What is Stress? – Signs, Symptoms, Management & Prevention

Every human being experiences stress at times. Before stress became a buzzword to discuss overly packed schedules, too much work, and too many commitments, the term referred to a biological reaction of our bodies.

What is Stress

Everyone experiences stress from time to time. But when there is no respite, stress can become a severe behavioral health condition that interferes with your life. Counseling can help. 

Stress in brief

Every human being experiences stress at times. Before stress became a buzzword to discuss overly packed schedules, too much work, and too many commitments, the term referred to a biological reaction of our bodies. 

When humans perceive a threat, their bodies react both physically and mentally. Physically, our bodies release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Both prepare the body to deal with the threat or the challenge it faces. At the same time, the human immune system increases its activity. The body is preparing for a fight. It is known as the fight or flight response.

Mentally, we become more alert. Our senses sharpen, preparing to deal with the new situation. It is fair to say that some degree of stress helps us deal with pain or fear. The body’s hormone response allows us to focus and achieve things like climbing mountains or performing well in a job interview.  

A healthy stress level can improve thinking and problem-solving skills, helping students pass their exams. Hormones like adrenaline also allow athletes to achieve just a little more – although stress is no replacement for training. 

Stress becomes problematic when it does not subside. Usually, a healthy stress response is activated and deactivated fast. Hormone levels return to normal levels, and we stop feeling less alert as soon as the perceived challenge or danger subsides. The body and the mind no longer recognize the need for a fight or flight response. 

Prolonged stress can affect our mental and physical health. When stress levels, or – more accurately – hormone levels do not return to their normal range, the body remains in a constant state of fight or flight. As a result, you may feel overwhelmed with different aspects of your life and unable to cope with your stress levels. 

Chronic stress may predispose you to mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. At the same time, you may also start experiencing physical symptoms of stress. That is when it is time to consider stress counseling.

Symptoms of Stress

Like other mental and behavioral health conditions, stress has signs you can observe in others and symptoms you may experience yourself. Familiarity with some of the most common signs and symptoms of stress allows you to help others and work on your stress response before it becomes uncontrollable. Minimizing stress is critical for overall health. Medical experts believe that excess stress may contribute to nearly 95% of all disease processes. 

Especially prolonged stress can cause both physical and mental problems. Some of the most common physical symptoms of stress include:

  • Heart palpitations
  • Sweating and headaches
  • Digestive problems
  • Difficulty breathing, shallow breathing, or hyperventilation

Even seemingly exclusively physical ailments, such as headaches and nausea, can be caused by prolonged stress. If left untreated, these symptoms can lead to serious health problems, including heart disease. 

Constipation, bloating, and indigestion associated with stress can lead to long-term medical conditions like stomach ulcers. 

Stress also causes a wide range of emotions. They help you stay alert and respond successfully to a challenge in the short term. However, over a long time, these feelings can become unbearable. 

Among the most common emotional responses to stress are:

  • Becoming frustrated and irritable
  • Feeling anxious and afraid or angry and aggressive
  • Feeling sad and depressed

Stress responses can vary widely between individuals. While the physical reaction to stress is the same for most people, emotional responses tend not to follow typical patterns. Some people will show pronounced responses, while others may seem quiet or unchanged. 

Emotional stress responses may also trigger some of the physical symptoms mentioned above. When that is the case, it is critical to understand the underlying cause of the stress response and address it. Treating symptoms may make people feel better momentarily, but it is rarely a long-term solution. 

Types of Stress

Medical experts distinguish between four different types of stress:

  • Psychological stress
  • Physical stress
  • Psychosocial stress
  • Psychospiritual stress

Understanding these types makes it easier to recognize symptoms and identify long-term stress causes. It is normal to be more affected by stress than the others, although many people suffer from different types of stress at different times. 

Psychological Stress

Psychological stress can result from perceptions, emotions, or cognitive issues. Some of these stressors affect our worldview and understanding of our role in the world and our beliefs and attitudes towards others.

Everyday frustrations and anger can cause emotional stress. But significant events like loss and grief can also trigger this form of stress.

When it comes to cognitive stress, there are numerous potential causes, including work-related stressors and other feelings. 

Types of Stress

Physical Stress

Physical stress is stress on the body that can appear because of various causes. Over time, this type of stress becomes chronic and can lead to additional physical and mental health issues. 

Psychosocial Stress

Psychosocial stress focuses on relationships with other people, organizations, and institutions around us. 

Psychospiritual Stress

This fourth type of stress is closely linked to balanced values and having a purpose in our lives. 

Causes of Stress

Causes of stress or triggers can vary widely between individuals. In some cases, an obvious motivation leads to a stress reaction. For other people, stress builds up gradually over weeks, if not months. 

One example of a relatively obvious trigger of stress is the coronavirus pandemic. A little over two years ago, the most developed world locked down entire populations for their protection. In addition to the physical stress of not being able to leave their homes as they used to, people suffer from stress reactions due to uncertainty.

