Everything You Need To Know About Stress

Understanding stress is the key to keeping it under control

November 20, 2023

You’re up against a deadline at work. Your kids are fighting as you’re trying to finish an assignment. You are stuck in traffic and have dinner in the back seat. On top of all that, your email pings—you’re late to pay your credit card bill. Your heart rate spikes, you start sweating, and your mind begins to race.

If you felt yourself respond to the thought of being in those situations, you’re experiencing a reaction to stress. While we all experience stress each day, an unhealthy amount of stress can be dangerous to both our physical and mental health.

Keep Reading To Learn

  • The truth about stress
  • How to recognize if you are stressed
  • How to successfully manage stress

What Is Stress?

Stress is emotional or physical tension created by a perceived challenge, demand, or threat.

In some cases, a stressor might be a singular occurrence or event. Stressors may accumulate over time before surfacing.

Some common stress triggers include:

  • Feeling overwhelmed by responsibilities or pressure due to work, family issues, or school
  • Worry about a situation where there isn’t much control over the outcome
  • Experiencing conflict, like an argument with a friend or loved one
  • Encountering sudden and/or major life changes
  • Issues concerning money, health, work, or relationships
  • Information communicated by the news or other media outlets
  • A traumatic experience where numerous people are in danger of being significantly hurt or even killed

When you feel threatened, challenged, or overwhelmed, your body does its best to prepare itself. Everybody reacts differently, but we all have a feeling we get when we’re in a stressful situation. This is called a stress reaction, and it may develop over the course of a few minutes, hours, or days.

Stressed out woman with hand on head sitting on a couch

The stress reaction has often been called the “fight, flight, or freeze response.” It is an automatic, physical reaction to a challenge or potential threat and typically emerges with more severe stressors.

It’s designed to help us focus, alert us to danger, and keep us safe. It is a natural response in the body, so everyone will experience it at some point in their lives.

The stress reaction can last weeks or more, depending on what caused the stress in the first place.

Stress reaction may cause a physical response, including:

  • Heart rate increases
  • Respiratory (breathing) rate rises
  • The brain becomes intensely focused
  • Muscles prepare to fire

The stress reaction can also cause emotional, behavioral, and interpersonal reactions, depending on the person and the stressors. This could include concentration, physical tension, irritability, anger, and more symptoms.

These responses are survival functions but can also be useful in other situations, like when a person is preparing to compete in an athletic event, about to take a test, or heading into a job interview.

It’s important to remember that our body’s stress response was not designed to be “on” all the time. With so many sources of stress in our current environments, some people may struggle with relaxing and disengaging from everything. Prolonged triggering of the stress response can cause a variety of physical and mental health issues, some of which can be very serious.

While stress is a regular part of life, understanding what causes a reactions plays a big role in reducing stress. Events that cause us to feel stressed are called stress triggers. Understanding what triggers your stress is important because it allows you to acknowledge those situations and address the stress related to them, if possible.

If dealing with stress was as simple as avoiding situations that cause it, it wouldn’t be a big deal. The problem is that stress is often a reaction to situations that we can’t or don’t want to avoid.

It’s up to you to figure out what causes you to feel stressed, recognize how your body reacts, and know what you can do to minimize feeling overwhelmed.

Your Everyday Guide to Stress Management

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Dr. Chris Palmer talks us through strategies to manage stress in all aspects of your life.

Man sitting looking at a still lake and mountains in the distance

What You Know About Stress Likely Is Not True

There’s a lot of information out there about stress and how to handle it—but with that, there come many misconceptions about stress. Several of the most common myths about stress have been proven to be false.

1. Stress Is Bad for You

It’s true that long-term feelings of stress can lead to medical problems, but that doesn’t mean that all stress is bad. The reason our bodies react to stress is to prepare for situations where increased muscle tension or a higher heart rate may be necessary for a better health outcome. In addition, stress reactions help you identify triggers so that unnecessary stressors can be addressed or avoided altogether.

2. Stress Is Unavoidable

It’s inevitable that you’re going to encounter a lot of stressful situations in life. However, that doesn’t mean that all stress is unavoidable—some is avoidable, and some is preventable.

Anything you can do to avoid triggers and prevent stress reactions in your body will help keep your body and mind calm, providing both short- and long-term mental, physical, and emotional benefits and preventing medical problems that can result from stress.

3. Stress Triggers Are the Same for Everybody

Everybody deals with stress differently, so it’s important to know that you’re on a unique journey.

Not only does each person have unique stress triggers, but the symptoms and duration of stress also vary for everybody. Don’t let others downplay your stress or try to tell you your feelings associated with stress aren’t valid.

4. Relieving Stress Is the Same for Everybody

Exercising might be a great way for some people to combat stress, but it may lead to someone else feeling even more stressed about going to the gym. Addressing and treating stress is far from the same for everybody, so you need to figure out a treatment option that works for you.

If you’re uncertain about how to start pushing back on your stress, talking to your health care provider can help initiate your stress reduction journey.

