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Stress is a physical, emotional, and cognitive response to pressure you feel in your life or in a specific situation. It happens when you perceive the environment or situation as potentially threatening (i.e., “I might lose my job if I do not finish this project”).
Your thoughts may get hyper-focused on the threat, causing fear. You may have a racing heart, muscle tension, stomach pain, start to sweat, and feel irritable and fearful.
Short bursts of stress are normal and give you information about the danger of the environment. But chronic stress takes a physical toll on your body and creates long-term health issues like heart problems, weight gain, and other medical conditions.
Plus, it just doesn’t feel good. It can make you irritable and cranky, which can interfere with your relationships.
What is the difference between stress and anxiety?
Stress is often confused with anxiety, but there’s a difference. Stress is a normal response if it is a reaction to a specific event, and you can get back to your usual state of calmness when the trigger is gone.
Anxiety is when the trigger, such as a work deadline, goes away but the physical responses, such as increased heart rate and difficulty thinking, continue. Anxiety is an exaggerated response to a perceived threat.
In our culture, people talk about “being stressed” as a badge of honor. Although it is normal to experience some stress day to day, chronic stress is a predictor of poor long-term health outcomes. It feels horrible and needs to be taken seriously. —Dr. Bobbi Wegner
- Chest tightness
- Rapid breathing
- Shortness of breath
- Increased heart rate
- Tingling in your fingers
- Cold, clammy hands
- Upset stomach
- Throat tightness
- Change in sleep—sleeping too much or too little
- Change in appetite—eating too much or too little
- Change in energy—low energy or increased energy
- Feeling “pressure”
- Difficulty with concentration—easily distracted or hyper-focused on the task at hand
- Memory issues
- Feeling cognitively “overloaded”
3 types of stress
1. Acute stress
This is a temporary response to an event and your body easily gets back to your relaxed state. Some things that can trigger it are:
- A work deadline
- Anticipation of a public speaking event
- Running late to a special event
Acute stress can be distressing (causing fear and panic) or motivating (it pushes you to complete a task). It is generally thought of as a healthy, normal response to life events.
In fact, it can protect you. It is your internal alarm system and is supposed to ring when there’s a threat and to stop ringing when the threat is gone.
People are attached to stress because they think they will not be productive without it. The reality is that when people manage their stress, they are often more productive, have better energy, and are more able to get their work done efficiently. —Dr. Wegner
2. Episodic acute stress
If you are often overcommitted, late to events, and experience some level of stress every day, you have episodic acute stress. It is a way of life. You feel stress regularly but you are also able to return to a relaxed and calm baseline throughout the day.
Episodic acute stress can be distressing or motivating. It’s important to make lifestyle changes, improve your time management, slow down, and build in more downtime.
Although we often do not have the flexibility to change the demands of life, we have the ability to change how we think about them.
One way to manage episodic acute stress is to name what you can change in your life (and reduce those stressors), and learn to accept what you cannot. The way we think about stressors affects how we physically and emotionally feel in response to them.
3. Chronic stress
Chronic stress is an ongoing, persistent, and harmful feeling of tension. It usually stems from something significant and constant, like a bad marriage or lack of money. Triggers include:
- Poor social circumstances
- Inability to control your environment
Chronic stress is usually experienced as distressing rather than motivating. It’s important to see your doctor or mental health professional to understand your sources of stress, and how to reduce it and cope with it better. Some health effects of stress include:
- Mental health conditions like depression
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Weight gain
- Digestive issues
When to call the doctor
- Stress is interfering with your life.
- You often feel tension and have difficulty relaxing.
- You have physical symptoms, such as heart palpitations and sleep disruption.
- You notice emotional symptoms, such as irritability, fear, and a general sense of tension.
- You notice cognitive symptoms, such as change in concentration and memory issues.
Two important questions to ask your doctors: How do you know I have stress rather than anxiety or another medical condition—like heart disease or hyperthyroidism? And how do I treat stress? —Dr. Wegner
Should I go to the ER?
Some people with stress may experience heart palpitations, which can be confused with a heart attack. If you are worried that you are having a heart attack, call 911 or go to the ER.
Chronic stress is one of the strongest predictors of poor long-term health. The good news is that it’s treatable with lifestyle changes, such as learning coping skills, talk therapy, practicing basic relaxation techniques, and through better self-care.
- Time management skills
- Getting enough sleep
- Eating well
- Talking with others about your stress
- Limited caffeine
- Limited alcohol
- Planned downtime
- Social support
Other treatment options
- Talk therapy to understand the root cause of stress and learn coping skills
- Biofeedback. You wear electrodes connecting you to a computer, which allows you to see your body’s stress response, and learn relaxation skills to reduce your tension.
- Meditation and Relaxation Training like clinical hypnosis (a guided deep relaxation exercise)
- Anti-anxiety medication: There are different types that serve different needs, but antidepressants like SSRIs are often recommended. Other types include benzodiazepines (but they can be addictive), buspirone, and beta-blockers. Talk to your doctor about the best option.
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