Everything You Need to Know About Stress

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Stress is a biological response to a perceived threat. It’s caused by chemicals and hormones surging throughout your body. It can help you respond to a particular problem, but too much can harm your health.

Stress triggers your fight-or-flight response in order to fight the stressor or run away from it. Typically, after the response occurs, your body should relax. Too much constant stress can have negative effects.

Is all stress bad?
Stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s what helped our hunter-gatherer ancestors survive, and it’s just as important in today’s world. It can be healthy when it helps you avoid an accident, meet a tight deadline, or keep your wits about you amid chaos.

We all feel stressed at times, but what one person finds stressful may be very different from what another finds stressful. An example of this would be public speaking. Some love the thrill of it and others become paralyzed at the very thought.

Stress isn’t always a bad thing, either. Your wedding day, for example, may be considered a good form of stress.

But stress should be temporary. Once you’ve passed the fight-or-flight moment, your heart rate and breathing should slow down and your muscles should relax. In a short time, your body should return to its natural state without any lasting negative effects.

On the other hand, severe, frequent, or prolonged stress can be mentally and physically harmful.

And it’s fairly common. When asked, 80 percent of Americans reported they’d had at least one symptom of stress in the past month. Twenty percent reported being under extreme stress.

Life being what it is, it’s not possible to eliminate stress completely. But we can learn to avoid it when possible and manage it when it’s unavoidable.

Defining stress
Stress is a normal biological reaction to a potentially dangerous situation. When you encounter sudden stress, your brain floods your body with chemicals and hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.

That gets your heart beating faster and sends blood to muscles and important organs. You feel energized and have heightened awareness so you can focus on your immediate needs. These are the different stages of stress and how people adapt.
Stress hormones
When you sense danger, the hypothalamus at the base of your brain reacts. It sends nerve and hormone signals to your adrenal glands, which release an abundance of hormones.

These hormones are nature’s way of preparing you to face danger and increase your chances of survival.

One of these hormones is adrenaline. You might also know it as epinephrine, or the fight-or-flight hormone. In rapid fashion, adrenaline works to:
increase your heartbeat
increase your breathing rate
make it easier for your muscles to use glucose
contract blood vessels so blood is directed to the muscles
stimulate perspiration
inhibit insulin production

While this is helpful in the moment, frequent adrenaline surges can lead to:
damaged blood vessels
high blood pressure, or hypertension
higher risk of heart attack and stroke
headaches
anxiety
insomnia
weight gain
Here’s what else you should know about an adrenaline rush.
Although adrenaline is important, it isn’t the primary stress hormone. That’s cortisol

Stress and cortisol
As the main stress hormone, cortisol plays an essential role in stressful situations. Among its functions are:
raising the amount of glucose in your bloodstream
helping the brain use glucose more effectively
raising the accessibility of substances that help with tissue repair
restraining functions that are nonessential in a life-threatening situation
altering immune system response
dampening the reproductive system and growth process
affecting parts of the brain that control fear, motivation, and mood
All this helps you deal more effectively with a high-stress situation. It’s a normal process and crucial to human survival.

But if your cortisol levels stay high for too long, it has a negative impact on your health. It can contribute to:
weight gain
high blood pressure
sleep problems
lack of energy
type 2 diabetes
osteoporosis
mental cloudiness (brain fog) and memory problems
a weakened immune system, leaving you more vulnerable to infections

Types of stress
There are several types of stress, including:
acute stress
episodic acute stress
chronic stress
Acute stress
Acute stress happens to everyone. It’s the body’s immediate reaction to a new and challenging situation. It’s the kind of stress you might feel when you narrowly escape a car accident.

Acute stress can also come out of something that you actually enjoy. It’s the somewhat-frightening, yet thrilling feeling you get on a roller coaster or when skiing down a steep mountain slope.

These incidents of acute stress don’t normally do you any harm. They might even be good for you. Stressful situations give your body and brain practice in developing the best response to future stressful situations.

Once the danger passes, your body systems should return to normal.

Severe acute stress is a different story. This kind of stress, such as when you’ve faced a life-threatening situation, can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other mental health problems.

Episodic acute stress
Episodic acute stress is when you have frequent episodes of acute stress.
This might happen if you’re often anxious and worried about things you suspect may happen. You might feel that your life is chaotic and you seemingly go from one crisis to the next.

Certain professions, such as law enforcement or firefighters, might also lead to frequent high-stress situations.
As with severe acute stress, episodic acute stress can affect your physical health and mental well-being.

Chronic stress
When you have high-stress levels for an extended period of time, you have chronic stress. Long-term stress like this can have a negative impact on your health. It may contribute to:

anxiety
cardiovascular disease
depression
high blood pressure
a weakened immune systems

Chronic stress can also lead to frequent ailments such as headaches, an upset stomach, and sleep difficulties. Gaining insights into the different types of stress and how to recognize them may help.
Causes of stress
Some typical causes of acute or chronic stress include:

living through a natural or manmade disaster
living with chronic illness
surviving a life-threatening accident or illness
being the victim of a crime
experiencing familial stressors such as:
an abusive relationship
an unhappy marriage
prolonged divorce proceedings
child custody issues
caregiving for a loved one with a chronic illness like dementia
living in poverty or being homeless

working in a dangerous profession
having little work-life balance, working long hours, or having a job you hate
military deployment

There’s no end to the things that can cause a person stress because they’re as varied as people are.
Whatever the cause, the effect on the body can be serious if left unmanaged. Explore other personal, emotional, and traumatic causes of stress.

Symptoms of stress
Just as we each have different things that stress us out, our symptoms can also be different.

Although you’re unlikely to have them all, here are some things you may experience if you’re under stress:
chronic pain
insomnia and other sleep problems
lower sex drive
digestive problems
eating too much or too little
difficulty concentrating and making decisions
fatigue
You might feel overwhelmed, irritable, or fearful. Whether you’re aware of it or not, you may be drinking or smoking more than you used to. Get a better understanding of the signs and symptoms of too much stress.

Stress headache
Stress headaches, also known as tension headaches, are due to tense muscles in the head, face, and neck. Some of the symptoms of a stress headache are:
mild to moderate dull head pain
a band of pressure around your forehead
tenderness of the scalp and forehead
Many things can trigger a tension headache. But those tight muscles could be due to emotional stress or anxiety. Learn more about the triggers and remedies for stress headaches.

Stress ulcer
A stomach ulcer — a type of peptic ulcer — is a sore on the lining of your stomach that’s caused by:
infection with helicobacter pylori (H. pylori)
long-term use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
rare cancers and tumors
Research into how physical stress interacts with the immune system is ongoing. It’s thought that physical stress may affect how you heal from an ulcer. Physical stress can be due to:

trauma or injury to the brain or central nervous system
serious long-term illness or injury
a surgical procedure
In turn, the heartburn and pain of a stomach ulcer can lead to emotional stress. Find out more about the relationship between stress and ulcers.

Stress eating
Some people react to stress by eating, even if they’re not hungry. If you find yourself eating without thinking, binging in the middle of the night, or generally eating way more than you used to, you might be stress eating.

When you stress eat, you take in a lot more calories than you need and you’re probably not choosing the healthiest foods. This can lead to rapid weight gain and a host of health problems. And it does nothing to resolve your stress.

If you’re eating to relieve stress, it’s time to find other coping mechanisms. Check out some tips to help you stop eating late at night.

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