Stress is a natural feeling of not being able to cope with specific demands and events. However, stress can become a chronic condition if a person does not take steps to manage it. These demands can come from work, relationships, financial pressures, and other situations, but anything that poses a real or perceived challenge or threat to a person’s well-being can cause stress. Stress can be a motivator, and it can even be essential to survival. The body’s fight-or-flight mechanism tells a person when and how to respond to danger. However, when the body becomes triggered too easily, or there are too many stressors at one time, it can undermine a person’s mental and physical health and become harmful.
What is stress?
Stress is the body’s natural defense against predators and danger. It causes the body to flood with hormones that prepare its systems to evade or confront danger. People commonly refer to this as the fight-or-flight mechanism. When humans face a challenge or threat, they have a partly physical response. The body activates resources that help people either stay and confront the challenge or get to safety as fast as possible. The body produces larger quantities of the chemicals cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. These trigger the following physical reactions:
- Increased blood pressure
- Heightened muscle preparedness
These factors all improve a person’s ability to respond to a potentially hazardous or challenging situation. Norepinephrine and epinephrine also cause a faster heart rate. Environmental factors that trigger this reaction are called stressors. Examples include noises, aggressive behavior, a speeding car, scary moments in movies, or even going out on a first date. Feelings of stress tend to increase in tandem with the number of stressors.
Stress slows down some normal bodily functions, such as those that the digestive and immune systems perform. The body can then concentrate its resources on breathing, blood flow, alertness, and the preparation of the muscles for sudden use.
The body changes in the following ways during a stress reaction:
- Blood pressure and pulse rise
- Breathing speeds up
- Digestive system slows down
- Immune activity decreases
- Muscles become more tense
- Sleepiness decreases due to a heightened state of alertness
How a person reacts to a difficult situation will determine the effects of stress on overall health. Some people can experience several stressors in a row or at once without this leading a severe stress reaction. Others may have a stronger response to a single stressor. An individual who feels as though they do not have enough resources to cope will probably have a stronger reaction that could trigger health problems. Stressors affect individuals in different ways. Some experiences that people generally consider to be positive can lead to stress, such as having a baby, going on vacation, moving to a better home, and getting a promotion at work.
The reason for this is that they typically involve a significant change, extra effort, new responsibilities, and a need for adaptation. They also often require a person to take steps into the unknown. A person may look forward to an increased salary following a promotion, for example, but wonder whether they can handle the extra responsibilities. A persistently negative response to challenges can have an adverse effect on health and happiness.
Types of stress
The National Institute of Mental Health recognize two types of stress: acute and chronic. These require different levels of management.
The NIMH also identify three examples of types of stressor:
- Routine stress, such as childcare, homework, or financial responsibilities
- Sudden, disruptive changes, such as a family bereavement or finding out about a job loss
- Traumatic stress, which can occur due to extreme trauma as a result of a severe accident, an assault, an environmental disaster, or war