Ways to Manage Stress and Anxiety

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Dr. Lisa Coyne helps us navigate anxiety and stress in the workplace and at home.

Boy on dad’s shoulders with sister watching

How to Know if Stress Is Negatively Impacting Your Life

Stress is something that we all face daily. However, according to the American Institute of Stress, 33% of people feel extreme stress, 77% of people feel stress that has some impact on their physical health, and 73% of people have their mental health impacted.

Over 48% of people report having sleep problems as a result of stress.

When you’re stressed, signals are sent to different parts of the body to alert them, which can lead to physical manifestations ranging from headaches to nausea.

One of the best things you can do is understand how your body reacts to stress. With all the different emotions your brain can cycle through and all the feelings your body can feel, it can be tough to know when you’re dealing with stress.

Here are some physical symptoms you may have if you’re experiencing stress:

  • Aches and pains
  • Stomach problems: nausea, diarrhea, loss of appetite, or constipation
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Low energy
  • Insomnia
  • Clenched jaw or other muscle tension/tightness
  • Chest pain, increased heart rate
  • Getting sick more often

Here are some emotional or mental symptoms you may have if you’re experiencing stress:

  • Loss of sex drive
  • Becoming easily frustrated, moody, or upset
  • Feeling overwhelmed or a lack of control
  • Difficulty relaxing
  • Scattered, racing thoughts
  • Constant worrying

Of course, everybody reacts to stress differently, so you likely would only experience some of these symptoms. If you’re experiencing these symptoms, it’s possible that they’re a direct result of stress in your life.

Numerous studies have shown that there is a strong correlation between long-term stress and the development of serious mental health and mood issues.

Based on a research study published by the American Psychological Association, two-thirds of people regularly experience physical symptoms of stress and a similar number experience psychological symptoms.

Regardless of the cause, the sooner individuals experiencing stress-impacted mental health issues get help managing their stress, the faster they can begin to recover.

By understanding your stress triggers and causes, you can work toward tempering stress. Stress is caused by a trigger that tells your brain to send signals out to various parts of the body. Everyone’s triggers are different—what might stress you out may be no big deal for somebody else.

Part of recognizing stress is figuring out what may have caused it. If you’ve been under a lot of pressure at work, have bills piling up, or are having trouble with a relationship, you may be feeling the way you do because of stress.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a specific type of stress reaction resulting from a traumatic experience. If your stress reaction is a result of a traumatic experience and is interfering with day-to-day activities, make sure you seek help as soon as possible.

Read more below on how clinicians diagnose stress and how to find care and support.

Juggling Stress in Your Everyday Life

Illustration of figure and icons of work and social media floating around, yellow background

In this episode of McLean’s podcast Mindful Things, Dr. David Rosmarin helps us find ways to navigate stress.

Illustration of figure and icons of work and social media floating around, yellow background

The Link Between Stress, Anxiety, and Depression

Stress and anxiety are often associated with one another. Anxiety and depression are two of the most common mental health conditions in which chronic stress is believed to play a role in their development.

Both conditions occur more frequently in individuals who suffer from long-term stress. This makes it especially important to be able to recognize the symptoms of both illnesses.

Some of the most common symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Significant feelings of nervousness, danger, panic, or dread
  • A heart rate that rises without a clear cause
  • Hyperventilating
  • Regular sweating, clammy palms, and cold feet
  • A feeling of trembling or muscle twitching
  • Significant problems focusing or thinking clearly
  • Trouble sleeping at night

There are numerous types of anxiety that present differently in different people. Anyone who is experiencing the above symptoms should discuss them with a licensed health care professional.

Some of the most common symptoms of depression include:

  • Changes in sleep habits, either sleeping significantly more or significantly less than usual
  • Significant changes in appetite, either eating significantly more or significantly less
  • Major changes in weight that were not intentional
  • Major feelings of guilt over something that is not that person’s fault
  • A significant loss of enjoyment in activities that once brought pleasure
  • Increased consumption of alcohol and illicit drugs
  • Thoughts of hurting oneself or others

Depression also tends to present in different ways in different people. It can also be chronic, situational, or even both.

Anyone who is experiencing symptoms for either anxiety or depression should seek out a trained mental health provider for assistance. Nobody has to go through these challenges alone.

OK, I’m Stressed. What Now?

If you frequently feel stress as a result of your daily life, that means you’re either susceptible to stress or regularly find yourself in stressful situations. This can be problematic, as chronic stress has had links to many health conditions that develop over time. Feeling frequently stressed is a good indicator that you may want to reach out for help.

Some of the long-term physical health impacts of stress may include:

  • Disruptions in the immune system
  • Problems with the cardiovascular system
  • Significant sleep problems
  • Issues with reproduction

Everybody reacts to stress differently.

If stress is leading to serious physical reactions in your body, you need to learn ways to better control your stress. If you find yourself with physical symptoms as a result of stress, you may want to initiate a conversation with your primary care provider about how stress manifests in your body. Frequent stress headaches, stomach issues, and high blood pressure are all stress reactions that can make it even more difficult to be productive and cope with your stress triggers.

