Published:
April 2, 2021
Last Updated:
April 5, 2021

Reframing Stress: How Stress Manifests Physiologically and How to Manage It

Stress, stress, and more stress

Whether you’re a student, business owner, caregiver, or parent, one thing is certain: Stress is everywhere, and it affects everyone. Since we can’t escape stress, it’s imperative we learn how to exist without it taking over our lives.

The American Psychological Association defines stress as “the physiological or psychological response to internal or external stressors.” We experience stress when the natural flow of daily life is disrupted by stressors in the form of one or more events we cannot control. These stressors ignite responses that can make us feel overwhelmed, irritable, and anxious.

Psychological responses to stress occur cognitively and emotionally but can also dangerously impact our biology and take a toll on our bodies. When the body is under stress, the consistent and ongoing increase in heart rate and elevated stress hormones can increase the risk for hypertension, heart attack, or stroke. These responses are woven together like a tightly knit fabric. Understanding how stress impacts the mind-body expression holistically helps explain how our internal mechanism is short-circuited by external circumstances.

The stress response

Our stress response is a survival mechanism that has primed humans to respond to urgent situations for over 10,000 years. If our neolithic ancestors didn’t have this survival mechanism, humans would have been wiped out by predators long ago. The body responds to threats by utilizing the fight, flight, or freeze mechanism, which allowed our ancestors to escape being eaten.

Activation of this fear center triggers several bodily responses that prepare our bodies to flee, freeze, or fight. Some physical signs that this fight-or-flight response has kicked in are dilated pupils (to allow for better vision), pale skin (from blood being pulled into vital organs), increased heart rate and breathing (to provide the body with more energy and oxygen), and trembling or shaking (to tense muscles for action).

When these symptoms occur occasionally, your body will return to its normal state without long-term harm. However, constantly high stress levels wreak havoc on other important functions of the body, like the respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous, and reproductive systems.

Physical and mental signs and symptoms of stress

Stress affects all systems of the body. While small amounts of stress are natural, high amounts or prolonged periods of stress can be dangerous for your physical and mental health. Physical and mental signs and symptoms of stress can include:

  • Dry mouth
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Pounding heart
  • Stomachache
  • Headache
  • Excessive sweating
  • Frequent urination
  • Tense muscles
  • Mood swings
  • Problems with concentration
  • Insomnia
  • Extreme fatigue

Top causes of stress

Although there are an infinite number of triggers for the stress response, here are some of the top causes of stress in the modern world:

  • Job pressure – workplace conflicts, challenging bosses, burnout
  • Money – loss of job, reduced income, medical expenses, debt
  • Health – health crises, chronic or terminal illnesses
  • Relationships – divorce, death of a spouse, arguments with friends, loneliness
  • Poor nutrition – inadequate nutrition, caffeine, processed foods, refined sugars
  • Media overload – TV, radio, Internet, email, social media
  • Sleep deprivation – inability to release adrenaline or stress hormones

Three types of stress and how the body responds

1. Acute stress

Acute stress occurs during very short periods and is most commonly caused by situational pressures we encounter. We can experience acute stress when taking an exam, getting stuck in traffic, or going on a blind date. Acute stress can also be experienced alongside – or confused with – excitement, such as the adrenaline rush felt by skydiving or riding a roller coaster.

Physiological symptoms:

  • Emotional distress
  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Acute period of depression

2. Episodic stress

Suffering from acute stress too frequently is called episodic stress. Episodic stress occurs on a regular basis, or with some frequency. This type of stress is common in situations related to work, financial difficulties, or a family crisis.

Physiological symptoms:

  • Longer periods of intermittent depression, anxiety disorders, and emotional distress
  • Ceaseless worrying
  • Persistent physical symptoms similar to those found in acute stress
  • Coronary heart disease or other heart problems

3. Chronic stress

Chronic stress is the most severe form of stress you can experience. When an internal or external stress event is ongoing, it can impact biological, cognitive, and emotional responses in extremely unhealthy and dangerous ways. Chronic stress can be debilitating, life-threatening, or result in suicide.

Chronic stress can be brought on by long-term exposure to stressors, such as an unhappy marriage, dysfunctional family, abusive relationship, unfulfilling job, the stress of poverty, or war. Someone with chronic stress is usually on high alert, has difficulty concentrating or relaxing, and can be extremely irritable or hostile. If not addressed, chronic stress can lead to severe depression and anxiety disorders.

