Effects of Stress - Featured

The Effects of Stress and How to Live a Stress-Free Life

by Hermina Drah

Stress can motivate us to achieve our goals and always stay one step ahead, or it may wreak havoc on not only our physical state but also our mental health. Stress, in short, is the body’s natural reaction to any change. This article will focus on the effects of stress as well as the most useful ways to cope with it.

To start, it’s important to realize that every single person on this planet deals with a certain amount of stress every day. Individuals may experience stress from their own thoughts, their surrounding environment, and even positive shifts in life, such as the birth of a baby, getting a promotion, or getting married. The following covers some of the key facts about stress you need to be aware of.

Types of Stress

Before diving deeper into the subject, it’s vital to understand that stress doesn’t come in just one form—it can manifest in different ways. According to the American Psychological Association, there are three important types to be aware of: acute stress, episodic stress, and chronic stress. The different types of this condition each have their unique characteristics, duration, manner of treatment, and overall stress symptoms.

Acute Stress

Acute stress, the most common type of stress, is usually harmless and brief. It’s caused by repeatedly thinking negative and reactive thoughts. For instance, individuals suffering from acute stress may have negative thoughts related to incidents that occurred recently or that will occur sometime in the near future. A deadline, a nerve-wracking presentation, or even an unpleasant conversation can spark acute stress in individuals. Because acute stress is induced by repetitive, negative thoughts, when an individual manages to break these problematic thought patterns, the symptoms of stress usually go away on their own.

Episodic Acute Stress

Episodic acute stress differs from acute stress in the sense that it appears more frequently during everyday life. Individuals who are diagnosed with this type of stress usually live chaotic, disorganized lives full of inconveniences and crises. Furthermore, these individuals are usually always in a rush to get somewhere, and they frequently feel overwhelmed or under a significant amount of pressure. 

Experts claim that there are two personality types when mentioning episodic acute stress. A “type A” personality experiences the negative effects of stress, which include having a frequent competitive drive, impatience, and even aggression. Also, cardiologists Friedman and Rosenman concluded that “type A” individuals are more likely to develop coronary heart disease.

The second type is named the “worrier.” Individuals who belong in this group experience frequent negative thinking, projecting disaster and potential catastrophes into most everyday situations. Furthermore, the signs of stress in the “worrier” include a view that the world is a dangerous, punitive, and unrewarding place with certain issues frequently popping up. 

Chronic Stress

Chronic stress’s impact on the human mind and body is the most dangerous of the three types. If chronic stress is left undiagnosed and untreated over a certain period, it may cause significant permanent damage to a person’s physical and mental wellbeing.

For example, individuals who’ve experienced the effects of prolonged stress—be this due to poverty, frequent abuse, long-term unemployment, or substance abuse—may have chronic stress. Individuals may also be diagnosed with the condition if they display symptoms of feeling hopeless, trapped, or miserable in life. Most importantly, chronic stress is the most dangerous type of stress because it usually doesn’t go away on its own, and it wears the individual down day after day.

Side Effects of Stress

Effects of Stress - Side Effects

The most common warning signs to look out for when stressed include the following:

  • Grinding teeth or a clenched jaw
  • An increase in appetite or a loss of appetite
  • Insomnia
  • Sweaty and cold palms
  • Feeling exhausted
  • Frequently trembling
  • Dizziness
  • Frequent aches in various body parts
  • Muscle tension in the face, neck, or shoulders
  • Losing or gaining weight
  • Lowered libido levels
  • Diarrhea

The Effects of Stress on the Body

As previously mentioned, it’s completely normal to experience stress and react to it from time to time, as stress can also help individuals be more alert and stay motivated. Nevertheless, if stress harms the life of a person and makes him or her face too many uncomfortable challenges, then the condition may easily affect their overall wellbeing and quality of life.

To understand stress, it’s important to realize that the human body’s autonomic nervous system contains a built-in stress response that brings about various physiological changes which allow the body to fight against stressful situations. More popularly known as the fight or flight response, it’s known for activating when there’s an emergency or nearby danger. As a result, the long-term effects of stress may cause substantial damage to a person’s mental and physical health.

The Effects of Acute Stress

Even though it’s the most common and the least problematic type of stress, acute stress may still prove to be challenging to live with. It can easily cause a wide array of psychological symptoms, and if left undiagnosed and untreated, it can quickly lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.

There are different factors that may increase an individual’s risk of developing this form of the condition. For example, the effect of stress on one’s health is evident in individuals who’ve just experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, have a history of mental illness, or have a history of dissociative reactions to difficult events in the past.