It’s common for feelings of stress to go away when stress triggers are resolved. If you finish a big project at work or catch up on all your bills, your symptoms of stress should start to subside.

If your stress doesn’t go away or gets worse even after you’ve worked to resolve it, you may want to consider seeking help.

Have You Been Watching?

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So How Do I Manage Stress?

One unique aspect of stress is that there are lots of ways to treat it. While understanding the causes and effects of your stress is a good start, you also need to consider some changes you can make to reduce stress levels.

While stress has the potential to lead to serious physical and mental health issues, the good news is that there are plenty of ways to effectively manage it. Like other activities, stress management will take some practice, and in some cases working with a mental health professional can increase long-term success.

Tackling stress can seem like an anxiety-inducing task itself, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. By taking proactive steps to keep it under control, it is possible to reduce the likelihood of stress impacting your mental health over your lifetime.

Here are some ways to make managing stressors feel less overwhelming.

1. Ready? Set? Go!

Perhaps the best thing you can do to fight stress is to make sure you’re getting plenty of exercise.

Every time you exercise, your body produces endorphins, which react with your brain to reduce your perception of pain. On top of that, endorphins create a positive feeling in your body, which can help combat stress.

Even a few hours of exercise each week can make a big difference when it comes to stress.

2. You Are What You Eat

What you put in your body affects the way you feel physically and emotionally.

If you start each morning with a cup of coffee or two and find that you’re feeling anxious or agitated, try switching over to tea, lower-caffeine coffee, or water, and see if that helps. While caffeine is great for energy, too much of it can lead to amplified feelings of stress and anxiety.

3. Solving Problems

Stress is often caused by a problem in your life. If you’re having money problems or your job is in jeopardy, it should come as no surprise that you’re also stressed out. Sometimes, dealing with stress is as simple as focusing on solving the problem that’s causing it.

If you require the assistance of others to solve your problem, do not be afraid to reach out. Ask for help and gently explain how stressful the situation has been. You may be surprised how often people are happy to help.

4. Socialize

We all need varying levels of social interaction, even if you feel like you may not need as much of it as others do. If you’re not spending time with others as a result of stress, try hanging out with friends and family and see if that helps.

Socializing with loved ones can go a long way toward creating a positive feeling in the body and mind and taking your mind off your stressors.

Dealing with stress isn’t easy, but educating yourself about the causes, symptoms, and treatment options can help. The most important thing is identifying what causes your stress and trying to avoid—or cope with—those triggers.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to caring for mental health, and stress reduction methods vary depending on what works for you.

By identifying your stressors and working with your care team, you can learn what type of treatments work for your stress and learn ways to overcome your stress responses when you’re faced with a stressful situation.

How Do I Ensure That Stress Is the Real Problem?

Compared to the flu or an infection, stress is harder to pin down. There are a couple of different methods used to diagnose stress.

Questionnaires are commonly used to diagnose stress because they take your feelings into account. By answering questions about how you’re feeling and what’s going on in your life, you can help a medical expert decide whether or not you’re experiencing psychological stress.

Biochemical measures are a more concrete way to diagnose stress. Biochemical measurement involves measuring levels of certain compounds in your blood to determine stress levels. This is a reliable method for diagnosing stress because it measures levels in your body instead of relying on your answers to questions.

Physiological measurements—like your pulse—are another good way to spot changes in the body that are a result of stress. When you’re stressed, your heart rate and blood pressure usually increase, which means measuring numbers like that is a good way to tell if you’re stressed.

Find the Help You Need

If you’re diagnosed with stress, don’t fret—there is hope for people dealing with both acute and chronic stress. There are many things you can do to avoid stressful situations and manage the stress you’re already dealing with.

The first step is figuring out what your triggers are so you can avoid them. Even if you can’t avoid or address your triggers, understanding them so you can proactively deal with stress is important.

If you are having trouble managing stress and its mental and physical effects, you may need help from a health care professional. You don’t need to struggle on your own. Call your primary care physician or a local mental health facility, like McLean, to find the care you need.

If you or a loved one, needs help to manage your mental health, McLean is here to help. Call us today at 617.855.3141 to talk about treatment options.

Want More Info?

Looking for even more information about stress? You may find these resources helpful.

Interesting Articles and Videos

Helpful Links

These organizations may also have useful information:

American Institute of Stress
This organization works to improve health through stress management via education, research, clinical care, and workplace practices. The American Institute of Stress provides education for medical practitioners, scientists, health care professionals, and the public. They also conduct research and offer information, training, and techniques to prevent illness related to stress.

International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies
Dedicated to sharing information about the effects of trauma and the discovery and dissemination of knowledge about policy, program, and service initiatives that seek to reduce traumatic stressors and their immediate and long-term consequences. Providing access to education and research, meetings and events, as well as tools for treating trauma and public resources.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN)
NCTSN brings a singular and comprehensive focus to childhood trauma. A collaboration of frontline providers, researchers, and families committed to raising the standard of care while increasing access to services.