Physiological symptoms:

  • Headaches
  • Digestive disorders
  • Insomnia or nightmares
  • Depression
  • Tightness in the chest

Managing stress

Human existence previously relied on the stress response system for survival from predators, but how does this system serve us now? In many cases, instead of helping us survive, stress is actually having a negative effect on our bodies. How do we manage stress so it doesn’t wreak havoc on our mental and physical health?

The definition of stress is not universally experienced, or felt. Stress is based on perception. For example, the modern belief that “a busy life is a good life” may need to be challenged. Wearing the “busy badge” often has consequences that are detrimental to health and well-being, yet many people value signs of stress as signals that their lives are productive. If we work on shifting our perceptions, perhaps stress can become more manageable.

Seven ways to manage stress

1. Invest in your mental wellness.

If life feels like you’re on a hamster wheel trying to ward off stress, consider working with a mental health practitioner or holistic Health Coach to prioritize your values and establish more balance in your life. Take the opportunity to challenge old beliefs, create healthy boundaries, and make changes that lead to healthy habits and an improved diet and lifestyle.

2. Take your power back.

Give yourself permission to create space and reflect on how to regain balance in your life. Perhaps delegating responsibilities at work or seeking support from your inner circle can help relieve your load. Learning how to establish healthy boundaries can help you define realistic limitations about how you want to spend your time and energy.

3. Connect with nature.

Get outside as often as possible. Visit a park, take off your shoes and socks, and walk on the grass. Feel the energy of the earth under your feet. Visit an arboretum or plant a small garden. Find a quiet creek, lake, or ocean and enjoy the sensory experiences around you. The sound of water, birds, and wind can increase your nervous system’s response, which has a calming effect on the body’s heart rate and slows breathing.

4. Practice self-care.

Give your nervous system the gift of relaxation and include regular massages or facials in your budget. Touch deprivation can cause a weakened immune system, raised stress levels, and impaired sleep. Touch is the earliest sensory system to develop in all animal species. Don’t deny yourself one of the most important and necessary components to maintaining wellness and connection.

5. Get moving.

Reports from Harvard Medical School suggest regular aerobic exercise can reduce anxiety by making your brain’s fight-or-flight system less reactive. When anxious people are exposed to physiological changes they fear, such as a rapid heartbeat, through regular aerobic exercise, they can develop a tolerance for such symptoms.

Meditative movement alleviates symptoms of depression. In this type of movement, participants pay close attention to their bodily sensations (such as subtle changes in heart rate or breathing), position in space, and gut feelings as they move. Qigong, tai chi, and some forms of yoga are all helpful for this. For example, frequent yoga practice can reduce the severity of symptoms in post-traumatic stress disorder to the point that some people no longer meet the criteria for this diagnosis.

6. Use music and sound to heal.

Listening to relaxing music can turn off the stress response. Choose music that elevates your mood, and experiment with other melodic or instrumental music, such as Celtic or classical music, which can help lower blood pressure, engage your empathetic response, and improve sleep.

Reduce symptoms of stress by listening to Tibetan singing bowls. Typically used in yoga or meditation classes, the sound produced by singing bowls generates energy or electricity. This energy relays information to your cells and can be used to balance your adrenal system, which helps to reduce symptoms of stress.

7. Connect with your faith.

If you struggle with disconnection or feel like life is spinning out of control, try reclaiming your connection to your higher power, creator, God, or Goddess – whatever makes you feel connected to your inner light. Practice breath work or find your way back to meditation and reflection. By setting an intention to relax and acknowledge the blessings in your life, gratitude can help you feel centered and grounded while minimizing anxiety and stress from your daily experience.

Reducing stress as much as possible

Stress can be a normal human response to events in your life, but prolonged or extreme stress can severely impact your health. Taking steps to prevent and combat stress is easier than you think, and getting into a routine to recognize stressors when you see them can keep your life as stress-free as possible.

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Author Biography
Sandra Emmanouilides, MSW, HHC, LE
,
IIN Content Writer
Sandra Emmanouilides, MSW, HHC, LE, is a Somatic Psychotherapist, Integrative Nutrition & Mental Wellness Coach, and a Licensed Esthetician. She works as an Addictions Counselor for a sober living community, in Media, PA...
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