Stress: Why does it happen and how can we handle it?

Stress is a feeling that people have in everyday terms when they are overloaded and struggling to cope with the pressures.

Such demands may relate to finances, jobs, relationships, and other circumstances but anything that poses a real or perceived problem or threat to the well-being of an individual can cause stress.

Pressure can act as a motivator. Survival can be key. The process of “fight-or-flight” can tell us when and how to deal with the danger. However, if this mechanism is activated too quickly, or if at one time there are too many stressors, then it can damage the mental and physical health of a person and become harmful.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA)’s annual stress survey, average levels of stress in the United States (U.S.) in 2015 increased from 4.9 to 5.1 on a scale of 1-10.

Fast facts on stress:

Here are some of the key points about stress. The main article provides more information.

  • Stress helps the body prepare to face danger.
  • The symptoms can be both physical and psychological.
  • Short-term stress can be helpful, but long-term stress is linked to various health conditions.
  • We can prepare for stress by learning some self-management tips.

What is stress?

Everybody response to stress differently, but too much stress can lead to health problems.
Everybody response to stress differently, but too much stress can lead to health problems.

Stress is the natural defense of the body against predators, and against danger. It flushes hormones into the body to prepare systems to evade or confront danger. This is regarded as process of “fight-or-flight.”

A part of our reaction is physical when faced with a challenge. The body activates resources to protect us by either preparing us to stay and fight, or getting away as quickly as possible.

The body produces larger amounts of the cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline chemicals. Those cause an increased heart rate, increased preparation for the muscles, sweating, and alertness. All of these factors enhance the ability to address a hazardous or challenging situation.

Environmental factors that cause this reaction are called stressors. Examples include noise, aggressive behaviour, a speeding car, scary movie moments, or even a first date out. The more stressors we experience, the more that we tend to feel stressed.

Body changes Pressure slows down normal body processes, such as the digestive and immune systems. Therefore, all efforts can be centered on rapid breathing, blood flow, alertness, and muscle use.

The body changes at pressure in the following ways:

  • blood pressure and pulse rate rise
  • breathing is faster
  • the digestive system slows down
  • immune activity decreases
  • the muscles become tense
  • a heightened state of alertness prevents sleep

Whether we respond to a challenging situation affects whether stress affects us and our health. A person who feels they don’t have enough resources to deal with will be more likely to have a stronger response, and one that can cause health issues. Stressors affect people in varying ways.

Even things that are generally regarded as good can lead to stress, such as having a baby, going on a holiday, moving to a nicer house and being promoted.

This is because we frequently require a major change, extra effort, new responsibilities, and adaptation needs. They are moves toward the unknown, too. The person wonders if they can cope with it.

A persistently negative response to challenges can affect health and happiness. Being mindful of how you respond to stressors, however, will help to reduce and control the negative feelings and effects of stress.


The APA acknowledges three different types of stress which require different management levels.

Acute stress

This type of stress is short-term, and is the most common form of stress. Sometimes, acute stress is triggered by thinking about the stresses with recent events, or coming demands in the near future.

For instance, if you’ve been involved in a recent argument that has caused disturbed or has an imminent deadline, you might feel stress about these causes. Nevertheless, once these are resolved the anxiety can be reduced or eliminated.

It doesn’t do the same amount of damage as chronic, long-term stress. Short-term effects include hallucinations of tension and an upset stomach, and a moderate amount of pain.

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

Episodic acute stress

People who often experience acute stress, or whose lives have frequent stress triggers, have episodic acute stress.

A person with too many responsibilities and bad management, may have episodic symptoms of stress. These include a tendency to be irritable and tense, and may affect relationships with this irritability. Individuals who constantly worry too much can also be confronted with this type of stress.

This type of stress can also lead to hypertension and heart disease.

Chronic stress

This is the most destructive form of stress and grinds away over a long period of time.

Chronic stress can be triggered by chronic deprivation, a dysfunctional family, or an unhappy marriage. This occurs when an person never sees an escape from the cause of stress and keeps looking for solutions. Often, it can be caused early in life by a traumatic experience.

Unlike acute stress which is fresh and often has an immediate solution, chronic stress have proceed unnoticed because people can become used to it. It can become a part of the personality of an individual, making them continually susceptible to the effects of stress regardless of the scenarios they face.

People with chronic stress are likely to have a final breakdown that can result in depression, acts of violence, heart attacks and strokes.


We all react on stressful situations differently. That makes one person stressful may not be stressful to another. Nearly anything can carry tension. Only thinking about something or a couple of small things can cause stress for some people.

Typical major events in life which may cause stress include:

  • job issues or retirement
  • lack of time or money
  • bereavement
  • family problems
  • illness
  • moving home
  • relationships, marriage, and divorce

Other commonly reported causes of stress are:

For different people, different situations can trigger stress.
For different people, different situations can trigger stress.
  • abortion or miscarriage
  • driving in heavy traffic or fear of an accident
  • fear of crime or problems with neighbors
  • pregnancy and becoming a parent
  • excessive noise, overcrowding, and pollution
  • uncertainty or waiting for an important outcome

Many circumstances are going to affect many people but not others. Past experience can have an impact on how a person reacts.

