What is stress?
Stress is your body’s way of responding to any kind of demand or threat. When you sense danger—whether it’s real or imagined—the body’s defenses kick into high gear in a rapid, automatic process known as the “fight-or-flight” reaction or the “stress response.”
The stress response is the body’s way of protecting you. When working properly, it helps you stay focused, energetic, and alert. In emergency situations, stress can save your life—giving you extra strength to defend yourself, for example, or spurring you to slam on the brakes to avoid a car accident.
Stress can also help you rise to meet challenges. It’s what keeps you on your toes during a presentation at work, sharpens your concentration when you’re attempting the game-winning free throw, or drives you to study for an exam when you’d rather be watching TV. But beyond a certain point, stress stops being helpful and starts causing major damage to your health, mood, productivity, relationships, and your quality of life.
If you frequently find yourself feeling frazzled and overwhelmed, it’s time to take action to bring your nervous system back into balance. You can protect yourself—and improve how you think and feel—by learning how to recognize the signs and symptoms of chronic stress and taking steps to reduce its harmful effects.
Signs and symptoms of stress overload
The most dangerous thing about stress is how easily it can creep up on you. You get used to it. It starts to feel familiar, even normal. You don’t notice how much it’s affecting you, even as it takes a heavy toll. That’s why it’s important to be aware of the common warning signs and symptoms of stress overload.
- Memory problems
- Inability to concentrate
- Poor judgment
- Seeing only the negative
- Anxious or racing thoughts
- Constant worrying
- Depression or general unhappiness
- Anxiety and agitation
- Moodiness, irritability, or anger
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Loneliness and isolation
- Other mental or emotional health problems
- Aches and pains
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Nausea, dizziness
- Chest pain, rapid heart rate
- Loss of sex drive
- Frequent colds or flu
- Eating more or less
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Withdrawing from others
- Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
- Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax
- Nervous habits (e.g. nail biting, pacing)
Causes of stress
The situations and pressures that cause stress are known as stressors. We usually think of stressors as being negative, such as an exhausting work schedule or a rocky relationship. However, anything that puts high demands on you can be stressful. This includes positive events such as getting married, buying a house, going to college, or receiving a promotion.
Of course, not all stress is caused by external factors. Stress can also be internal or self-generated, when you worry excessively about something that may or may not happen, or have irrational, pessimistic thoughts about life.
Finally, what causes stress depends, at least in part, on your perception of it. Something that’s stressful to you may not faze someone else; they may even enjoy it. While some of us are terrified of getting up in front of people to perform or speak, for example, others live for the spotlight. Where one person thrives under pressure and performs best in the face of a tight deadline, another will shut down when work demands escalate. And while you may enjoy helping to care for your elderly parents, your siblings may find the demands of caretaking overwhelming and stressful.
Common external causes of stress include:
- Major life changes
- Work or school
- Relationship difficulties
Common internal causes of stress include:
- Inability to accept uncertainty
- Rigid thinking, lack of flexibility
Ways Your Body Reacts to Stress
Your Brain Short-CircuitsHigh stress situations-you know, like that work presentation tomorrow-can trigger the release of adrenaline and other fight-or-flight hormones. While those chemicals heighten your brain’s alertness and threat-detection centers (which can be good), they temporarily kneecap your noodle’s cortical networks, which are responsible for contemplation, critical thinking, and planning, explains Erno Hermans, Ph.D., of Radboud University in the Netherlands. That happens because your body is conserving energy for a physical confrontation (which, hopefully, won’t occur), Hermans adds. The result: You struggle to find the right words, and you look like a nervous nelly in front of your boss and colleagues.
You Suddenly Have to…Excuse YourselfStress triggers the release of another fight-or-flight chemical known as corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) that messes with your intestinal function, shows a study from the Digestive Diseases Research Center in Los Angeles. Just as animals dump waste during a confrontation, your fight-or-flight response may be helping you jettison excess weight in case you need to flee. Consequently, some people under intense pressure develop diarrhea, the study indicates.
You Break OutElevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol tell your skin’s sebaceous glands, which secrete an anti-inflammatory waxy oil, to kick into overdrive, leading to temporary bursts of acne, flushing, eczema, or other weekend-ruining skin conditions, explains Flor A. Mayoral, M.D., a dermatologist at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine.
You Can’t Quite Kick That ColdWhen you catch a virus, all the nasty symptoms you experience (like a runny nose, a cough, or body aches) are the result of your immune system’s inflammation response to the bug. Stress causes an uptick in your inflammation levels, which means your body reacts more severely to cold viruses, shows a study from Carnegie Mellon University. Your cold symptoms may last longer too, the study suggests.
