Stress: What Is It?

Reviewed Jul 18, 2017

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Summary

  • Stress takes many forms and can be good or bad.
  • Long-lasting or built-up stress can take a toll on your health and well-being.
  • Recognizing symptoms is a first step to managing stress.
     

All people know what stress feels like. But it’s not nearly so easy to define.

Stress is how the brain and body respond to anything you sense to be a threat to your well-being. This “stressor” could be an event, situation or change. A stressor triggers the brain to release chemicals and hormones to nearly all the body systems: The heart beats faster. Muscles tense. Breathing is more rapid. The brain goes on high alert. The body’s “fight or flight” stress response happens very fast and gets you ready to act. Once the stressor is gone, your body functions return to normal.

Is stress good or bad?

Stress is “good” when it helps focus your energy and effort. For instance, stress can help you to:

  • Act quickly in an emergency
  • Meet a deadline
  • Solve a problem
  • Compete in sports
  • Leave a dead-end job
  • Avoid an accident
  • Save a life

Stress is “bad” when it builds up or lasts too long and takes a toll on your health and well-being. Bad stress can interfere with your job, relationships and enjoyment of life.

Types of stress and common stressors

Stress takes many forms:

Short-term or “acute” stress. This common form can be harmless in small amounts and spurts. But too many short-term stressors at one time can make you feel spread too thin, worried and tense. Short-term stressors range from momentary hassles to big changes or transitions that last several weeks or months. Examples of short-term stressors include:

  • Being stuck in traffic
  • A leaky pipe
  • Speaking in public
  • Interviewing for a job
  • A heated argument
  • A job change
  • Getting married
  • Moving to a new home
  • Having a baby

Long-lasting or “chronic” stress. Money problems, unemployment, an unhappy marriage, long-term caregiving, living in an unsafe neighborhood and chronic illness are examples of stressors that can lead to long-lasting stress. People who cannot escape or manage long-lasting stress often feel powerless to change and like they have no way out.

Traumatic stress. Seeing or living through disaster or violence causes extreme stress. For some people, trauma causes such deep emotional harm that they continue to feel afraid or stressed even when the danger is gone. This is called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is a type of anxiety disorder. People with PTSD may relive the frightening event through dreams or flashbacks. They may be tense or easily startled. They may avoid aspects of life that remind them of the event. They may also feel emotionally numb and detached from others, as if life is without direction, purpose, or future. Treatment can help people with PTSD to heal.

Personality, patterns of thinking and genes also can influence how a person responds to and feels stress. For instance, if you are generally optimistic, you may tend to see stressors that enter your life as opportunities for improved or positive outcomes rather than extra burdens to carry.

Stress warning signs

No matter the type, stress that builds up or does not go away can harm your body, mind and spirit. Being able to recognize when your stress level is too high is important. You can look to your body, feelings and behaviors for clues. See if these signs apply to you:

Signs that I am stressed:

  • Upset stomach
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Muscle tension
  • Chest pain (angina)
  • Neck or back pain
  • Sleep problems
  • Skin breakouts
  • Short temper
  • Crankiness
  • Lack of energy
  • Feeling tired
  • Feeling sad or crying
  • Constant worry
  • Unable to focus
  • Forgetfulness
  • Nail biting
  • Grinding teeth
  • Clenching jaw
  • Skipping meals
  • Overeating
  • Eating unhealthy foods
  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Using drugs

Using healthy ways to manage routine and unexpected stress is part of a healthy lifestyle. If you cannot cope with your stress on your own, get help. Your doctor or a mental health provider can help you find solutions and manage stress.

Resources

American Psychological Association
(800) 374-2721 or (202) 336-5500
www.apa.org

National Institute of Mental Health
(866) 615-6464 or (301) 443-4513
www.nimh.nih.gov

Mental Health America
(800) 969-6642 or (703) 684-7722
www.mentalhealthamerica.net

American Institute of Stress
(914) 963-1200
www.stress.org

Stress Management: Approaches for Preventing & Reducing Stress. Harvard Health Publications, 2011.

By Christine Martin
Source: National Institute of Mental Health; American Psychological Association; Shellenbarger, Sue. (2012) "When stress is good for you." Wall Street Journal. D1; Stress Management: Approaches for Preventing & Reducing Stress. Harvard Health Publications, 2011.
Reviewed by Lily Awad, MD, Associate Medical Director, Massachusetts Behavioral Health Partnership

Summary

  • Stress takes many forms and can be good or bad.
  • Long-lasting or built-up stress can take a toll on your health and well-being.
  • Recognizing symptoms is a first step to managing stress.
     

