Stress is a normal response to situational pressures or demands and is a part of everyday life. But chronic stress can lead to mental health problems and medical issues.
Stress is a normal response to situational pressures or demands, especially if they are perceived as threatening or dangerous. Stress is the result of brain chemicals, called hormones, surging through the body. These hormones make people sweat, breathe quicker, tense their muscles and prepare to take action. When this happens, a person's built-in alarm system—their “fight-or-flight” response—becomes activated to protect them.
A certain amount of stress is a normal part of daily life. Small doses of stress help people meet deadlines, be prepared for presentations, be productive and arrive on time for important events. However, long-term stress can become harmful. When stress becomes overwhelming and prolonged, the risks for mental health problems and medical problems increase.
Long-term stress increases the risk of mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, substance use problems, sleep problems, pain and bodily complaints such as muscle tension. It also increases the risk of medical problems such as headaches, gastrointestinal problems, a weakened immune system, difficulty conceiving, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and stroke.
Signs & Symptoms
The signs and symptoms of stress may be cognitive (thinking-related), emotional, physical or behavioural. Their severity can range from mild to severe.
Cognitive symptoms include:
difficulty concentrating or thinking
negativity or lack of self-confidence
difficulty making decisions.
Emotional symptoms include:
feeling hopeless or helpless
feeling apprehensive, anxious or nervous
feeling unhappy or guilty
feeling agitated or unable to relax.
Physical symptoms include:
muscle tension or other physical pain or discomfort
nausea, diarrhea or vomiting
loss of sex drive
rapid heart rate
high blood pressure
Behavioural symptoms include:
changes in eating or sleeping patterns
nervous habits such as nail biting, teeth grinding or foot tapping
Stress often results if a person feels that there are high pressures or demands, that there is a threat to their well-being or that they don't have enough resources to cope with the demands.
Common sources of stress include a person's physical environment (e.g., noisy streets or an unsafe living space), relationships, work, life situations and major life changes. These situations can include negative events such as financial problems, relationship breakup, difficulties at work or school, injury, illness or death and grieving. However, situations leading to stress can also include positive changes, such as work promotions, getting married or buying a house.
Because stress is a normal part of life, everyone experiences it. However, the intensity, frequency and duration of stress will be different for each person. Numerous factors can make the experience of stress worse, such as when people:
have limited social support
have multiple stressors
have difficulty regulating or balancing their emotions
have difficulty tolerating uncertainty or distress
lack self-confidence or do not feel they can cope with the stressor
interpret the stressor negatively, so that they feel powerless, overwhelmed or helpless.
Diagnosis & Treatment
Practicing self-care is important for reducing stress. Some good ways to reduce and manage stress include eating well, exercising regularly, trying to reduce negativity, prioritizing leisure time, limiting alcohol and caffeine, avoiding cigarettes and other drugs, and adopting proper sleep hygiene.
Other ways to help reduce and cope with stress include:
prioritizing, organizing and delegating tasks
seeking support from family and friends
attending a support group or stress management program, consulting a health care professional or accessing self-help materials.
Once a person feels a sense of emotional well-being, they feel stronger and more able to bounce back from stress. This helps them feel that they can cope better with difficult life events.
Severe stress may be a symptom of an anxiety disorder. Seek professional help if the signs and symptoms of stress have been present for a long period of time; if your functioning at work, school, home or socially is affected; or if you experience increasing stress and emotional difficulties. Recovery from chronic stress is possible.