Stress: How to Recognize Stress and Deal With It

Stress is normal, but too much can hurt your quality of life. Here are the symptoms of stress and how to deal with anxiety and stress.

stress concept with cactus and balloonRichard Drury/Getty Images

Stress affects every living thing, including pets, plants, and even the environment. Some stress is positive: Say you give a speech to a large crowd and get a standing ovation. The situation is stressful, but the outcome makes the whole experience worthwhile. But then there’s the constant worry of a difficult job, financial issues, or a pandemic: When stress persists, it can do damage to your brain and body.

What Is Stress?

There are physical and mental types of stress, but both indicate that the demands of a situation are exceeding your ability to cope. You might feel mental stress when your job demands seem unmanageable, for example. Your muscles and joints might be stressed by a boot camp-style workout. Certain people just “stress you out.”

The ill effects of stress are measured by a person’s response. Some enjoy a work challenge or a grueling exercise routine and aren’t particularly bothered by annoying people. Universal stressors such as loss and trauma negatively affect everyone. But why certain people bounce back quickly while others suffer long-term consequences is a source of ongoing research and speculation.

What isn’t in dispute is that most Americans feel stressed out, and it’s taking its toll on our health. According to the American Psychological Association’s 2019 Stress in America poll, external factors, including fear of mass shootings, concern about the cost of healthcare, and pressure at work are the most apparent causes. But many also report relationship, health, and sleep problems, media overload, and even a less-than-healthy diet as sources of stress in their lives.

The Symptoms of Stress

Most of us can relate to the causes of stress, but the signs can be pretty sneaky. Symptoms of stress can be physical or psychological—but often both. Common physical symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Upset stomach
  • Muscle tension
  • Change in appetite
  • Teeth grinding
  • Change in sex drive
  • Feeling dizzy

Common psychological symptoms include:

  • Irritability or anger
  • Feeling nervous
  • Lack of energy
  • Feeling as if you could cry

Stress is something most people endure alone, but it has a ripple effect. In surveys of people who have stress, more than half say it has a negative impact on their personal and professional life and causes conflict with others. One-quarter of people with stress say it alienates them from friends and family members and makes life more challenging than it should be.

stressed man sitting at desk trying to workWestend61/Getty Images

Tips for Managing Stress

One positive about stress? It can be managed with self-care, often for free or at a low cost. There are countless evidence-based tips and tools you can use to combat the negative effects of stress in healthy ways. Some include:

  • Try yoga and meditation. Sure, the blissed-out yogi or guru is a cliché, but it’s backed by science. Literally hundreds of studies have found that practicing yoga, mindfulness, or meditation, often in combination, can measurably reduce the symptoms of stress. If you’re too stressed out to walk into a class full of strangers in stretch pants, there are apps and free videos online that can get newbies started at home.
  • Exercise. Fitness may not be a cure, but it can help stressed out people feel much better. In fact, studies suggest those who exercise regularly report less stress compared with those who didn’t. Aerobic exercise seems to be the most beneficial, but any kind of movement is better than none. Best of all (unless you like spending money on a gym), walking, running, and doing yoga at home are all free.
  • Identify and eliminate stressors. Sounds too easy, right? But figuring out what’s really bothering you and how to diffuse it can be more challenging than you think. For example, say you feel anxious and get a stomachache when your in-laws come to visit. Is it possible to ask them to stay at a hotel or even offer to pay half of an Airbnb? That’s a toughie, but the benefits to your health might be worth it. As an alternative, could you plan to treat yourself to a spa day or a night out with friends after they leave, so you have something to look forward to? It’s not always possible to avoid or escape stress, but just trying to change your environment puts you in control, and that can make you feel better.
  • Get some sleep. A bad night’s sleep makes everything worse, especially stress. Losing sleep can affect your mood and your ability to think, and can eventually make you feel depressed. What works? You probably already know about skipping caffeine and trying meditation and exercise; here are 50 other easy ways to sleep better.
  • Limit social media. Admit it, watching Facebook images of your neighbor’s too-perfect family on their too-ideal vacation can be stressful. So can footage of global disasters you can’t do anything about. Feeling out of control is stressful, and social media doesn’t help. So do yourself a favor and curb your use.
  • Help others. Do you ever feel the need to get out of your own head? That’s a healthy impulse. Studies show that giving to others, including lending a hand to friends and family or volunteering your time to charity, can increase positive emotions and decrease stress. Just make sure the giving fits in with your lifestyle and doesn’t add to your stress.
  • Eat healthy. Do you “eat your feelings” during tough times? There’s a reason. Stress hormones can trigger fat and sugar cravings, but acting on them has long-term, negative consequences for your weight, mood, and overall health. A better diet will make you feel much stronger, physically and emotionally. Here are some of the best foods to fight stress.
  • Seek professional help. If you’ve tried to control your stress but can’t, see your doctor or a counselor or therapist who can help you take next steps.