All people know what stress feels like. But it’s not nearly so easy to define.

Stress is how the brain and body respond to anything you sense to be a threat to your well-being. This “stressor” could be an event, situation or change. A stressor triggers the brain to release chemicals and hormones to nearly all the body systems: The heart beats faster. Muscles tense. Breathing is more rapid. The brain goes on high alert. The body’s “fight or flight” stress response happens very fast and gets you ready to act. Once the stressor is gone, your body functions return to normal.

Is stress good or bad?

Stress is “good” when it helps focus your energy and effort. For instance, stress can help you to:

  • Act quickly in an emergency
  • Meet a deadline
  • Solve a problem
  • Compete in sports
  • Leave a dead-end job
  • Avoid an accident
  • Save a life

Stress is “bad” when it builds up or lasts too long and takes a toll on your health and well-being. Bad stress can interfere with your job, relationships and enjoyment of life.

Types of stress and common stressors

Stress takes many forms:

Short-term or “acute” stress. This common form can be harmless in small amounts and spurts. But too many short-term stressors at one time can make you feel spread too thin, worried and tense. Short-term stressors range from momentary hassles to big changes or transitions that last several weeks or months. Examples of short-term stressors include:

  • Being stuck in traffic
  • A leaky pipe
  • Speaking in public
  • Interviewing for a job
  • A heated argument
  • A job change
  • Getting married
  • Moving to a new home
  • Having a baby

Long-lasting or “chronic” stress. Money problems, unemployment, an unhappy marriage, long-term caregiving, living in an unsafe neighborhood and chronic illness are examples of stressors that can lead to long-lasting stress. People who cannot escape or manage long-lasting stress often feel powerless to change and like they have no way out.

Traumatic stress. Seeing or living through disaster or violence causes extreme stress. For some people, trauma causes such deep emotional harm that they continue to feel afraid or stressed even when the danger is gone. This is called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is a type of anxiety disorder. People with PTSD may relive the frightening event through dreams or flashbacks. They may be tense or easily startled. They may avoid aspects of life that remind them of the event. They may also feel emotionally numb and detached from others, as if life is without direction, purpose, or future. Treatment can help people with PTSD to heal.

Personality, patterns of thinking and genes also can influence how a person responds to and feels stress. For instance, if you are generally optimistic, you may tend to see stressors that enter your life as opportunities for improved or positive outcomes rather than extra burdens to carry.

Stress warning signs

No matter the type, stress that builds up or does not go away can harm your body, mind and spirit. Being able to recognize when your stress level is too high is important. You can look to your body, feelings and behaviors for clues. See if these signs apply to you:

Signs that I am stressed:

  • Upset stomach
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Muscle tension
  • Chest pain (angina)
  • Neck or back pain
  • Sleep problems
  • Skin breakouts
  • Short temper
  • Crankiness
  • Lack of energy
  • Feeling tired
  • Feeling sad or crying
  • Constant worry
  • Unable to focus
  • Forgetfulness
  • Nail biting
  • Grinding teeth
  • Clenching jaw
  • Skipping meals
  • Overeating
  • Eating unhealthy foods
  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Using drugs

Using healthy ways to manage routine and unexpected stress is part of a healthy lifestyle. If you cannot cope with your stress on your own, get help. Your doctor or a mental health provider can help you find solutions and manage stress.

Resources

American Psychological Association
(800) 374-2721 or (202) 336-5500
www.apa.org

National Institute of Mental Health
(866) 615-6464 or (301) 443-4513
www.nimh.nih.gov

Mental Health America
(800) 969-6642 or (703) 684-7722
www.mentalhealthamerica.net

American Institute of Stress
(914) 963-1200
www.stress.org

Stress Management: Approaches for Preventing & Reducing Stress. Harvard Health Publications, 2011.

By Christine Martin
Source: National Institute of Mental Health; American Psychological Association; Shellenbarger, Sue. (2012) "When stress is good for you." Wall Street Journal. D1; Stress Management: Approaches for Preventing & Reducing Stress. Harvard Health Publications, 2011.
Reviewed by Lily Awad, MD, Associate Medical Director, Massachusetts Behavioral Health Partnership

Summary

  • Stress takes many forms and can be good or bad.
  • Long-lasting or built-up stress can take a toll on your health and well-being.
  • Recognizing symptoms is a first step to managing stress.
     