  • Acute stress usually leads to transient emotional stress, which is essentially the combination of irritability, anger, frustration, anxiety, and depression
  • Acute stress disorder can cause significant transient muscular distress. This includes tension in various parts of the body (most frequently in the face, jaw, shoulders, and back), which may lead to new muscular tensions and ligament issues. 
  • Further effects of too much stress on the body include stomach, bowel, and gut issues, as well as frequent heartburn, stomach acid reflux, diarrhea, constipation, and flatulence. 
  • Individuals who suffer from this type of stress may be put at a much higher risk of developing heart disease, elevated blood pressure, migraine headaches, cold feet or hands, insomnia, and sharp chest pain.

The Effects of Episodic Acute Stress

Episodic stress—characterized as frequent sessions of acute stress—is slightly more serious than the previous type simply because it happens more often during a person’s lifetime. This type of stress has similar signs and symptoms as acute stress. However, the effects are more serious because they cause ongoing damage to the human body and mind, as well as emotional suffering. The effects of episodic acute stress can be divided into four categories:

  • The mental effects of stress include problems with memory, the inability to concentrate or focus, frequent poor judgment, negative thoughts, anxiety, and being worried all the time.
  • The emotional effects of episodic acute stress include irritability, being angry all the time, feeling agitated, not being able to relax, feeling constantly overwhelmed, feeling lonely, keeping oneself in isolation, depression, feeling unhappy, mood swings, and mind fog.
  • The physical effects of stress can involve feeling pain in different parts of the body, dealing with diarrhea or constipation, feeling nauseous, an increased heartbeat, and a lowered libido.
  • The behavioral effects of episodic acute stress could be binging on food or not eating enough, waking up in the middle of the night or not being able to fall asleep, frequent procrastination, substance abuse (alcohol, drugs, cigarettes), and bad habits such as nail biting or pacing.

The Effects of Chronic Stress

Chronic stress, as already mentioned, is the most serious type of stress out there, which puts individuals at high risk of developing certain serious health issues. Put simply, this stress disrupts different systems in the human body. The most frightening part of suffering from chronic stress is that individuals usually become so used to the condition that they don’t even realize they have it anymore—it becomes an everyday normal feeling. 

Some of the most frequent factors that contribute to the effects of chronic stress on the body are ongoing poverty, money issues, the pressure at work or home, or any form of mental or physical abuse. Chronic stress is one of the major causes of heart attack, cancer, and unfortunately, suicide. According to the American Institute of Stress, the signs of suicidal ideation are similar to those of chronic stress, and they include feeling trapped or hopeless, an increased use of alcohol or drugs, anxiety and agitation, and not being able to sleep.

What Helps Reduce Stress? Treatment for Acute, Episodic, and Chronic Stress

Effects of Stress - Reduce Stress

Since acute stress is usually present in everybody’s everyday lives, it’s also relatively manageable and easy to deal with. For example, some of the best ways to deal with acute stress include going for a walk, listening to some relaxing tunes, talking to a loved one, or just simply taking a power nap. Episodic acute stress is more tricky because it tends to come back frequently. Thus, if the symptoms become too unbearable, it’s high time to visit a skilled professional for the best advice. 

Nevertheless, individuals dealing with any form of stress and its effects need to realize that they’re dealing with the condition, as stress may become ingrained in an individual’s life, meaning they may see it as something normal. These individuals can best combat the condition by changing their perception of the world and their thinking patterns. 

Lastly, people who are plagued by chronic stress are strongly advised to seek out the help of a professional, as the problem may stem from painful experiences that have become internalized. Recovery for individuals fighting chronic stress disorder requires persistent self-examination sessions with a highly trained psychologist. Thankfully, this type of treatment is extremely effective in curing the condition. The most frequent types of psychological treatment include talk therapy (support and counseling), relaxation training, stress management, and learning new coping skills.

Alternative Treatments

However, not everyone dealing with stress is keen on visiting a therapist. Fortunately, there are other methods that relieve the symptoms of acute stress. 

For example, laughter is an excellent way to combat anxiety and boost serotonin levels. Laughing, even if it’s forced, helps relieve the stress response, and it eases tension by relaxing the muscles in the face. An NCBI-published study seeking to determine the effect of laughter on cancer patients found that individuals using laugh therapy experienced higher levels of stress relief than the other participants. 

Another holistic way to treat stress is by regularly attending yoga classes. Yoga has become one of the most popular methods of relieving tension in the body, a frequent side effect of stress, usually present in the lower back, shoulders, and face. The key to relieving stress through the practice of yoga is merging the body and the mind into one whole. A systematic review that examined the effects of yoga on stress and mood found that the practice may treat the symptoms of anxiety and depression as effectively as antidepressant medications.

Furthermore, natural supplements—lemon balm, ashwagandha, valerian, kava kava, and omega-3 fatty acids—have been shown to successfully diminish some of the consequences of stress on the human body and mind. 