group of woman practicing yoga and meditation outsideStígur Már Karlsson /Heimsmyndir/Getty Images

The Science of Stress

While there is a lot of research on stress, it’s hard to measure. A lot of what scientists know about stress comes from studying people diagnosed with stress-related conditions, specifically acute stress disorder (ASD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Both occur in people who have endured traumatic events such as combat or abuse. Their subsequent health issues—intrusive thoughts, avoidance, difficulty sleeping and eating, depression and anxiety, cardiovascular symptoms, and even suicide—inform much of what we know about how stress can affect the general population.

Here’s how the body responds to a stressful event. First, there’s a cascade of changes in the nervous, cardiovascular, endocrine, and immune systems that help you to run away or attack, aka the “fight or flight” response. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol flood the body. (In a combat zone, this is, well, not quite “healthy” but certainly adaptive. For everyone else, it can be problematic.)

Second, energy is redirected to areas that need it, especially muscles. This is why, for example, a woman who sees a child pinned under a car can find the strength to lift it up, or someone else can endure deadly a water temperature to save a pet who fell through the ice.

Severe stress also causes immune system cells to overreact or “dysregulate,” meaning migrate to random areas of the body. Blood pressure increases, and some blood vessels dilate while others contract. (These responses eventually cause widespread cardiovascular problems.) Digestion slows way down, which is why it’s often hard to eat or go to the bathroom when you’re feeling extremely stressed out.

Bottom line: Science shows stress to be neither hero or villain. It can save your life, and may be responsible many extraordinary acts of strength and courage. Long-term, it can wear you down, physically and emotionally, and reduce the quality of your life. How you manage it can determine its power over you.

How Stress Can Make You Sick

Beyond the social and psychological, stress takes a toll on the body that can linger for years and even decades. Chronic stress can trigger or worsen many diseases and conditions. These are some of the most significant health problems related to stress:

  • Cardiovascular disease. You know that Type A stereotype who blows his top at every little thing, turns red, clutches his chest, and collapses from a heart attack? It’s based on real evidence. People with chronic stress really do have higher risks for and rates of heart-related issues, including high cholesterol, hypertension, and events like stroke and heart attacks.
  • Diabetes. Stress makes diabetes symptoms worse because it stimulates the release of hormones that can result in higher blood sugar levels. That’s fine for a healthy person, but those with diabetes don’t produce enough insulin (or any) to handle the excess. (Or in the case of type 2, insulin resistance causes the hormone to lose its ability to lower blood sugar.) If you have diabetes, reducing stress in your life can help even out your blood sugar and boost your overall health.
  • Obesity. Yep, stress is fattening, at least for some people. It releases cortisol, a hormone that increases appetite (especially for junk food) and redistributes fat from other parts of your body to your belly. That, in turn, increases the risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes, making stress a triple threat to your metabolism.
  • Mental health issues. A huge body of research concludes that stress is both a cause and consequences of depression, anxiety, and other psychological conditions. So much so that treatment of most mental health disorders starts with stress reduction.
  • Autoimmune conditions. Health issues such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus are all negatively impacted by stress, which can tamp down or disrupt an already compromised immune system.

There are many other health issues caused by or linked to stress, including sleep disorders, gastrointestinal issues, eating disorders, smoking, and substance use and abuse. Stressed out people are even more likely get divorced and to be involved in traffic accidents. Reducing stress can be one of the best gifts you can give to yourself, now and in the future.

Personal Stories

Stories of people living with chronic stress are everywhere because so is stress. Here are some that show what it’s like to live with this issue.

Helpful Products for Dealing With Stress

If you need help dealing with stress, there are a number of products you can consider from stress-relieving toys to self-care products.

Additional Resources

If you need more help with coping with stress, here are some additional resources.

If you or someone you know has had thoughts of self-harm or suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), which provides 24/7, free, confidential support for people in distress. 

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Amy O'Connor
Amy O'Connor is Editor in Chief of Healthination.com, a leading developer of premium video and other content. She also teaches journalism at New York University and the City University of New York.