Though most people experience stress from time to time, severe stress can be a sign of a stress disorder. Learn about the different types of stress, risk factors and effects.
Unsafe situations spark a stress response which then motivates a person to get out of the hazardous situation. However, there are also times when stress persists long after the stressor that triggered it is removed. While a certain amount of stress is inevitable, frequent or long-lasting stress can wear away at a person’s physical and mental health over time.
What Is Stress?
Stress is a natural bodily reaction necessary for survival. According to The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, stress is “a physical and emotional reaction that people experience as they encounter changes in life.”
Stress can be experienced in the short-term or continue to be felt over long periods. Routine stress occurs in response to daily school, work and family responsibilities. This type of stress does not necessarily relate to any specific responsibility but instead to the combination of many duties. A sudden life change, such as being fired or divorcing one’s spouse, may also trigger stress. Traumatic stress occurs in response to a traumatic event. In most cases, traumatic stress causes temporary impairment but usually subsides over time. When stress is severe and begins to impact a person’s life significantly, a stress-related disorder may be present.
Stress can negatively impact a person’s body, mood and behavior. Understanding the symptoms of stress can help identify stress before it begins to cause problems.
Some of the bodily symptoms of stress include:
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Feeling exhausted even after resting
- Muscle tension
- Body aches
- Reduced interest in sex
Mood-related symptoms of stress may involve:
- Feelings of sadness, hopelessness or helplessness
- Increased irritability
- Lowered frustration tolerance
- Feeling easily overwhelmed
- Loss of motivation
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feelings of restlessness
- Obsessive thinking patterns
Common behavioral reactions to stress can include:
- Change of eating habits, either by overeating or undereating
- Reduction of activities that once were important, such as exercise or hobbies
- Angry outbursts
- Use of tobacco, alcohol or other drugs
Types of Stress
Stress may take many forms, cause different symptoms in different people, and have significant differences in duration. The three main types of stress are acute stress, episodic acute stress and chronic stress.
The most common type of stress is acute stress. Acute stress occurs in response to demands and pressures. While acute stress can be a natural product of challenging oneself, it can also be problematic when symptoms become overwhelming. Acute stress does not have the same level of damage and impairment as longer lasting stress. It often causes the following symptoms:
- Muscle tension causing pain
- Stomach problems such as indigestions, gas or diarrhea
- Temporarily raised blood pressure and heart rate
Acute stress disorder is usually the result of experiencing a traumatic event. Unlike other traumatic stress disorders, acute stress disorder is not long lasting. Symptoms may persist for a few weeks or months but usually subside over time. When these symptoms do not subside, post-traumatic stress disorder may develop.
Episodic Acute Stress
Episodic acute stress refers to acute stress experienced over an extended period of time. A person with episodic acute stress may seem to always be in a state of chaos. They may be persistently in crisis mode and feel constantly overwhelmed with nervous energy. People who struggle with episodic acute stress often have short tempers and may respond to others with hostility.
Chronic stress is unrelenting stress that occurs day in and out. To a person experiencing chronic stress, it may seem there is no way out of the stressful situation. Chronic stress may result from living in poverty, feeling trapped in a hated career, experiencing childhood trauma or being subjected to ongoing prejudice and discrimination. Chronic stress is often associated with a shortened life span and people who experience chronic stress are more likely to develop or die from a heart attack, stroke or cancer.
Causes of Stress
Stress is unavoidable and will occur at different times throughout a person’s life. However, stress does not always cause impairment and adverse effects. A person is more likely to have trouble as a result of stress when they are:
- Not getting enough sleep
- Unsupported by other people
- Experiencing a major life change
- Not eating a well-balanced diet
- Experiencing health conditions or complications
These factors are not direct causes of stress but instead situations that may increase a person’s stress response. What causes stress differs from person to person. A situation that triggers significant stress in one individual may cause no stress in another.
