Stress generally refers to two things: the psychological perception of pressure, on the one hand, and the body's response to it, on the other, which involves multiple systems, from metabolism to muscles to memory.
Some stress is necessary for all living systems; it is the means by which they encounter and respond to the challenges and uncertainties of existence. The perception of danger sets off an automatic response system, known as the fight-or-flight response, that, activated through hormonal signals, prepares an animal to meet a threat or to flee from it.
A stressful event—whether it’s the sudden appearance of a snake on the path or the fear of losing your job when the boss yells—triggers a cascade of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, that surge through the body.
These hormones increase heartbeat and the circulation of blood to support quick action, mobilize fat and sugar for immediate energy, focus attention to track the danger, prepare muscles for movement, and more.
But this lifesaving response was meant to solve short-term, life-threatening problems, not extended difficulties such as daily traffic jams or marital problems—a few of the many challenges that can hijack the stress response today.
Many people today feel they perpetually struggle with stress and anxiety. Society’s obsession with productivity, the steady stream of digital information we consume, increasingly sedentary lifestyles, and feelings of overwhelm may contribute to the stress that so many are feeling.
Chronic stress can often be difficult to spot, as it can emerge in the absence of a severe or acute incident. Different factors, such as a disrupted sleep schedule, feeling perpetually undervalued at work, and not having close relationships with friends or family members can all independently contribute to chronic stress.
The signs of stress include insomnia, stomachaches, headaches, muscle tension, a racing heartbeat, and trouble concentrating, among others. Signs of burnout, a concept distinct from stress, include three key markers: emotional exhaustion, cynicism and depersonalization, and reduced personal efficacy.
There are both physical and psychological approaches to blunt stress. Physical steps include meditation, yoga, and exercise. Psychological strategies include leaning on loved ones or in more severe cases seeing a mental health professional.
Since the stress response begins in the brain with the perception of danger or the unknown, researchers now believe that the most basic, and likely most effective, way to diffuse stress is to change the perception of certain situations so that they are not seen as stressful in the first place.
Studies show that helping people see certain experiences—such as final exams—as demanding rather than dire protects them from the corrosive effects of stress while still delivering its positive effects, such as focused attention and speedier information processing. Changing the stress mindset not only minimizes the harms of stress, studies show, but it also enhances performance and productivity.
Plan and organize your time, reflect on your values and strengths, and practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing. Additionally, reframe negative thoughts about a situation to neutral or positive thoughts so that you can see the full picture. Research shows that these strategies and others can successfully curb stress.
There are both healthy and unhealthy responses to stress. Unhealthy responses can include turning to alcohol, drugs, or gambling. Healthy coping strategies include meditation, exercise, journaling, practicing gratitude, and trying to let go of what is beyond our control.
Instead of fixating on an overwhelming worry or responsibility, be specific about the tasks that need to be completed. Break each one down into small, manageable parts, and then focus on one at a time rather than trying to multitask. These actions and others can help bring work stress under control.
Recognize the symptoms of stress—such as difficulty concentrating, irritability or sadness, and sleep problems—to know when and how to respond. Control what you can, and then try to release the concerns that you cannot control. Additionally, limit news consumption, reach out to loved ones, and practice self-care.
Short bursts of stress aren’t inherently harmful, although it can take time for the body to calm down. Yet prolonged or repeated arousal of the stress response can have harmful physical and psychological consequences. Those repercussions include ailments from heart disease and diabetes to anxiety and depression.
Stress can lead to changes in many different parts of the body. Stress can lead to a faster heartbeat, muscle tension, and gastrointestinal issues. It can lead to heavier and faster breathing, which can strain the lungs, and blunt the immune system’s ability to respond to threats.
Ongoing stress assaults the immune system, making us more vulnerable to disease. Although stress hormones ready the body for emergencies, they also depress the immune system by decreasing inflammation and decreasing white blood cell production. Stress may therefore contribute to illnesses such as heart disease, cancer, and others.
Stress hormones, such as cortisol, are naturally produced every day so that people can take on the challenges ahead. But marinating in high levels of stress hormones over time can prompt the brain to function differently, leading to memory impairment, cognitive problems, anxiety, or depression.