Stress: Causes, Types, Effects & Treatments

Reviewed by therapist.com Team

What Is Stress?

Stress is both a physical and mental response to change. Far from being avoidable, stress is a normal part of life. It occurs in response to both positive and negative life experiences.

Your body’s stress response is healthy and natural in short-term situations. It can help you in a number of ways, such as:

    • Staying awake and alert
    • Focusing your attention
    • Staying motivated
    • Avoiding imminent danger
    • Responding to threats
    • Prioritizing your safety and survival

It’s when these short-term reactions morph into long-term symptoms that stress can negatively affect your health both physically and mentally.

What Causes Stress?

Stress occurs when some external factor (known as a stressor) triggers the body’s stress response. A stressor is anything that causes stress or tension. When you encounter a stressor, your body releases stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, activating your body’s stress response.

The definition of a stressor varies depending on the individual. For example, public speaking may be a stressor for some people and a joy for others. Common types of stressors include:

    • Routine stressors: Stress is part of our daily lives. Making dinner, sitting in traffic, handling work or school obligations, cleaning the house, taking care of family or friends—all of these contribute to a general, underlying current of routine stress.
    • Disruptive stressors: Disruptive stress interrupts our daily routine and demands our attention. Unexpected illness or injury, divorce, bankruptcy, and job loss all qualify as disruptive stressors. Certain disruptive stressors may reach the level of traumatic stress, depending on the individual’s personal experience of the event.
    • Traumatic stressors: Trauma is an emotional response to a horrifying, stressful, or dangerous event, relationship, or circumstance that threatens or harms a person’s health and safety. Events that result in traumatic stress include war, assault, abuse, natural disasters, terrorism, severe car accidents, and more.

Types of Stress

Stress is commonly categorized in terms of its duration, manifestation, and valence (intrinsic “goodness” or aversiveness). How these various categories interact with one another can determine how stress affects you.

Acute Stress vs. Chronic Stress

Acute stress, also known as short-term stress, is universal. It occurs in response to immediate change or danger. You feel acute stress when you drop an object and catch it at the last second, for example.

Acute stress also applies to situations or events that only last a few hours or days. The stress you feel when studying in the days leading up to a final exam is an example of acute stress.

On the other side of the spectrum is chronic stress, which can last for weeks or months. Chronic stress occurs in response to long-term or ongoing stressors. Financial struggles, going through a divorce, or ongoing health problems can all result in chronic stress.

Physical Stress vs. Psychological Stress

Psychological stress results from the emotional and physical tension you experience in response to a perceived threat. The threats can be physical, mental, or emotional, and can range from inconvenient to dangerous. For example, struggling to find your keys while you’re running late for work can result in psychological stress.

Physical stress, on the other hand, occurs when a stressor physically strains your body. Such strain can range from uncomfortable to incapacitating. Working in extreme heat or dealing with chronic pain from an injury are both examples of physical stress.

Positive Stress vs. Negative Stress

Stress can also be divided into positive stress (eustress) and negative stress (distress). Eustress is healthy and can actually help you achieve your goals. For example, you may feel eustress when learning a new skill. Distress, on the other hand, is disruptive and can get in the way of achieving your goals.

It’s important to note that positive stress and negative stress are terms that refer to how you’re able to channel your stressful energy, not the benefit or detriment of the stressor itself. A wedding, for example, is often a joyful occasion. However, that doesn’t mean all of your stress can be categorized as eustress. Depending on how you manage your stress , you may still experience negative stress in response to positive life changes.

Effects of Stress

How stress affects your body and your mind depends on the type of stress you experience. For example, when you experience acute stress, your body may respond in the following ways:

    • Rapid heart rate
    • Difficulty breathing
    • Tension headaches
    • Stomachache
    • Sweating
    • Fatigue
    • Shaking
    • Dry mouth
    • Muscle pain

The good news about acute stress is that its symptoms are temporary. Once the stressor is resolved, the effects quickly resolve themselves.

However, the effects of chronic stress are longer lasting and typically more severe than acute stress. Chronic stress can affect you both physically and mentally. Common physical effects of chronic stress include:

    • Insomnia
    • High blood pressure
    • Heart problems
    • Diabetes
    • Immunodeficiency
    • Gastrointestinal (GI) issues
    • Chronic muscle tension
    • Infertility
    • Irregular periods
    • Erectile dysfunction

You may also experience mental or emotional effects of chronic stress, such as:

    • Irritability
    • Isolation
    • Loss of control
    • Loss of sexual desire
    • Difficulty concentrating
    • Nervousness
    • Overwhelming worry
    • Feelings of hopelessness

Stress Disorders

The way we respond to stress also affects our mental health. Stress disorders are mental health disorders that arise as the result of experiencing or witnessing trauma. Common types of stress disorders include:

    • Acute stress disorder (ASD): Occurs when trauma symptoms persist for less than a month after the trauma occurred; characterized by anxiety, dissociation, and distress
    • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Occurs when trauma symptoms persist more than a month after the trauma occurred; characterized by intrusive memories, avoidance, cognition and mood changes, and heightened arousal and reactivity

Stress can also contribute to, exacerbate, or be symptomatic of other mental health disorders, including:

It’s important to note that this is not an exhaustive list by any means, as stress can worsen the effects of just about any mental health condition you can think of.

Stress Treatment Options

Stress is a natural response to change, but when our response to stressors becomes unhealthy or unhelpful, professional treatment is often necessary. There are multiple different treatment options for stress, including:

Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) therapy: Specifically designed for stress management, MBSR is a meditation therapy that uses mindfulness practices to manage stress. It has also proven effective for other mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression.

● Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) : CBT helps people identify unhelpful or negative thought patterns that affect their emotions and behaviors. CBT therapists can help people learn how to prevent stress and how to respond to stress in healthy ways.

Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) : DBT was originally designed to treat borderline personality disorder, but it has proven effective in stress reduction as well. DBT teaches people self-regulation as well as stress management.

Acceptance & commitment therapy (ACT) : ACT is a mindfulness-based behavioral therapy that encourages psychological flexibility. It challenges the idea that stress is inherently bad and instead encourages people to accept both the stressors and joys of life. ACT uses acceptance as a launchpad for committed change.

Somatic therapy : Somatic therapy is a holistic approach to mental health that addresses both the mind and the body. It’s particularly effective for stress because stress is both a physical and mental response to change.

Stress management : You can learn healthier ways to respond to stress on your own with stress management techniques, such as guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, and deep breathing. However, these techniques are most effective when paired with professional therapy.

Find Therapy for Stress

Ready to destress? Professional therapists can help you learn stress management skills while also treating any mental illnesses that may be contributing to your stress. Click here to find a stress therapist near you.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can Stress Make You Sick?

Stress manifests itself both physically and mentally. Symptoms of illness, such as stomachaches, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, headaches, and muscle pain, may actually be symptoms of stress. Your primary care physician can determine if you’re physically ill or if your symptoms are stress-induced.

What Is the Difference Between Stress and Anxiety?

Stress and anxiety are similar, and there is often overlap between the two responses. However, the key difference is the presence or absence of stressors.

Stress occurs in response to an external stimulus that a person perceives as a threat. It subsides once the stimulus subsides. Anxiety, on the other hand, can occur without any external trigger. Even if there is a trigger, it can persist long after the initial trigger subsides.

How Does Stress Affect the Immune System?

Stress hormones decrease the efficacy of the immune system. When you’re stressed, you are more likely to contract an infection or illness.