Diagnosing stress can be difficult because the causes and manifestations of stress can vary significantly from person to person. Paying attention to the warning signs given by the body can help identify unhealthy stress so that it can be treated promptly. While each person is likely to experience different symptoms of stress, being aware of the common symptoms of stress can help a person identify feelings of stress early on.
Effects of Stress
Stress can have many severe effects especially when it occurs chronically. Short-term effects of stress are usually less damaging, but the consequences of long-lasting stress can be life-threatening.
Physical Effects of Stress
When a person experiences stress, their body releases adrenaline and cortisol. These stress hormones are responsible for many of the physical effects of stress. When episodic or chronic stress are experienced, larger amounts of these hormones are released, increasing the risk of associated health problems.
Some of the common physical effects of stress include:
- Sudden weight loss or weight gain
- Increased blood sugar levels
- Heart disease, including increased risk of heart attack and stroke
- Raised blood pressure
- Irregular menstrual periods
- Body aches
- Sexual dysfunction
- Tension in the jaw and neck
- Difficulty sleeping
- Upset stomach
Psychological Effects of Stress
Psychological effects of stress consist of more than merely feeling anxious and worried, though these are often the result of stress. A person with a depressive disorder may experience a depressive episode as a result of acute stress, and people with episodic acute stress or chronic stress may develop a depressive disorder as a result of stress.
Additional psychological effects of stress include:
- Difficulty concentrating and maintaining focus
- Decreased motivation
- Mental fatigue
Who Is at Risk For Stress?
Everyone will experience stress from time to time. However, some people are more likely to experience more serious stress-related outcomes. Scientists have studied stress vulnerability and resilience and found that brain chemical composition may have some effect on how stress affects a person. It has also been found that people with depressive disorders are more likely to be negatively impacted by stress.
Risk factors of stress include:
- Experiencing childhood trauma
- Being the victim of abuse or neglect
- Living in poverty
- Experiencing frequent prejudice and discrimination
- Inability to make life changes to reduce stress
- Not having a support network of trusted friends and family members
Statistics on Stress
Stress statistics may help understand common sources of stress. The American Psychological Association’s Stress in America Report identified typical stressors:
- 64 percent of adults report experiencing work-related stress
- 64 percent of adults stress about money
- 63 percent of adults have health-related concerns and stresses
- 48 percent of adults are stressed about the economy
Stress and Substance Abuse
Stress and substance abuse are often related. Many people attempt to relieve feelings of stress with substance use. Stress and drug abuse, however, can be a dangerous mix. Using alcohol or other drugs to cope with stress increases the potential for developing a substance use disorder. Learning to manage stress is essential to avoid relapse when stopping substance use.
Professional mental health care can help relieve stress. In addition to finding ways to reduce stressors, learning stress management techniques and practicing challenging negative thoughts can provide significant relief from stress. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of mental health treatment that works to change negative thinking patterns and unhelpful beliefs. Deep breathing, meditation, yoga, tai chi and other relaxation techniques are also recommended to aid in stress management.
If you or someone you love suffers from excessive stress and has begun seeking out alcohol and drugs to cope, it’s important to seek professional help as soon as possible. Treatment at The Recovery Village can help people address co-occurring addiction and mental health challenges. Reach out to a representative today for more information.
American Psychological Association. “Stress in America: Generation Z.” October 2018. Accessed March 14, 2019.
American Psychological Association. “Stress: The Different Kinds of Stress.” (n.d.) Accessed March 14, 2019.
MedlinePlus. “Stress.” February 7, 2019. Accessed March 14, 2019.
MedlinePlus. “Stress and Your Health.” March 7, 2019. Accessed March 14, 2019.
National Institute of Mental Health. “5 Things You Should Know About Stress.” (n.d.) Accessed March 14, 2019.
National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Managing Stress.” (n.d.) Accessed March 14, 2019.
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. “Stress.” September 24, 2017. Accessed March 14, 2019.
Wein, Harrison. “Understanding Resilience to Stress.” NIH, October 22, 2007. Accessed March 14, 2019.
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