Concerns about one’s health could trigger emotional stress, manifesting as frustration and sadness. 

As the lockdowns and restrictions continued or needed to be reinforced repeatedly, they met with growing resentment and resistance. Both are related to the causes of psychological stress.

Causes of Stress

Many people face relationship difficulties on several levels. Struggling with relationships leads to psychosocial stress symptoms. Psychosocial stress can be triggered by personal relationships, which happened to many people early in the pandemic. Families that previously rarely saw each other suddenly spent 24 hours in the same apartment for several weeks. 

Relationship-related psychosocial stress also includes work relationships. Traditionally, employees would face being stressed by their employer’s demands or fearing losing their job. Managers may feel a similar type of stress toward targets and career progression. 

As the pandemic took hold, working from home and adjusting to remote working became stressors affecting both managers and their teams. Work-related challenges may cause psychological stress, too. Unrealistic perfectionism at work is one example. Being overly self-critical concerning your job can result in self-loathing and feeling out of control. 

Illness and injuries are typical causes of physical stress on the body. Illnesses force our immune system to work harder to fight viruses, for example. As a result, it is normal to feel weaker and less energetic than you are used to. However, if illnesses become chronic, the body remains in a state of physical stress without relief and will struggle to cope.

Other causes of physical stress may be less obvious, but they can be equally powerful. Dietary stress such as food allergies or unhealthy eating habits can put the body under undue stress. The same is true for untreated dental problems or substance abuse. 

Psychospiritual stress can be caused by a misalignment of a person’s core beliefs and daily reality. In an ideal scenario, the stressor can be addressed and resolved constructively, usually by adjusting daily routines to lead a more fulfilling life. 

As much as work and our working environments may be to blame for people feeling stressed, having a purpose in life is essential for most to avoid chronic stress. Meaningful and satisfying work or pursuits are great ways to prevent psychospiritual problems.

Prevention of Stress

An old saying goes that prevention is better than cure. It is also true for stress, as with other mental and behavioral illnesses. Understanding what causes you to become stressed in the first place and what makes stress overwhelming can help you avoid those triggers and develop better-coping strategies. 

In practice, avoiding triggers of stress will mean something different for everyone. Take public speaking, for example: for some people, having to stand in front of a crowd, and talk causes physical and psychosocial stress. Others grab their notes and give a speech. 

Prevention of Stress

Despite the individualistic nature of stress prevention, several approaches benefit most people. Having a support system is one way to prevent stress or deal with it efficiently. For some people, this support system may be their family. For others, it is the one friend they call when life feels overwhelming. A mental health professional can also become your support system. 

Regular exercise is another excellent stress prevention tool. People who are not usually inclined to go to the gym can benefit from incorporating light exercise into their daily routine.

It can be as simple as a lunchtime walk or parking a bit further from the office. Exercise increases our bodies’ capacity to produce hormones that contribute to stress relief. The benefits last far beyond the individual exercise session. 

Feeling stressed may have you reaching for a chocolate bar, but it is worth reconsidering that choice. Healthy foods not only benefit our bodies. They also stabilize moods and can reduce triggers of stress. 

A popular meme states, “do more of what makes you happy.” While that may be unscientific, the sentiment is correct. Engaging in activities we enjoy improves our mood and helps us relax. Practicing relaxation techniques like breathing exercises is another excellent method of preventing out-of-control stress. 

Treatment of Stress

In short bursts and over short periods, stress can be beneficial, allowing us to better deal with challenging situations. Stress reactions are hardwired into our bodies and generally do not cause significant problems if the reaction subsides relatively quickly. 

Once stress becomes chronic, it can cause long-term mental and physical issues. Professional help is often the best solution to avoid those consequences and manage stress levels in the long term. Behavioral and cognitive health counseling is one of the most effective treatments for stress. 

This treatment usually starts with a mental health professional assessing their client and looking for the underlying stress causes. In some cases, those causes may be evident. But chronic stress often develops over a more extended period and for various reasons. 

Treatment of Stress

Once causes are precise, professional counselors work with their clients to address those causes and develop coping strategies. Behavioral health counseling looks at cognitive behaviors that may contribute to or detract from balanced mental and physical health. Counselors help clients identify negative and unhelpful behaviors and replace them with more beneficial alternatives. 

Another popular form of treatment for stress is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). This form of talk therapy focuses on finding thought and behavioral patterns that have become detrimental to a person. Once again, the counselor and the client will work on identifying and replacing them. 

Stress may be a natural reaction of our bodies and minds, but it does not need to become a permanent and debilitating condition. While avoiding stress reactions altogether may not be possible, effective prevention can avoid chronic problems. If someone’s stress has developed from a quick response to a normal condition, behavioral health counseling can treat stress effectively. Most clients start to notice lasting benefits after only a few sessions.

About TrueCare™

TrueCare™ is a nationwide Health & Wellness platform for families and businesses providing end-to-end solutions for COVID-19 testing, screening, vaccination, home care, and corporate well-being services.

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