Woman sitting at desk with head in hands, stressedStress is often defined as a bodily response to the demands of life. But there are also emotional and mental aspects of stress. It is experienced as thoughts and feelings as well as in the body. Another way to define stress could be as an internal and conditioned response to external pressures. 

Mental health professionals often help people reduce and manage their stress. They can also help people work through other mental health issues that have developed while coping with high levels of stress over a period of time.

What Is Stress?

The American Institute of Stress calls stress “America’s leading health problem.” In many cases, the stress Americans experience today is a response to psychological threats. Some of these threats might be losing a job or looking for employment, the death of a loved one, or relationship issues. Any of these can occur more than once in the course of a life.

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Stress evolved in the form of a fight or flight response. This response was a reaction to physical threats on one’s life. The fight or flight response causes the physical aspects of stress, which appear when adrenaline and cortisol are released into the bloodstream. These hormones cause increased blood flow, clotting, and elevated heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar.

The stress response is immediate and uncontrollable. Someone with high stress levels may experience these physical aspects several times throughout the day. Consistently high levels of stress can cause people to develop conditions such as hypertension, stroke, diabetes, chronic pain, and heart attacks.

Symptoms of Stress

Stress can have physical, mental, and emotional symptoms. Stress affects people on different levels. It can help to identify which parts of ourselves are being affected by stress. Stress can affect people on one level, such as only mentally, or on multiple levels, such as both physically and emotionally. 

Physical symptoms of stress include:

  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Fatigue
  • Stomach aches
  • Body pain
  • Acne or breakouts
  • Digestive issues

Mental symptoms of stress include:

Emotional symptoms of stress include:

If you are worried about how any of these symptoms are affecting you, it is okay to reach out for help. Talking with a trusted therapist or doctor about your stress can help you learn how to manage it.

What Causes Stress?

Stress is not always caused by a negative event. Some positive life experiences can be just as stress-inducing as negative ones. 

The Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory indexes common stressful events and uses a numerical value to rank them. It uses these values to determine a person’s potential for becoming ill as a result of stress. Some common stressors in life, many of which appear on the stress inventory, include:

  • Losing a job or starting a new job
  • Getting divorced or going through a breakup
  • Getting married
  • Being discriminated against
  • Experiencing a change in financial status
  • Following the news or politics
  • Having a child
  • Moving
  • Beginning or ending school
  • Experiencing a loss
  • Being diagnosed with a serious illness

For many people, these events are normal parts of life. Not everyone experiences a divorce, marriage, or having a child. But many will experience discrimination, lose a job, go through a breakup, or experience another major or minor event. 

For most people, stress is a part of life that is not going anywhere. But it may be easier to manage in smaller amounts, especially when other factors help mitigate it. A marriage, for example, is generally considered to be a happy event. Though it can be stressful to plan and prepare for the ceremony, the excitement experienced by the couple may help reduce the physical and mental effects of their stress.

Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms for Stress

People may also develop methods for coping with stress. A coping mechanism is a response that develops over time to help someone deal with an overwhelming external force, like stress. Some coping mechanisms work as healthy tools for managing stress. Many others are unhealthy and can magnify the negative effects of stress instead of reducing them. 

A few examples of potentially harmful coping mechanisms for stress include:

  • Drinking alcohol to excess
  • Smoking
  • Emotional eating
  • Illicit drug use
  • Gambling
  • Shopping
  • Self-harm

Therapy can help people identify an unhealthy coping mechanism for stress and develop a healthy one to use instead. If a person uses an unhealthy coping mechanism for dealing with long-term stress, they can end up with a secondary mental health issue. 

Individuals may start using an unhealthy coping mechanism to lessen physical, mental, or emotional pain caused by stress. However, continued self-medication or self-soothing using the method may then lead to a reliance on it for coping with stress. In the case of addiction, this can lead to more stressful life events, like physical illness or unemployment. Other unhealthy coping mechanisms may cause people to develop mental health issues as a result of feeling hopeless, isolated, or ashamed.

How Stress Affects Physical and Mental Health

Few people will deny they have been stressed at least once in their life. But for many, stress can be ongoing and unbearable. Chronic stress can contribute to numerous mental health and physical health issues. Research has linked high stress levels to:

  • Insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Feeling more or less hungry than usual
  • Self-soothing with drugs or alcohol
  • Changes in mood or mental health
  • Less productivity and enjoyment at work
  • Intimacy problems
  • Migraine headaches
  • Chronic pain
  • Anger issues
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Loss of enjoyment in social activities
  • Heart attack and stroke

When these complaints occur as a result of stress, they may clear up when the stressful situation is resolved. But they can also become serious if present long-term. Treatment from a doctor or mental health professional may be necessary, especially if stress persists.


  1. Chronic stress puts your health at risk. (2016, April 21). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037?pg=1 
  2. Fact sheet on stress. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/stress/index.shtml
  3. Scott, E. (2018, January 31). Unhealthy responses to stress and common bad habits. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/unhealthy-responses-to-stress-bad-habits-to-avoid-3145260 
  4. Stress: America's #1 health problem. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.stress.org/americas-1-health-problem