Another popular way to manage stress levels is by reducing one’s daily caffeine intake, or by cutting out a cup of joe altogether. Research has found that caffeine, a stimulant found in tea, chocolate, coffee, and energy drinks may increase anxiety levels and contribute to stress.

FAQs

Effects of Stress - FAQs

What are the 5 main emotional signs of stress?

Depression is one of the most common emotional signs that an individual is under too much stress. One study found an important link between stress and depression. In fact, it was found that the chronic and acute variants of stress greatly contributed to depression in female patients.

Second, stressed individuals often suffer from anxiety.  A study looking into work and home stress found that individuals who experience great levels of stress at work are more likely to display symptoms of anxiety.

Another one of the most frequent effects of stress on the brain manifests as irritability. One ground-breaking study that examined the link between irritability and stress helped researchers conclude that stress is associated with abnormally high levels of anger. 

Having a bad memory and trouble keeping focused is the next most common emotional sign of heavy stress. One study conducted on rats found that animals exposed to acute stress are more likely to have performance and focus issues compared to non-stressed rats. A research paper examining addictive behavior also came to an interesting conclusion: chronic stress can change the brain’s physical nature and assist in forming addiction-developing habits. 

Can stress kill you?

Chronic stress may indeed have the power to kill an individual. This type of stress can lead to premature death from cancer, heart disease, and various other health issues. 

Dr. Carolyn Aldwin mentions that the main reason for many stress-related deaths lies in increased levels of cortisol function (which is one of three major stress hormones). Abnormal cortisol levels lower bone density, increase blood pressure, interfere with memory, and increase the risk of heart disease and high cholesterol. 

Cardiologist Joel Kahn, mentions the “broken heart syndrome,” a serious heart condition that manifests itself mostly in female patients who display large amounts of psychological distress. The condition may be triggered by another physiological effect of stress or even surgery. Furthermore, individuals who experience the condition may feel a sudden, sharp pain in their chest, potentially mistaking it for a heart attack.

Most importantly, large amounts of epinephrine in the human body can cause serious damage to the heart because it changes the arteries and the way the cells regenerate. Epinephrine, more popularly known as adrenaline is a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands, which are triggered by different strong emotions like fear and rage. 

How does stress affect your behavior?

As previously mentioned, stress can be a major cause of different health issues, such as constant headaches, elevated blood pressure levels, skin conditions such as acne, and different heart-related illnesses. According to a study, cortisol, a hormone that influences the proper functioning of the brain, was found to be responsible for aggressive antisocial behavior in boys. This is relevant because a notable negative effect of stress involves impaired cognitive processes as a result of high levels of cortisol. 

Other examples of stress affecting an individual’s behavior include difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, poor punctuality and time-management skills, regularly missing work or avoiding difficult situations at work, withdrawing from social situations, feeling constantly exhausted, displaying addictive or excessive behavior, and having unhealthy eating or coping habits.

Why does stress make you tired?

Emotional exhaustion is one of the most frequent side-effects of being under too much stress for a long period. Emotional exhaustion, the state of feeling drained and worn-out due to accumulated stress (either acute or chronic) is a certain sign of burnout. Individuals who feel emotionally exhausted most of the time may feel that they have little or no power over the events in their lives, thus they may feel trapped.

There are different forms of the impact of stress on one’s health: these include difficulty falling asleep (or staying asleep), lack of motivation, and display little to no energy. If left untreated, stressed-out individuals may be at great risk of different serious health issues. A person may feel emotionally exhausted because they work in a high-pressure field (they might be a teacher or police officer), they work long hours, they have and are raising children, they may be homeless, or they could be going through a difficult divorce.

Is stress a mental illness?

Even though stress is not a psychiatric diagnosis, the condition may cause mental health issues, and these mental health issues may then cause stress. For example, in the first case, an individual who struggles to manage and cope with stress may develop common mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. In the latter, patients will need to manage various medications or go to appointments and get treatment, all of which can risk becoming a source of excessive frustration and stress.

Even though stress-related illnesses are dangerous and require therapy, it’s important to understand that feeling overwhelmed from time to time and being under pressure are normal elements of everyday life. Nevertheless, if the problem persists for a longer period and it damages your health or the health of a loved one, please seek out help.

Conclusion

Acute, episodic acute, or chronic stress may have dangerous effects on the human body and mind. Furthermore, the effects of stress can trap the individual in a vicious cycle of hopelessness and negativity, void of all the beautiful things in life. Even though it’s impossible to live a life without some hint of stress, it’s important to remember that the power to deal with the condition is always in your hands. So whether it’s a loved one dealing with stress, or it’s you, please seek professional help and turn your life around for the better.

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