Stress is subjective, in fact, most of us can identify stress when we experience it. This overwhelming mental state can make basic tasks like making decisions, going to work, or even breathing, feel like a big chore. Despite being such a common issue, stress is different for everybody. From causes to symptoms to what to do about it, people experience and deal with their stress differently. However, it is important to remember, that over-stressing for an extended period of time can have a severely negative impact on the body. Whether it is physical, emotional, or even psychological, stress comes with its set of repercussions. From a habit of grinding teeth to a significantly weakened immune system, symptoms of stress vary from person to person. However, if not paid attention to the consequences of stress are pretty alarming.
To help you manage your stress or to help a loved one, it is very important to understand the telltale signs of stress. Once you recognize what stress looks like you can definitely manage your stress better or help a loved one get through it. With this article let us learn to identify overwhelming stress and how to handle it.
Table of Contents
What is stress?
The World Health Organization defines stress as, “Any type of change that causes physical, emotional or psychological strain.” WHO explains, “Stress is your body's response to anything that requires attention or action. Everyone experiences stress to some degree. The way you respond to stress, however, makes a big difference to your overall well-being.”
Clearly, stress can be characterized as an overwhelming feeling of being unable to cope with any mental or emotional pressure. It can also be described as the body’s way of reacting to a situation or perhaps a threat. When an individual senses danger, regardless of whether it is real or imaginary, the body responds by kicking its defense mechanism which is usually a “fight-or-flight” reaction also known as the stress response. Actually, this stress response is your body’s natural tendency to protect you. When healthy it helps boost focus, alertness, and energy.
A certain level of stress can keep you on your toes and help you grow in order to meet any number of challenges. That awareness you have when you’re watching a movie when you have a test or a presentation the next day, that’s healthy stress. That is because deep down you know you should be preparing for it. But any stress beyond this point can stop being helpful and starts triggering nervousness and affecting your overall health, mood, and productivity. If you find yourself struggling with stress and it's hard for you to calm your nervous system, you need to learn to recognize the symptoms of severe stress in order to combat it and protect yourself from its harmful effects.
What are the common causes of stress?
Any situation or instance that leads to stress is known as a stressor. While typically, stressors include a negative situation like a heavy workload or an unhealthy relationship. However, for some people, overwhelming positive events like getting married, going to college, or buying a house can also serve as stressors. Therefore stressors can be negative as well as positive.
Apart from this stressors can be external as well as internal. That means stress can be induced by both external as well as internal causes. Yes, stress can be self-generated. Again, stress is very subjective. In fact, it's all about perception, mental strength, and tolerance at a specific point. Something that’s very easy to handle for one person can be extremely stressful to another. This might include, public speaking, working under tight deadlines, or a breakup. Here are a few common causes of stress:
Common external causes of stress:
- Major life changes
- Pressure at work or school
- Relationship difficulties
- Financial problems
- Excessively busy schedule
- Pressure due to children and family
- Death of a spouse or a close family member
- Divorce or separation
- Injury or illness
- Caregiver stress during illness or injury of a close family
- Loss of Job or Retirement
- Marriage reconciliation
Common internal causes of stress:
- Incapability to accept uncertainty
- Lack of flexibility or rigid thinking
- Negative self-talk
- Lack of communication
- Unrealistic expectations
- All-or-nothing attitude
What are the symptoms of stress?
If you stop to think about it, the most terrifying aspect of stress is how easily grows on you. It begins to feel natural, even familiar. If not dealt with on time, it can have a significant impact on you, whether physical or mental. That is why it is essential to understand and diagnose common warning signs and symptoms of excessive stress.
Any stressful situation triggers the body’s autonomic nervous system. This system controls a wide range of body functions which lead to symptoms like increased heart rate, heavy breathing, and blurred vision in severe stress. Usually, the built-in stress response is also known as the “fight-or-flight response,” enables the body to better handle the stressful situation.
In fact, the human nervous system is not perfect at differentiating between emotional or physical threats. Whether it's stressing over a dispute with a friend, a work-related deadline, or a huge pile of bills, your body tends to react as strongly as it would have if it were a real life-or-death crisis. Naturally, once your emergency stress system is triggered, it is not to panic. Prolonged stress or chronic stress can lead to a weakened immune system, disrupt your digestion and increase the risk of reproductive, heart, or mental health-related issues. Not just that, chronic stress when not treated can lead to early signs of aging and reduce the overall quality of life. If you believe you have been a little too stressed lately and you cannot determine whether or not it is something to worry about, you must comprehend the warning signs and symptoms of chronic stress. The symptoms of chronic stress or stress over an extended period of time are different for everyone. This may include physical, behavioral as well as emotional symptoms.
Physical symptoms of stress
In overly stressful situations stress may project itself in the form of physical symptoms and signs. While symptoms of stress vary from person to person, here are a few common physical symptoms of stress:
- Aches and pains may include, chest pain, headache, or even stomach ache
- Difficulty breathing or feeling like your heart is constantly racing
- Exhaustion, fatigue, or decreased energy
- Insomnia or other sleep-related problems
- Severe headaches, dizziness, or shaking
- High blood pressure
- Muscle tension or jaw clenching
- Stomach or digestive problems which may include, constipation, diarrhea, indigestion, or heartburn.
