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Nearly three-quarters of the American adult population reports feeling stressed. But what is stress, exactly?
Turns out, there’s a wide range of physical and mental symptoms for stress that can make it difficult to identify and manage.
Here’s what you need to know about stress, its symptoms, and how to manage it.
What is stress?
When you’re stressed, the amygdala signals to the hypothalamus that you’re feeling there is cause for distress.
The hypothalamus then takes that message and releases a flood of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, in order to activate your body’s fight or flight response. This also has the effect of increasing your heart rate, breath, and blood pressure, says Holly Schiff, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist at Jewish Family Services of Greenwich.
Causes of stress
Stress is the body’s way of telling you it’s in fear or pain, whether it’s from a real or imagined source. According to Jaime Zuckerman, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist with her own practice, stress can be the result of:
- Financial concerns
- Relationship problems
- Traumatic events such as the death of a loved one
- Work or school
- Family conflict
Stress can also come from things that bring you joy.
“While stressors are usually negative, anything that puts high demands on you can be stressful – even positive things, such as getting married, going to college, or receiving a promotion,” says Schiff.
Types of stress
- Eustress: A positive form of stress stemming from worthwhile but challenging tasks. It generates a sense of accomplishment.
- Acute stress: An immediate and intense reaction to an event like a job interview or getting a speeding ticket.
- Episodic acute stress: Occurs when one experiences repeated bouts of acute stress. This often causes them to worry excessively or have a short temper.
- Chronic stress: Ongoing stress that becomes so common it feels “normal.” This type of stress can cause the most serious consequences to your health.
Chronic stress, if left untreated, can cause serious health consequences which may include:
Symptoms of stress
Stress can manifest in many different ways. According to Zuckerman and Schiff, these are some of the symptoms of stress to look out for:
- Lack of concentration
- Negative self-talk
- Low self-esteem
- Racing thoughts
- Comparing yourself
- Poor sleep habits
- Eating too much or too little
- Increased substance use
- Social isolation
- Increased perfectionism at work or school
- Arguing with loved ones
- Loss of sex drive
- Rapid heartbeat
- Shallow breathing
- Joint and muscle aches
- Frequent illness or infection
How to deal with stress
Because stress affects not only your mental health, but your physical health, it’s crucial to manage the condition, especially if you experience any of the above symptoms. According to Schiff, ways to manage your stress include:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy, a treatment focused on identifying and changing negative thoughts
- Staying active
- Taking a break
- Having a shower or bath
For example, in a small 2017 study, researchers compared 12 weekly sessions of acupuncture to a placebo procedure on the stress of students at a large, urban college campus. At 12 weeks post-treatment, the group receiving acupuncture showed reduced levels in perceived stress.
According to Zuckerman, you should see a doctor or mental health professional for your stress if:
- It interferes with your daily functioning, such as sleep and work
- You have a history of depression or anxiety
- You have thoughts of self-harm
- You have feelings of helplessness and hopelessness
- You are using or abusing substances as an avoidant coping mechanism
- You have physical pain that doesn’t have a root cause and/or does not dissipate
Stress is common, and you can learn ways to cope. You may need to seek medical help to manage ongoing stress. A doctor or mental health professional can help you pinpoint the causes of your stress and collaborate with you to create an appropriate stress-management plan.
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