The Different Types Of Stress And How They Can Affect You
From morning traffic to an upcoming work deadline, there are many commonplace sources of stress. We’ve all experienced some level of stress, but knowing what type of stress you’re experiencing is important. Day-to-day stress is normal, and in some cases, it can even be beneficial. However, overwhelming, long-term, chronic stress can have detrimental effects on your physical, mental, and emotional health.
Being able to identify the differences between good stress and bad stress, knowing what the consequences of stress are, and having a plan of action when it comes on can make a big difference in your quality of life. There are many steps you can take to ensure that stress doesn’t take command of your life and health.
What is stress?
Stress is the body’s reaction to unexpected changes. When any change occurs, whether it’s positive (birth of a child, a promotion, planning a wedding) or negative (loss of a job, traffic, coming up short of a mortgage payment), your body reacts with physical, mental, and emotional responses. When you experience a stress-inducing situation, your hypothalamus (a small, but critical structure in the brain) sends out a signal to your body’s adrenal glands to release stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.
These hormones act to increase your heart rate and send blood to the areas of your body that would assist you in a fight or flight situation. Your heart, muscles, and other important organs are flooded with blood and oxygen. Under optimal circumstances, this response can help you think more quickly, solve problems, and even save your life. Once the threat is gone, the hypothalamus tells your body to return to normal. Unfortunately, if the system fails to return to normal, or if your stressful situation doesn’t end, then this heightened, hormone-driven stress response will continue, ultimately leading to negative consequences.
Good stress vs. bad stress
We’re all familiar with what stress feels like in our own individual ways. Some people experience tension headaches, digestive problems, and trouble sleeping, while others may feel their adrenaline rise and their minds race. But what exactly causes these symptoms and why are some forms of stress better than others?
Though we’ve been told in recent years that stress is a silent killer, there are actually times when stress can be good for us. Good stress often referred to as eustress, comes from happy excitement. Roller coaster rides and anticipation before a date can get your adrenaline going while leaving you feeling happy and excited. When experiencing this kind of stress, you’ll typically feel butterflies in your stomach, your palms will feel a bit sweaty, your face may be slightly flushed, and you may notice your heart rate increase.
Eustress (good stress) helps you stay motivated to accomplish goals and to overcome challenges. A good example is a stress you feel when taking a test or working on an important project at work. Without eustress, a person would likely become bored or even depressed. The key difference between good stress and bad stress is that positive stressors are identified as surmountable challenges or a fun novelty, whereas negative stressors are perceived as threats or dangers by the body.
Threats trigger a greater stress response and elicit higher levels of anxiety. In the event of negative stress, your body is preparing you for an attack and readies you for a fight or an escape. While that kind of response to an acute stressor may have saved our ancestors from short-lived attacks by saber tooth tigers, today’s daily stressors tend to stick around, leading to chronic stress.
Acute vs. chronic stress
Though stress can be categorized as either acute or chronic, acute stress is the most common form. It is typically short-term and easier to deal with. However, there are some people who may experience “episodic acute stress.” Typically, these individuals have chaotic lives and struggled to prioritize tasks or organize themselves. They may always be in a hurry, experience irritability, anxiety, and migraines, and be short-tempered. Still, this more extreme kind of acute stress can be more readily addressed and managed, when compared to chronic stress.
Chronic stress, on the other hand, is long-term and can wreak havoc on a person’s life and health. This is the stress that comes from grinding poverty, significant dysfunction in families, a bad marriage, living in a war zone, or a job that is unrelenting in its expectations and demands. Chronic stress may come from trauma or from never-ending daily problems. Whatever the source, the commonality shared between every chronically stressed person is that they feel that their miserable situation is insurmountable and inescapable. In other words, they feel hopeless, and that takes a significant toll on their emotional and physical health.
Physical ramifications of stress
Some amount of stress can actually be beneficial to your physical health. Little bursts of stress can help your immune system, improve your cardiovascular fortitude, and protect your body from infection. However, chronic stress can have disastrous ramifications for your long-term health.
If you’re experiencing chronic stress, your body is constantly flooded by stress hormones, leaving your muscles tense, your heart rate elevated, and your “non-essential” bodily systems compromised. Your digestive system is impacted and you may develop diarrhea, constipation, acid reflux, and even chronic pain. Overexposure to cortisol (a prime stress hormone) can cause thyroid problems and can also increase your odds for heart attack, stroke, hypertension, and inflammation. There has been some research that suggests that stress hormones can increase the speed with which cancer spreads by increasing the number of lymphatic vessels that drain from a tumor.
Mental health implications
On top of the physical effects, stress can impact a person’s mental health. Chronic stress is linked to macroscopic changes to the brain’s structure. It can lead to changes in how the networks of nerves connect as well as to a decrease in neuronal plasticity. Chronic stress depletes your mental and emotional reserves, making it harder to cope with other stressors. It can also lead to emotional and behavioral exhaustion and struggles that leave the sufferer open to problems including depression, anxiety, and even dementia later in life.
Addressing chronic stress
If you find that you’re unable to concentrate on tasks, get sick frequently, feel irritable and anxious, experience recurrent headaches, and find it difficult to sleep, you may be experiencing chronic stress. Fortunately, there are ways to combat this kind of stress. Regular physical activity is a good place to start. There is also evidence that practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, or yoga can help relieve stress and mitigate the effects of stress hormones on the body and mind.
Ultimately, if you’re not sure how to manage your stress or even what steps to take, making appointments with a physician and a therapist can be a strong first step in identifying ways to cope with the sources of your stress. A skilled therapist can help you to better understand the particular elements of your life that cause your stress and help you to get to a better place.
Chronic stress can lead to debilitating results. Noticing early signs of stress and seeking help can lead to improved mental and physical health and more connected and fulfilling relationships. Reaching out for support and learning and implementing stress management techniques ensures that you can continue to experience the benefits of eustress (the good type of stress) and prevent the negative consequences of chronic stress.