In today’s fast-paced world, it often feels like “stress” is synonymous with “life.” Whether it’s the boss imposing another deadline or concerns about family health and financial well-being, the transition from a leisurely state to overwhelming stress can make clear thinking and effective work a daunting task.
“Stress is increasingly becoming a part of everyday life,” says Dr. Alka Gupta, Chief Medical Officer and Co-Founder of Bluerock Care in Washington, D.C. Merely checking the news on your phone can accelerate your heartbeat, and it’s not in a good way.
Why do we always feel heavily stressed?
According to the American Psychological Association’s (APA) 2022 Annual Review of the Stress in America survey, which involved 3,200 adults in the U.S., major stressors cited by Americans come from various directions: financial pressure from inflation, rising crime and violence, and a loss of confidence in the government amidst ongoing political divisions. Our wireless culture also contributes to more people feeling out of control for longer periods. “People are working longer hours because of digital devices,” says Dr. Gupta. “This means it’s harder to find time to exercise, relax, or spend quality time with loved ones—things that contribute to stress relief.”
How much stress is unhealthy?
A bit of stress can actually be a good thing. In fact, the body and brain’s normal response to everyday stressors is what enables us to cope with routine challenges, such as being awakened by an alarm in the morning, getting stuck in traffic, or encountering a birthday surprise at home.
How stress helps us survive
Stress can also alert you to the fact that you are in danger at the right time. “This is crucial for your survival as a human being,” says Dr. Jennifer Haden Haythe, Director of Cardiac Obstetric Medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center. This healthy alertness relies to some extent on the body’s fight-or-flight response: when something tense happens, stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline flow through your body, says Dr. Haythe, increasing your energy and allowing you to rescue a loved one from a burning car before realizing you’re hurt.
When stress becomes unhealthy
But when stress persists or when you find yourself having oversized reactions to minor stressors, that’s when stress may not be as beneficial and can negatively affect your emotional, cognitive, and physical health, says Dr. Gupta. Prolonged stress may even lead to serious illnesses such as heart disease, weakened immune system, or changes in the brain.
However, while it’s not possible to completely eliminate stress, each of us can learn coping strategies to help manage its impact. Whether it’s listening to soothing music, applying your favorite calming essential oil at pulse points before bedtime, or closing your eyes for a sensory experience, there are ways to set stress aside when needed. Here’s what you need to know to calm your nervous system, maintain the right perspective on stressful events, and continue thriving in life.
What is stress?
Defining stress is trickier than you might imagine. While some events are universally considered stressful (such as a potential serious illness, divorce, or a natural disaster), experts say that most stress is actually in the eye of the beholder: something one person finds stressful may be inconsequential to another.
“It has more to do with your adaptability and coping ability than with the specific stressor,” says Dr. Michelle Dossett, researcher at Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine in Boston, Massachusetts.
Distinguishing stress from anxiety
The terms “stress” and “anxiety” are often used interchangeably. Although symptoms may feel similar, they are psychologically distinct. “Sometimes anxiety is caused by a tense situation; they often go hand in hand,” says Dr. Dossett. “But it’s also possible to feel stressed without having anxiety.”
So, where’s the difference? “Anxiety is more related to persistent worry or rumination, even when nothing significant is happening,” she explains. Sometimes, anxiety may be part of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), a syndrome involving uncontrollable worries and physiological stress signs, such as feeling tense or having trouble sleeping. You might experience GAD even when the outside world is calm. On the other hand, stress tends to be a reaction to a specific situation or event, like giving a speech in front of a crowd, says Dr. Gupta.
Most common stressors
Certain events are natural stressors (e.g., pandemics, traumatic accidents, a cancer diagnosis, or a major relocation). As for other stressors in daily life, “It’s really about interpretation,” says Dr. Gupta. “What we see in patients is that when an event occurs, based on their past experiences, they react with a certain level of stress and discomfort or keep their cool.”
Stress and politics, health, and violence
Research indicates that politics is also a major source of stress (no surprise there). The 2022 APA survey found that 64% of Americans feel their rights are under attack. Over three-quarters of adults (76%) say stress has a significant impact on their health, and about the same percentage (73%) cite mass shootings as a major stressor, up from 62% in 2018.
The role of stress hormones
“Stress can come from a variety of sources, whether it’s relationship issues, real traumas, or dialogues in your own mind,” says Dr. Dossett. “Whatever the cause, your brain has a specific pathway to process stressors, including the activation of the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal axis, followed by the release of cortisol and other hormones that affect every organ in your body.”
Stress also triggers the sympathetic nervous system, leading to the release of adrenaline and norepinephrine, chemicals involved in the same response when facing a real physiological threat. That’s why effective stress management is crucial—so you can reserve that full-armored response for situations that truly matter.
What it feels like to be stressed emotionally and physiologically
Stress impacts both the body and the brain. It can make thinking more difficult, leading to forgetfulness and scattered thoughts. If that’s not unpleasant enough, says Dr. Dossett, stress can also cause a host of physical symptoms, including increased heart rate, muscle tension, headaches, stomach discomfort, and insomnia.
Why stress makes you tired and increases alcohol intake
“Patients reporting stress often complain of feeling fatigued, with decreased efficiency at work,” says Dr. Gupta. Perhaps the most significant impact of stress is behavioral: when you feel stressed, you are more likely to adopt unhealthy habits, such as smoking, excessive drinking, overeating junk food, or skipping the gym, experts say. All these things can have a negative impact on your health, ultimately leading to—you guessed it: more stress.