What exactly is stress, and what are the effects it can have on the body?

Stress is a part of our lives. Whether we like it or not, we all undergo some form of stress in our lifetime. But what exactly is stress, and what are the effects it can have on the body?

Stress; image source: pexels.com

In this article, we explore stress and discuss the different symptoms and treatment strategies in managing this condition.

Definition of stress
Emotional symptoms
Physical symptoms
Consequences of stress
Are you at risk?
Managining stress

Defining stress

Stress is a natural response of an individual to a particular situation, stimulus or change. Stress is an emotional, mental, physical and behavioral response of an individual to potentially harmful stress factors (stressors). Stressor is anything that can trigger stress response (for example bad news, increased workload, being under time pressure, physical damage to the body,…).

Stress causes temporary biochemical changes in your body at different levels as a result of secretion of stress hormones (epinephrine, norepinephrine, cortisol). Stress occurs in all age groups.

The problem with stress

Not all stress is bad, though it seems to affect us more when the trigger is a worrying one. Stress can have positive effects as well. For example, some individuals who are under stress tend to perform significantly better, mostly because they are able to channel this as a positive energy.

Some people even consider stress to be a stimulus to work harder or to excite themselves. However, stress can only be a positive thing if it lasts for a short period of time.

Stress that lasts for prolonged periods of time can have detrimental effects on an individual’s well being, and can lead to clinical conditions such as depression and physical fatigue. Over-stressing oneself can be harmful as well.

Symptoms of stress

People under stress undergo a variety of different changes that can lead to a plethora of symptoms. Below is a brief description of some of the symptoms that can occur.

Emotional symptoms

Patients under stress can experience a range of different psychological symptoms. Common ones include a degree of anxiety and panic, which can in turn cause an increase in heart rate (experienced by some as palpitations), chest pain, increased rate of breathing, dizziness and lightheadedness and even nausea.

woman under stress

If left unchecked, these symptoms can worsen and can lead to low mood and apathy, meaning that patients are constantly worried and stressed to a point where they do not enjoy life at all. Instead, they are hit with depression and this can lead to a significant change in their quality of life.

Family members who see a loved one under stress may also notice a change in their behavior. For example, patients may become rather withdrawn and secluded, choosing not to mingle with other people even at social events and family get-togethers.

Some tend to break down in tears at small issues as well. This however is seen only in extreme cases of stress.

Physical symptoms

Patients under stress tend to be prone to developing high blood pressure and heart disease. Studies have shown that patients who have a ‘type A’ personality i.e. ones who are constantly stressed are at a higher risk of developing high blood pressure.

High blood pressure is a risk factor in the development of heart disease and stroke. Patients under stress tend to sweat a lot as well, and can feel physically unwell. It is not uncommon for patients to experience various neurological symptoms as well such as headache and blurred vision as well.

Consequences of stress

There are short-term or occasional stress and long-term or chronic stress. Short-term stress usually has positive impact: it stimulates the formation of new memories, improves brain activity (creative thinking), gives motivation to work, etc. Short term stress can sometimes be referred to as positive stress.

Prolonged or repeated and / or intense stress without adequate rest is very tiring and leads to exhaustion. Intense stress is usually referred to as negative stress.

Positive stress is not harmful whereas negative stress can lead to disease. Particularly harmful to health is an intense chronic stress.

Below are the most common consequences of prolonged and / or intense chronic stress.

  • Emotional tension and irritability,
  • difficulty concentrating, slow and rigid thinking, bad memory and increased forgetfulness,
  • reduced ability to work,
  • difficulty in making decisions,
  • reduced creativity,
  • feelings of inferiority,
  • pessimistic thinking,
  • lack of energy, constant fatigue, exhaustion,
  • sleep problems,
  • increased heart rate, chest pain or problems with heart,
  • headaches, stomach pain, back pain, muscle pain,
  • nausea, dizziness, slower digestion,
  • change in appetite (more often appetite is increased),
  • change in style of communication (overly critical approach),
  • lack of will and interest,
  • overeating, increased use of stimulants (coffee, nicotine), sedatives and painkillers,
  • inability to complete tasks,
  • carelessness at work,
  • a feeling of uselessness, avoiding society and escape into solitude,
  • reduced self health care, nutrition and hygiene.

Who is at risk of developing stress?

There is no clear way to find out who is at risk of developing stress. To some extent, it does depend upon how an individual reacts to a situation. Every person will have some form of stress in their lives – whether or not it affects them significantly depends on how they handle it and how they cope with the situation.

Managing stress

Stress management involves a variety of different strategies. First and foremost, relaxation therapy seems to help patients. This can be achieved by taking a break from regular work, having a hobby that is distracting, regular exercise, yoga and even breathing exercises.

Some individuals like to participate in some form of sporting activities to take their mind off stress. Exercise is known to produce endorphins, which can result in a ‘high’ that elevates the mood and helps manage stress a lot better.

Another way to manage stress is to review the situation that is causing the stress and try and work out if there is a solution to the problem. Taking a step back and just keeping a relaxed state of mind can sometimes help. Coming up with a practical solution to the problem and them implementing it can help get rid of the stressful triggers.

When it comes to health related stresses, certain steps can be taken that can either prevent this or treat them. For example, patients who suffer from obesity can be rather stressed due to their weight, and taking steps to reduce weight can reduce the stress of them possibly developing heart disease in the future.

Stress can have an impact on sleep patterns as well. Many complain that they cannot sleep, and there is no doubt this will have a negative impact on their work performance and day to day life. In such situations, it is worthwhile getting professional help and possibly medication such as sleeping pills to help the patient sleep.

Seeking expert help is always recommended. Some patients find it very difficult to manage stress alone and despite taking the above listed and discussed methods they may struggle to keep going.

In such situations, a healthcare professional such as a psychiatrist or psychologist can devise a plan of action that can help the patient get over their stress. This takes time of course, but in the long run can be extremely useful to the patient.


Stress is a well recognized condition that affects millions of individuals across the globe. It can be positive for some, but mostly has a negative impact on the person. It can present in a variety of different ways, encompassing physical, behavioural and emotional symptoms.

Treatments usually include self management strategies, though in extreme cases professional help from a doctor is invaluable.

Keywords: stress, anti stress, stress symptoms, how to prevent stress, risks of stress, consequences, chronic stress



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