stress, lasting hours to days, and can be exacerbated with chronic stress exposure. Chronic stress, again, is stress that continues for weeks, months, and even years.

Potential symptoms of chronic stress include:

  • Aches and pains
  • Insomnia or sleepiness
  • A change in social behaviour, such as often staying in
  • Low energy
  • Unfocused or cloudy thinking
  • Change in appetite
  • Increased alcohol or drug use
  • Change in emotional response to others
  • Emotional withdrawal

Long-term health impacts of chronic stress can also exacerbate the following conditions:

  • Hypertension (most related to stress)
  • Heart disease
  • Obesity
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Arthritis
  • Substance abuse
  • Mood and anxiety disorders
  • Reproduction problems

The connection between stress, depression and anxiety

Research continues to solidify the link between stress, depression and anxiety. Depression and anxiety were 2.5 times more likely to be found among individuals who were actively experiencing or previously experienced stress, such as the loss of a partner or family member, exposure to a natural disaster and other personal negative life events.

Let’s define and understand the connection between the three. Stress, as mentioned, is a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances. Depression is defined as feelings of sadness or loss of interest in your normal activities that continue for at least two weeks. It can also be considered a major depressive disorder, depending on severity.

Anxiety may occur as a symptom of depression but is defined as intense, excessive and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations. These symptoms often interfere with daily activities and are difficult to control. All three overlap in their symptoms and can even be a result of each other, exacerbating with time.

What Is Stress?

Unhealthy coping mechanisms

Whether we acknowledge it or not, we cope with stress in healthy and unhealthy ways. Some examples of unhealthy coping mechanisms include:

  • Excessive TV watching
  • Withdrawing from friends, partners or family
  • Engaging in too many activities with friends, partners or family, i.e. avoiding being alone
  • Overeating
  • Under-eating
  • Sleeping too much
  • Substance abuse (e.g. alcohol, prescription drugs)
  • Lashing out
  • Smoking

You’re not alone

If you’re feeling stressed, you’re not alone. A 2020 worldwide Gallup poll showed that more people felt “stressed, sad, angry and worried in 2020 than at any point in Gallup’s global tracking” and that 2020 “officially became the most stressful year in recent history” (and not just due to the pandemic, although is was a major contributor).

The World Health Organisation is also tracking mental health and the effects of stress around the globe and has dubbed stress the “Health Epidemic of the 21st Century”.

Managing stress

But there is good news if you’re feeling the effects of stress in your life. There’s a lot you can do to manage stress and reduce any negative impacts on your health. Stress doesn’t magically go away, but how we deal with stress can have a significant effect on whether it causes physical, mental and emotional health problems or whether it helps us build resilience and strength.

There are a variety of evidence-based approaches in yoga and meditation that can help you learn to manage stress more effectively. If you’re curious to explore these types of stress management approaches, please contact me for a 1-to-1 session.

1-to-1 Meditation & Stress Reduction

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