These demands can come from work, relationships, financial pressures and other circumstances, but anything that poses a real or perceived challenge or threatens a person’s well-being can cause stress.
Stress can be a trigger, and it can be necessary to survive. The body’s way of fighting or flying tells a person when and how to respond to a threat. However, when the body moves too easily, or there is too much stress at a time, it can damage and be detrimental to a person’s mental and physical health.
What is Stress?
Stress is the body’s natural defense against predators and danger. It fills the body with hormones that prepare its system to avoid or fight danger. People usually call it a fight or flight mechanism.
When people face a challenge or threat, they have a partial physical response. The body activates resources that help people either survive and cope with the challenge or get protected as soon as possible.
The body produces large amounts of the chemicals cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine. It triggers the following physiological reactions:
- increased blood pressure
- heightened muscle preparedness
All of these factors improve a person’s ability to respond to a potentially dangerous or challenging situation. Norepinephrine and epinephrine also cause a rapid heartbeat.
The environmental factors that trigger this reaction are called stress. Examples include noise, aggressive behavior, speeding cars, scary moments in movies, or even going out on a first date. Feelings of stress increase with the amount of stress.
According to the American Psychological Association’s (APA) 2018 Annual Stress Survey, the average stress level on a scale of 1 to 10 in the United States was 4.9. The survey found that the most common stressors were employment and money.
Stress slows down some normal bodily functions, such as those of the digestive system and the immune system. The body can then focus its resources on breathing, blood flow, alertness, and building muscle for sudden use.
The body changes in response to stress in the following ways:
- blood pressure and pulse rise
- breathing speeds up
- digestive system slows down
- immune activity decreases
- muscles become more tense
- sleepiness decreases due to a heightened state of alertness
How a person reacts to a difficult situation will determine the effects of stress on overall health. Some people may experience multiple stresses continuously or simultaneously without a severe stress response. Others may react strongly to a single stress.
An individual who feels as if he or she does not have enough resources to deal with it may have a severe reaction that can lead to health problems. Stress affects people in different ways.
Some experiences that people generally find positive can lead to stress, such as having a baby, going on vacation, going to a better home, and making progress at work.
This is because they usually involve a significant change, extra effort, new responsibilities, and the need for adaptation. They also often need to step into the unknown from someone.
For example, a person may wait for an increase in salary after promotion, but wonder if he can take on additional responsibilities.
The constant negative response to challenges can have a negative effect on health and happiness.
Types of Stress
The National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) recognizes two types of stress: acute and chronic. It requires different levels of management.
NIMH also identifies three examples of stress types:
- Normal stress, such as childcare, homework, or financial responsibilities
- Detecting sudden, disruptive changes, such as family grief or job loss
- Traumatic stress, which can be caused by a severe accident, attack, environmental catastrophe, or extreme trauma as a result of war.
Causes of Stress
People react differently to stressful situations. What is stressful for one person cannot be stressful for another, and almost any event can potentially be stressful. For some people, just thinking about one trigger or several small triggers can cause stress.
There is no known reason why one person may feel less stressed than another when faced with the same stress. Mental health conditions, such as depression, or feelings of frustration, injustice, and anxiety can make some people feel stressed more easily than others.
Past experiences can affect how a person reacts to stress.
Major life events that can trigger stress include:
- job issues or retirement
- lack of time or money
- family problems
- moving home
- relationships, marriage, and divorce
Other commonly reported causes of stress are:
- abortion or pregnancy loss
- driving in heavy traffic or fear of an accident
- fear of crime or problems with neighbors
- pregnancy and becoming a parent
- excessive noise, overcrowding, and pollution
- uncertainty or waiting for an important outcome
Some people experience ongoing stress after a traumatic event, such as an accident or some form of abuse. The doctor will diagnose it as PTSD.
People who work in stressful jobs, such as the military or emergency services, will have debriefing sessions after a major incident, and occupational health care services will monitor them for PTSD.
Symptoms and Complications
The physical effects of stress can include:
- pain in the back or chest
- cramps or muscle spasms
- nervous twitches
- pins and needles sensations
A 2012 study found that the stress that parents face, such as financial difficulties or managing a single parent’s home, can also lead to obesity in their children.
Emotional reactions can include:
- concentration issues
- a feeling of insecurity
- nail biting
Stress-associated behaviors include:
- food cravings and eating too much or too little
- sudden angry outbursts
- drug and alcohol misuse
- higher tobacco consumption
- social withdrawal
- frequent crying
- relationship problems
If stress becomes chronic, it can lead to several complications, including
- heart disease
- high blood pressure
- lower immunity against diseases
- muscular aches
- sleeping difficulties
- stomach upset
- erectile dysfunction (impotence) and loss of libido