LISTEN TO THIS ARTICLE:
Stress is a fundamental part of human biology that has served our species well throughout history. However, it plays a much different role in our modern lives than it has in the past. Stress has become an ever-present issue in many peoples’ lives. Long term stress has lasting physical, emotional, and interpersonal effects. Our guide will cover all you need to know about stress including how it works, its sources, its impact on our mental and physical health, and how to manage it.
What is stress?
Stress is our natural and automatic response to perceived threats or challenges. The brain’s amygdala, which is responsible for processing emotions like fear, triggers the stress response by sending signals to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus tells part of the body’s nervous system to activate the “fight or flight” response. It does this via a cascading series of hormones that ultimately ends with the adrenal glands flooding our veins with cortisol and adrenaline.
Cortisol and adrenaline are the stress hormones, and they prepare the body for action. Heart rate and blood pressure rise. Breathing quickens and our senses become attuned to our surroundings. This evolutionary mechanism protects us from harm and gets us ready to handle dangerous situations.
Stress in modern life
In our modern life, rarely is the stress we feel actually from a true threat to our lives. Instead, stress largely takes on a new role as you’ll learn throughout this guide. Short term stress can be good in certain situations, helping people perform well under pressure or avoid immediate dangers.
Unfortunately, most stress these days does not serve such effective purposes. Instead, people are largely affected by long-term, chronic stress. Chronic stress appears when aggravating factors persist without adequate attention or treatment. This has numerous impacts on physical health, mental well-being, and overall quality of life.
Effects of stress on mental health
If you remember one thing from this guide, it should be that long term stress takes a powerful toll on a mental health. First and foremost, stress makes both anxiety and depression worse. It also messes with moods, causing mood swings, low self-esteem, and irritability. Many people find it harder to focus and feel less motivated. All this leaves sufferers of chronic stress feeling overwhelmed, tense, and emotionally drained. In response to this, some people use drugs or alcohol in a misguided attempt to treat their stress. This never works and can lead to substance use disorders.
Chronic stress also hurts relationships and social connections. People can isolate themselves, withdrawing from friends and family. Negative emotional effects from stress cause conflicts with others, doing additional damage to the social connections that remain. Stress also impacts job performance by reducing productivity and concentration. In turn, this can negatively affect career advancement. If people begin misusing substances, that can further isolate them and worsen social relationships.
Long-term stress puts the body in a chronic state that it was never meant to handle. On a protracted timeline, stress hormones like cortisol can lead to detrimental effects in many body systems. It contributes to cardiovascular problems like high blood pressure and puts people at risk of heart attacks. Stress weakens the immune system and makes people more vulnerable to illnesses and infections. People also will notice their digestive system changes and their bowel movements become irregular. Many people experience nausea and stomach upset as symptoms of stress. Additionally, sleep problems become more common, leading to insomnia and poor quality sleep. All of these physical symptoms typically aggravate existing stress levels.
Sources of stress
In this guide, you’ll learn that stress comes from three main types of sources: environmental, interpersonal, and internal. Understanding these common sources of long-term stress can help people identify and address the factors contributing to their stress levels, enabling them to take proactive steps to manage and reduce stress in their lives.
Environmental stress refers to external parts of our lives that we often have limited control over. Work-related stress is one of the most common contributors. These include excessive job demands, working long hours with little rest, worry about losing one’s job, and conflicts with or harassment from colleagues or bosses. Financial problems, such as debt, unemployment, or struggles to make ends meet due to inflation, are another sadly common source of stress. Societal stressors, such as political uncertainty, being subject to discrimination, or concerns over the state of our natural environment, can contribute to prolonged stress for some individuals.
Interpersonal sources of stress come from conflicts in relationships with spouses, family, or friends. Relationship issues can create ongoing emotional strain. Major life changes, like moving to a new city, starting a new school, the death of a loved one, or going through a divorce, also trigger prolonged stress. These involve significant changes in peoples’ social networks and support systems, making it even harder to manage stress.
Internal stressors are just that, internal. This is stress that originates within ourselves. This most often arises from health issues, either mental or physical. Health concerns, especially if they are from a chronic illness, are a significant source of stress, affecting emotional well-being and requiring long-term coping mechanisms. Mental sources of stress can be mental illnesses or simply self-imposed pressures, such as perfectionism or excessive self-criticism.
Practical guide to managing stress for better mental health
While eliminating stress completely may be impossible, effective stress management techniques can significantly reduce its negative impact. Here are our guide’s practical strategies that people can use to manage stress and benefit their mental health.
1. Identify stressors: The first step to dealing with stress is to figure out exactly what are the biggest sources of your stress. This can be harder than you might think, too. A good method is to begin a daily journal. At the end of each day, reflect on what situations or interactions made you feel overwhelmed, anxious, or frustrated. Doing this daily with help you identify patterns in stress levels.
2. Build a support network: Your support system is your group of closest friends and family who you can rely on when you need help. You can go to them to share stressful experiences and seek guidance. These relationships offers emotional release, practical help, and a sense of camaraderie, which can alleviate the effects of stress.
3. Time management and goal setting: These steps can help a lot if your stress comes from work or similar time-consuming projects. If you feel like you have a lot you need to do and little time to do it, this is for you. Organize tasks, set realistic goals, and prioritize what’s most important. Breaking big tasks into lots of little steps will help reduces stress and enhance yourself productivity.
4. Engage in good self-care: We’ve discussed relaxation techniques before, so you should check out that article. Using techniques like meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, and mindfulness can help reduce the body’s stress response. Also, explore and spend time on hobbies you enjoy, try exercising, and practice good sleep hygiene. Over time, this can have a big impact on the effects of chronic stress.