Your Hair Falls OutDays or weeks of heightened tension can cause you to shed hair like a golden retriever in summer, Mayoral says. That hair loss can last for up to three months after a stressful event or period, though your mane will typically grow back after your stress subsides, she adds. It’s possible that elevated levels of stress-induced inflammation are to blame, research from the American Academy of Dermatology suggests.
Your Brain ShrinksNot to be dramatic, but stress flips a genetic switch off that would normally spur your brain to produce new synapses, which allow your brain cells to communicate with one another, shows research from Yale. As a result, your noggin’s “gray matter” volume falls over time. Gray matter is at least partially involved in your emotion regulation, the study authors say. And there’s evidence linking this type of brain shrinkage with higher rates of depression, they add.
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Your Nails Look FunkyWhile stress hormones can make your nails brittle, Mayoral also sees ugly, raised ridges in the middle of her stressed-out patients’ nails. Why? Like cracking knuckles or chewing the ends of hair, another way people fidget is to press their fingertips down on the edges of their thumbnails. Over time, that can cause an unsightly, lumpy ridge to form in the center of the nail, Mayoral explains.
Your Ears RingOne study from Sweden’s Karolinska Institute found the stress of having to change jobs increased ringing and other hearing problems among women by 43 percent. FMRI scans have shown the limbic region of your brain shifts into overdrive when you experience ear ringing, and that part of the brain is also known to handle aspects of stress regulation. The study authors say this limbic activity could explain why tension and hearing issues are connected, though they can’t yet point to a specific mechanism at work.
Your Cuts and ScrapesJust. Won’t. Heal. Your body’s stress response draws water away from your skin’s outer layers, possibly as a way to keep you hydrated in an emergency situation, which undermines your skin’s ability to regenerate and repair itself, shows research published in JAMA Dermatology. Compared to their calm cohorts, students who were frazzled from winter midterms showed more redness and irritation on their forearm skin after the (sadistic) researchers slapped on and removed cellophane tape.
Your Stomach AchesStress chemicals can mess with your gastrointestinal tract, leading to an angry belly or the urge to vomit, shows research from UCLA. While the ways your brain and gut interact under stress are murky, it’s possible the fight-or-flight chemicals your body releases when you’re frazzled cause your digestive system to hold onto calories and other energy sources, which could explain your cranky stomach, the research suggests.
Improving your ability to handle stress
Get moving. Upping your activity level is one tactic you can employ right now to help relieve stress and start to feel better. Regular exercise can lift your mood and serve as a distraction from worries, allowing you to break out of the cycle of negative thoughts that feed stress. Rhythmic exercises such as walking, running, swimming, and dancing are particularly effective, especially if you exercise mindfully (focusing your attention on the physical sensations you experience as you move).
Connect to others. The simple act of talking face-to-face with another human can trigger hormones that relieve stress when you’re feeling agitated or insecure. Even just a brief exchange of kind words or a friendly look from another human being can help calm and soothe your nervous system. So, spend time with people who improve your mood and don’t let your responsibilities keep you from having a social life. If you don’t have any close relationships, or your relationships are the source of your stress, make it a priority to build stronger and more satisfying connections.
Engage your senses. Another fast way to relieve stress is by engaging one or more of your senses—sight, sound, taste, smell, touch, or movement. The key is to find the sensory input that works for you. Does listening to an uplifting song make you feel calm? Or smelling ground coffee? Or maybe petting an animal works quickly to make you feel centered? Everyone responds to sensory input a little differently, so experiment to find what works best for you.
Learn to relax. You can’t completely eliminate stress from your life, but you can control how much it affects you. Relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, and deep breathing activate the body’s relaxation response, a state of restfulness that is the polar opposite of the stress response. When practiced regularly, these activities can reduce your everyday stress levels and boost feelings of joy and serenity. They also increase your ability to stay calm and collected under pressure.
Eat a healthy diet. The food you eat can improve or worsen your mood and affect your ability to cope with life’s stressors. Eating a diet full of processed and convenience food, refined carbohydrates, and sugary snacks can worsen symptoms of stress, while a diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, high-quality protein, and omega-3 fatty acids, can help you better cope with life’s ups and downs.
Get your rest. Feeling tired can increase stress by causing you to think irrationally. At the same time, chronic stress can disrupt your sleep. Whether you’re having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at night, there are plenty of ways to improve your sleep so you feel less stressed and more productive and emotionally balanced.