All people know what stress feels like. But it’s not nearly so easy to define.

Stress is how the brain and body respond to anything you sense to be a threat to your well-being. This “stressor” could be an event, situation or change. A stressor triggers the brain to release chemicals and hormones to nearly all the body systems: The heart beats faster. Muscles tense. Breathing is more rapid. The brain goes on high alert. The body’s “fight or flight” stress response happens very fast and gets you ready to act. Once the stressor is gone, your body functions return to normal.

Is stress good or bad?

Stress is “good” when it helps focus your energy and effort. For instance, stress can help you to:

  • Act quickly in an emergency
  • Meet a deadline
  • Solve a problem
  • Compete in sports
  • Leave a dead-end job
  • Avoid an accident
  • Save a life

Stress is “bad” when it builds up or lasts too long and takes a toll on your health and well-being. Bad stress can interfere with your job, relationships and enjoyment of life.

Types of stress and common stressors

Stress takes many forms:

Short-term or “acute” stress. This common form can be harmless in small amounts and spurts. But too many short-term stressors at one time can make you feel spread too thin, worried and tense. Short-term stressors range from momentary hassles to big changes or transitions that last several weeks or months. Examples of short-term stressors include:

  • Being stuck in traffic
  • A leaky pipe
  • Speaking in public
  • Interviewing for a job
  • A heated argument
  • A job change
  • Getting married
  • Moving to a new home
  • Having a baby

Long-lasting or “chronic” stress. Money problems, unemployment, an unhappy marriage, long-term caregiving, living in an unsafe neighborhood and chronic illness are examples of stressors that can lead to long-lasting stress. People who cannot escape or manage long-lasting stress often feel powerless to change and like they have no way out.

Traumatic stress. Seeing or living through disaster or violence causes extreme stress. For some people, trauma causes such deep emotional harm that they continue to feel afraid or stressed even when the danger is gone. This is called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is a type of anxiety disorder. People with PTSD may relive the frightening event through dreams or flashbacks. They may be tense or easily startled. They may avoid aspects of life that remind them of the event. They may also feel emotionally numb and detached from others, as if life is without direction, purpose, or future. Treatment can help people with PTSD to heal.

Personality, patterns of thinking and genes also can influence how a person responds to and feels stress. For instance, if you are generally optimistic, you may tend to see stressors that enter your life as opportunities for improved or positive outcomes rather than extra burdens to carry.

Stress warning signs

No matter the type, stress that builds up or does not go away can harm your body, mind and spirit. Being able to recognize when your stress level is too high is important. You can look to your body, feelings and behaviors for clues. See if these signs apply to you:

Signs that I am stressed:

  • Upset stomach
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Muscle tension
  • Chest pain (angina)
  • Neck or back pain
  • Sleep problems
  • Skin breakouts
  • Short temper
  • Crankiness
  • Lack of energy
  • Feeling tired
  • Feeling sad or crying
  • Constant worry
  • Unable to focus
  • Forgetfulness
  • Nail biting
  • Grinding teeth
  • Clenching jaw
  • Skipping meals
  • Overeating
  • Eating unhealthy foods
  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Using drugs

Using healthy ways to manage routine and unexpected stress is part of a healthy lifestyle. If you cannot cope with your stress on your own, get help. Your doctor or a mental health provider can help you find solutions and manage stress.

Resources

American Psychological Association
(800) 374-2721 or (202) 336-5500
www.apa.org

National Institute of Mental Health
(866) 615-6464 or (301) 443-4513
www.nimh.nih.gov

Mental Health America
(800) 969-6642 or (703) 684-7722
www.mentalhealthamerica.net

American Institute of Stress
(914) 963-1200
www.stress.org

Stress Management: Approaches for Preventing & Reducing Stress. Harvard Health Publications, 2011.

By Christine Martin
Source: National Institute of Mental Health; American Psychological Association; Shellenbarger, Sue. (2012) "When stress is good for you." Wall Street Journal. D1; Stress Management: Approaches for Preventing & Reducing Stress. Harvard Health Publications, 2011.
Reviewed by Lily Awad, MD, Associate Medical Director, Massachusetts Behavioral Health Partnership

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