Maybe work is too busy or you can’t keep up with your kids’ schedules or you’re planning a surprise 40th birthday party. Perhaps your father just passed away and you’re grieving and overwhelmed with taking care of everything he left behind. Everyone feels stress in their lives from time to time. According to a 2011 survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, most Americans report feeling moderate-to-high levels of stress and state that money, work, and the economy are major sources of stress.
Definition of Stress
Webster defines stress as “a state of mental tension and worry caused by problems in your life, work, etc.” and “something that causes strong feelings of worry or anxiety.” However, definitions of stress vary. According to the American Institute of Stress, there is such a thing as “healthy stress” that helps with productivity rather than causes harm or distress.
Stress is complicated and is brought on differently from person to person, so let’s look at it from a different perspective. Stress in the world of physics is simply force applied to an object. Its connotation is neither positive or negative. Different objects respond differently to force (stress) depending on several factors, including size, shape and material makeup. For instance, a fishing pole is designed to be repeatedly exposed to the force of casting a lure over and over and to return to its original state each time just like bridges are designed to take constant force and maintain their flexibility and strength. When physical things experience too much stress, or experience stress for too long, they can be permanently altered, such as wood splintering, weakening and breaking, or crystals shattering. One way to make physical things stronger and more resilient is to bundle them together, such as coiling metal strands into a wire, weaving thread into string or rope, or creating complex support structures out of metal.
This understanding of stress in the physical world can be applied to how a person’s psychological response to stress is dependent on our psychological and physical makeup. For instance, a person’s personality, resiliency, and family and group support can determine his or her response to stress.
Types of Stress
Stress can arise in different forms. The following are the different types of stress.[3,4,5]
Acute stress: Acute stress is short-term, new stress that might be brought on by incidents like missing a deadline at work, getting into a car accident or dealing with a misbehaved child. In small doses, it can be thrilling, but when too much occurs it can be exhausting. For example, going for a challenging long bike ride might be exhilarating during the day, but attempting that same ride after a long day’s work can be exhausting and dangerous.
Chronic stress: Chronic stress is always there. It’s the kind of stress that wears on people day after day and even year after year. It tends to be ignored, which can take an unhealthy toll on one’s health. It’s the stress of bills, kids, jobs, etc. Chronic stress occurs when a person feels like they can never get out of a miserable situation like an unhappy marriage or horrible job.
Eustress: Eustress is much different than the other two stresses mentioned above. Eustress is stress that has positive connotations, such as winning an election or planning a wedding.
Kinds of Stressors
While we often think of stress as being brought on by unpleasant events in life such as death, it can also be triggered by exciting events like throwing a birthday party since excitement ramps up our nervous system in the same way fear does. However, certain events in life can trigger more stress in the body than others and can lead to illness. The Holmes and Rahe stress scale is a list of 43 stressful life events, including death of a spouse, divorce, vacation and the holidays, that can contribute to illness. Each event is given a score, and you can rate your risk of illness by adding up the events that have taken place in your life within the last 12 months. To view the stress scale, visit http://www.stress.org/holmes-rahe-stress-inventory/.
Signs & Symptoms of Stress
Stress can have an effect on emotions, moods, and behavior, as well as take a physical toll on the body. The following are just some signs and symptoms of stress:
Effects on body
- Muscle tension or pain
- Chest pain
- Change in sex drive
- Upset stomach
- Sleep issues
Effects on mood
- Lack of motivation or focus
- Irritability or anger
- Sadness or depression
Effects on behavior
- Overeating or not eat enough
- Angry outbursts
- Drug or alcohol abuse
- Tobacco use
- Social withdrawal
What Happens to the Body During Stress?
When a person encounters a stressor, the body passes the signal to the brain. When the hypothalamus part of the brain, which links the nervous system to the endocrine system via the pituitary gland, experiences the stressor signal, it activates the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine system. As the sympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system is activated, involuntary functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and body fluid regulation are affected. At the same time, the pituitary gland orders the release of chemical hormones, such as cortisol, which increases blood sugar to create energy for a “fight or flight” response and aldosterone, which increases blood pressure. Other brain chemicals are released that cause the following to occur:
- Acceleration of heart rate
- Dilation of coronary arteries
- Dilation of bronchial tubes
- Increase in force of heart contractions
- Increase in rate of metabolism
- Increased anxiety
- Increase in gastrointestinal motility
- Increase in rate and depth of respiration
- Decrease in feeling of tiredness
- Decrease in Salvation (dry mouth)
- Dilation of pupils
Causes of Stress
While everyone has different thresholds for what “stresses them out,” as mentioned above, when the brain perceives a threat, it signals the body to release hormones to help respond to the threat. Once the threat is gone, your body is meant to return to a normal relaxed state. Some people, such as the following are more vulnerable than others to the effects of stress:
- Older adults
- Women and specifically working mothers
- Less educated individuals
- Divorced or widowed individuals
- People experiencing financial strain, the unemployed and uninsured
- People who are isolated or lonely
- People who are targets of racial or sexual discrimination
- People who live in cities
Treatments for Stress
Removing stressors is the best way to treat stress, however that is not always possible. The following can help manage the effects of stress:
- Physical activity
- Relaxation techniques
- Tai chi
- Adequate sleep
- Eating a balanced diet
- Avoiding tobacco, excess caffeine and alcohol
- University of Maryland Medical Center. Stress. Retrieved September 25, 2013, from http://umm.edu/health/medical/reports/articles/stress.
- Webster.com. Stress. Retrieved September 12, 2013, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/stress.
- American Institute of Stress. Definitions. Retrieved September 13, 2013, from http://www.stress.org/daily-life/.
- MedlinePlus. Stress. Retrieved September 12, 2013, from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/stress.html.
- American Psychological Association. The Different Kinds of Stress. Retrieved September 13, 2013, from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-kinds.aspx.
- Mayo Clinic. Stress symptoms: Effects on your body and behavior. Retrieved September 13, 2013, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/stress-symptoms/SR00008_D.
- Ruth .C. Engs. Alcohol and Other Drugs: Self Responsibility. Tichenor Publishing Company, Bloomington, IN, 1987. What Stress Does to the Body. Retrieved September 13, 2013, from http://www.indiana.edu/~engs/hints/stress1.htm.
- Mayo Clinic. Stress basics. Retrieved September 13, 2013, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/stress-management/MY00435.
By C. J. Newton, MA, Therapists.com Editor