- Trouble having sex or other sexual or reproductive problems
- Weakened immune system which may lead to frequent sickness
- Panic attacks might include physical symptoms like feeling sick, difficulty breathing dizziness, blurred vision, blackouts, or fainting.
- Sudden weight gain or even weight loss
- Skin-related issues which include, acne, rashes, or itchy skin.
- Excessive sweating
- Changes in your period or menstrual cycle
- Existing physical health concerns getting worse
Emotional or mental symptoms of stress
Stress comes with a different set of emotional or mental symptoms for everybody. Here are a few common emotional or mental symptoms signs and symptoms of stress:
Irritability/agitation, anxiety, or constant worrying
- Being more emotional or more edge than usual
- Depression or the constant feeling of sadness
- Panic attacks which may include mental symptoms like difficulty doing basic tasks
- Difficulty focusing
- Stumbling and struggling to make basic decisions
- Feeling constantly overwhelmed
- Irrational fears
- Forgetful behaviour
- Poor judgment
- Moodiness, or anger
- Loneliness, isolation, and withdrawing from others
- Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
- Other mental or emotional health problems
Unhealthy behavioral changes due to stress
In severe situations, people chose to handle their stress by making unhealthy life choices. Therefore stress can also be characterized by these unhealthy changes in behavior like:
- Nervous habits like nail biting or pacing.
- Increased consumption of alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax.
- Gambling or unhealthy financial decisions.
- Eating disorders like decreased appetite or overeating.
- Sleep problems like oversleeping or not sleeping at all.
- Partaking compulsively in sex, shopping, or internet browsing.
Stress tolerance level - How much stress is too much stress?
While a little stress is a normal part of life, a lot of it can cause all kinds of damage. In order to avoid these stress-induced damages, it is very important to understand, how much stress is too much stress. However, it is important to understand that “too much” can differ from person to person. While some people thrive in a high-stress lifestyle, others may succumb. To understand your limit to stress, it is important to understand the factors that affect your stress tolerance. There are several factors that influence the stress tolerance level, some of them are:
- Support system: Whether or not you have a support network which may include supportive friends or family. Naturally with better support comes a better stress tolerance.
- Control and confidence: The ability to make decisions, confidence, and the sense of control over your circumstances. Again, with control comes the ability to beat stress.
- Outlook towards life: The attitude, as well as an outlook towards life, plays a very important part. Optimistic people are less likely to be vulnerable to chronic stress.
- Ability to handle emotions: With the power to deal with your emotions the tolerance to stress increases.
- Knowledge and preparation: Knowledge and preparation help in making well-informed decisions which help the individual what to expect. This helps in developing tolerance toward stress.
- The ability to handle stress: Everybody has different ways of dealing with stressful situations. There are people who get down and give up while overs get moving. This strongly affects the tolerance level.
- Connection and communication: Introverts or people who have a hard time talking about their emotions or asking for help are usually more prone to chronic stress.
- Unhealthy lifestyle: People who have a very busy lifestyle whether it is a lack of rest or absence of a balanced diet, can greatly affect their tolerance to stress. Naturally, a well-rested and healthy person has more stress tolerance level than a tired and nutritionally deficient individual.
How can be stress diagnosed?
Stress is subjective which means it cannot be possible to measure it with a health of a test or a machine. While symptoms and severity of stress can be understood by the first-hand information given by the person experiencing it. While signs of stress may include behavioral and physical changes that are visible to another person which can be understood by talking to a close family member of the stressed individual. Typically, healthcare providers use questionnaires that help them understand the level of stress and its impact on daily life. The physical symptoms of chronic stress can be indicated by severe symptoms like increased heart rate or high blood pressure. While these physical symptoms can be treated via medication it is wise to treat the cause of those symptoms - stress.
Stress Management: What are the treatment options for chronic stress?
It would have been perfect if we had a little pill of happiness that would help us beat all our stress. However, it's just not possible that’s because stress is very subjective. Every person has a different tolerance level and prefers different ways of dealing with their stress. Naturally, there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to the treatment of stress. However, it is advised to talk to a trusted friend or to indulge in a few seconds of self-care. But, if the stress is chronic and a day of rest is just not working, you might consider going to a licensed therapist. While you must think twice before taking medications, when it comes to therapy, there are no small reasons.
Apart from that, here are a few lifestyle changes that you must consider making in order to lead a stress-free life as suggested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
- Take breaks from the news and your devices (computer, phone, TV).
- Getting adequate rest and exercise.
- Allow yourself to slow down whether it is a self-help hour a day or a yearly vacation.
- Incorporate a healthy nutrient-rich diet.
- Try deep breathing exercises or yoga.
- Go for meditation or music therapy.
- Avoiding substance use, alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs.
- Communicate with friends, a trusted advisor, or a therapist.
Stress is a part of life and everyone has a different threshold or tolerance level. While some people thrive under stressful situations, others tremble while speaking in a crowd. This however affects the tendency to be more or less agitated or affected during stress. What you might brush off as stress for someone else because of your higher threshold can be an actual illness for a person. That is why it is very important to turn to self-help activities that help in establishing a connection with ourselves. It can be something as small as a daily workout meditation or a weekly yoga class. However, if you feel uneasy or unsettled for over a week it is wise to reach out to a licensed therapist to help navigate your way out of it. Remember it is okay to ask for help.