Stress: why does it occur? Stress: types, symptoms, and how to manage it

Stress: why does it occur, types, symptoms, and how to manage it? Stress is a natural feeling of being unable to cope with certain demands and events. Stress can become a chronic condition if you don’t take steps to overcome it. These demands can be related to work, relationships, financial pressures, and other situations, but anything that poses a real or perceived challenge or threat to well-being can cause stress.

In this article you will find out:

  • Why does stress occur?
  • Stress is a reaction to the human body
  • Acute stress – how it develops
  • Chronic stress – what are the complications for the body
  • Stress – causes of occurrence
  • Stress – symptoms and complications
  • How to diagnose stress?
  • Self-help for stress

Stress can be a motivator, and it can even be necessary for survival. The fight or flight mechanism tells a person when and how to respond to danger. However, when the body is activated too easily, or when there are too many stressors at once, it can undermine mental and physical health and become detrimental.

Stress: why does it occur?

Stress is the body’s natural defence against predators and danger. It causes the body to flood with hormones that prepare its systems to avoid or overcome danger. This is commonly referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism.

When a person is faced with a challenge or threat, they partly react physically. The body activates resources that help the person to withstand the challenge or to get to a place of safety as quickly as possible.

‘The body produces increased amounts of the chemicals cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine. They trigger the following physical reactions:

  • high blood pressure
  • enhanced muscle training
  • sweating
  • alertness

All of these factors improve a person’s ability to respond to a potentially dangerous or challenging situation. Norepinephrine and adrenaline also cause the heart to race.

Environmental factors that trigger this reaction are called stressors. Examples include noise, aggressive behaviour, a car travelling at high speed, scary moments in a film, or even a first date. Feelings of stress tend to increase with the number of stressors.

According to the annual stress survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2018, the average stress level in the United States was 4.9 on a scale of 1 to 10. The survey showed that the most common stressors were work and money.

Stress: a reaction to the human body

Stress slows down some normal bodily functions, such as those performed by the digestive and immune systems. The body can concentrate its resources on breathing, circulation, alertness and preparing muscles for sudden use.

  • Increased blood pressure and pulse rate
  • Breathing becomes faster
  • the digestive system slows down
  • immune activity decreases
  • muscles become stronger
  • sleep is impaired due to increased alertness

How a person reacts to a difficult situation determines the impact of stress on their overall health. Some people may experience several stressors in a row or all at once without a strong stress response. Others may have a stronger reaction to a single stressor.

A person who feels that they do not have enough resources to cope with stress is likely to have a stronger reaction, which can lead to health problems. Stress affects people in different ways.

Some events that people normally consider positive can lead to stress, such as having a baby, going on holiday, moving to a nicer house or being promoted at work.

The reason for this is that they usually involve significant change, additional effort, new responsibilities and the need to adapt. They also often require people to take steps into the unknown.

For example, a person may expect a pay rise after a promotion, but doubt whether they can cope with the additional responsibilities.

‘Constantly reacting negatively to challenges can have a negative impact on health and happiness.’

For example, a 2018 review of studies found a link between work-related stress and coronary heart disease. Despite this, the authors were unable to confirm the exact mechanisms by which stress causes coronary heart disease.

Other publications have shown that people who perceive stress as having a negative impact on their health may be at greater risk of coronary heart disease than those who do not.

Being more mindful of the effects of stress can help people manage stress more effectively and cope better.

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Stress: types of different levels

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) distinguishes between two types of stress: acute and chronic. They require different levels of management.

NIMH also identifies three examples of types of stressors:

  • Routine stress, such as childcare, housework or financial responsibilities
  • Sudden and disruptive changes, such as the death of a family member or job loss
  • Traumatic stress, which can occur due to extreme trauma as a result of a serious accident, environmental disaster or war

Acute stress: how it develops

This type of stress is short-lived and is usually the most common form of stress. Acute stress usually develops when a person is considering the pressures of events that have recently occurred or is facing challenges in the near future.

For example, a person may feel stressed because of a recent argument or an upcoming deadline. However, the stress will decrease or disappear as soon as the person resolves the quarrel or meets the deadline.

Acute stressors are often new and usually have a clear and immediate solution. Even with the most difficult challenges people face, there are possible ways out of the situation.

Acute stress is not as damaging as long-term chronic stress. Short-term effects include tension headaches and indigestion, as well as moderate distress.

However, repeated instances of acute stress over a long period of time can become chronic and harmful.

Chronic stress: what are the complications on the body

This type of stress develops over a long period of time and is more damaging.

Persistent poverty, a dysfunctional family or an unhappy marriage are examples of situations that can cause chronic stress. It occurs when a person does not find a way to avoid stressful factors and stops looking for solutions. Traumatic experiences in early life can also contribute to chronic stress.

Chronic stress makes it difficult for the body to return to normal levels of stress hormone activity, which can contribute to problems in the following systems:

  • cardiovascular
  • respiratory
  • sleep
  • immune
  • reproductive

Being under constant stress can also increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. Depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop when stress becomes chronic.

Chronic stress can go unnoticed, as a person may become accustomed to feeling anxious and hopeless. It can become a part of a person’s personality, making them constantly affected by stress, regardless of the scenarios they face.

People who are chronically stressed are at risk of having a final breakdown, which can lead to negative events, violent acts, heart attack or stroke.

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Stress: causes of occurrence

People react differently to stressful situations. What is stressful for one person may not be stressful for another, and almost any event has the potential to cause stress. For some people, even the thought of one or more small triggers can cause stress.

There is no definitive reason why one person may experience less stress than another when faced with the same stressor. Mental disorders, such as depression, feelings of frustration, injustice and anxiety, can cause one person to be more easily stressed than another.

Previous experiences can influence how a person reacts to stressors.

  • problems at work or with retirement
  • lack of time or money
  • conflict
  • family problems
  • diseases
  • relationships, marriage and divorce
  • abortion or miscarriage
  • driving in heavy traffic or fear of an accident
  • fear of crime or problems with neighbours
  • pregnancy and parenthood
  • excessive noise, overcrowding and pollution
  • uncertainty or waiting for an important outcome

Some people experience constant stress after a traumatic event, such as an accident or some form of violence. Doctors diagnose this as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Those who work in stressful jobs, such as the military or emergency services, will be interviewed after a serious incident and monitored by health services for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Stress: symptoms and complications

  • sweating
  • back or chest pain
  • muscle cramps or spasms
  • fainting
  • headache
  • nerve spasms
  • tingling sensation

A 2012 study found that the stresses experienced by parents, such as financial problems or running a single-parent family, can also lead to obesity in their children.

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