There’s no clear cause, sometimes. Problems with mental health, such as depression or an accumulated sense of frustration and anxiety, can make some people feel more anxious than others.

After a traumatic event, some people experience ongoing pain, such as an accident or some kind of violence. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is known as this. Those who work in stressful jobs, like the military or emergency services, will have a debriefing session after a major incident, and they will be tested for PTSD.


The physical effects of stress include:

  • sweating
  • pain in the back or chest
  • cramps or muscle spasms
  • erectile dysfunction and loss of libido
  • fainting
  • headache
  • heart disease
  • high blood pressure
  • lower immunity against diseases
  • muscular aches
  • nervous twitches
  • pins and needles
  • sleeping difficulties
  • stomach upset

A 2012 study suggested that the stressors experienced by parents, such as financial troubles or the management of a single-parent household, could lead to obesity in their children.

Emotional reactions can include:

  • anger
  • anxiety
  • burnout
  • concentration issues
  • depression
  • fatigue
  • a feeling of insecurity
  • forgetfulness
  • irritability
  • nail biting
  • restlessness
  • sadness

Behaviors linked to stress include:

  • food cravings and eating too much or too little
  • sudden angry outbursts
  • drug and alcohol abuse
  • higher tobacco consumption
  • social withdrawal
  • frequent crying
  • relationship problems


A doctor normally diagnoses stress by asking the patient about the symptoms and events in life.

Diagnosis is difficult. This depends on a lot of factors. Questionnaires, biochemical tests and physiological methods were used but these may not be objective or accurate.

A detailed, stress-oriented, face-to-face interview is the most direct way to diagnose stress and its effects upon a person.


Treatment involves self-help, and certain medications in cases where stress is caused by an underlying condition.

Therapies which may help relax include aromatherapy or reflexology.

Most insurance providers cover this kind of treatment, but be sure to check before continuing with this treatment .


Doctors will not usually prescribe medicines to cope with stress, unless the patient has an underlying disease, such as depression or an anxiety type.

The doctor, in this situation, treats a mental disorder and not the stress.

In such cases it may be prescribed an antidepressant. There is a risk, though, that the medication will only mask the stress, rather than help you deal with it and cope. Antidepressants may have adverse effects, too.

Developing prior to stress hits some coping mechanisms may help a person manage new challenges and maintain physical and mental health. If you already feel overwhelming stress, seek medical assistance.


Here are a few lifestyle choices you can take to manage or prevent an overwhelmed feeling.

Massage, yoga, or listening to music may help destress, or avoid the build-up of tension.
Massage, yoga, or listening to music may help destress, or avoid the build-up of tension.

Exercise: Studies have shown that exercise can benefit the state of mind and physicality of a person.

Reducing alcohol, drugs, and caffeine intake: These substances are not going to help prevent stress, and they can make it worse. They should be cut or reduced.

Nutrition: A healthy, balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables helps preserve the immune system during stressful times. A poor diet can cause ill health and added stress.

Prioritizing: Take some time to arrange your to- do list to see what’s most important. So concentrate on what you’ve done or achieved for the day, instead of what you’re yet to do.

Time: Set aside some time each day just for yourself. Use it to organize your life, relax, and pursue your own interests.

Breathing and relaxation: Meditation, massage, and yoga can help. Breathing and relaxation techniques can slow down the system and help you relax. Breathing is also a central part of mindfulness meditation.

Talking: Talking to family, friends, work colleagues, and your boss about your thoughts and worries will help you “let off steam.” You may be comforted to find that you are “not the only one.” You may even find there is an easy solution that you had not thought of.

Acknowledging the signs: A person can be so anxious about the problem that is causing the stress that they do not notice the effects on their body.

The first step toward taking action is to note symptoms. People who have work stress due to long hours may need to “take a step back.” It might be time to review their own work practices or talk to a supervisor about lowering the load.

Choose your own destressor: most people have something to relax, like reading a book, walking, listening to music, or spending time with a friend or pet. Joining a chorus or a gym helps a few.

Establishing support networks: The APA encourages people to develop social support networks by, for example, talking to local community neighbors and others, or joining a club, charity or religious organization.

Even if you don’t feel stressed right now, being part of a group may prevent tension from forming and can provide support and practical help when difficult times occur.

As long as it does not replace face-to-face touch, social networking online can help. It can help you to stay in touch with distant friends and family and this can reduce anxiety.

If the stress affects your everyday life you will seek professional assistance. For example, with stress management training, a doctor or psychological consultant can often be of assistance.

Stress management techniques

Stress management can help to:

  • remove or change the source of stress
  • alter the way you view a stressful event
  • lower the impact that stress might have on your body
  • learn alternative ways of coping

One or more of these approaches are followed by stress management therapy.

Stress management techniques can be gained from self-help books, online resources or through attending a course on stress management. An individual who has stress can be connected by a counselor or psychotherapist to personal development courses or individual and group therapy sessions.

Chukwuebuka Martins
Chukwuebuka Martins
Chukwuebuka Martins is a writer, researcher, and health enthusiast who specializes in human physiology. He takes great pleasure in penning informative articles on many aspects of physical wellness, which he then thoroughly enjoys sharing to the general public.

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