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  • Olga Rudin

Understanding Psychological Stress: Effects on Health

Updated: Jan 25

A man is in stress. He is sitting with his hands on his head in front of a blue sky.
Psychological stress could be tough.

Do you feel overwhelmed and unable to cope with stress? If so, you’re not alone. Psychological stress is a common problem many people face. Work, school, relationships, and everyday life can cause stress.


According to Statistics New Zealand's Survey of Working Life, one out of every five workers in New Zealand frequently or always experiences work stress.


In this article, we’ll explore the causes and effects of psychological stress and discuss how to manage it.


What is stress?

The World Health Organisation defines stress “as a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation.”


Stress is a natural fight-or-flight response to a perceived threat. The response triggers the release of the stress hormones adrenaline, cortisol, and noradrenaline.


Short-term stress is beneficial as it prepares the body to respond to danger. Hormones help with fight or flight responses in threatening situations.


But long-term stress keeps pumping your body with those hormones, so they can affect your physical and mental health.


Types of psychological stress


A diagram illustrating the various types of stress, including traumatic stress and acute stress.
4 types of stress

There are four primary types of stress:

  •   Routine

  •   Acute

  •   Traumatic

  •   Chronic

Routine stress

Routine stress is the result of everyday pressures, like work, relationships, and responsibilities.

For example, trying to keep up with the ongoing pressures of a stressful job environment week after week leads to accumulated tension and burnout over a longer period.


Acute stress

Acute stress can occur suddenly and last for a short time without any prior warning.

For example, getting suddenly fired from a job can be an intensely stressful and jarring event. The sudden inability to pay bills or a mortgage, in addition to the uncertainty of finding new work, creates immediate and intense stress.


Traumatic stress

Traumatic stress is one of the most damaging forms of stress.

Traumatic stress involves actual or threatened physical harm. It provokes intense fear and helplessness and overwhelms people's resources to handle the stress.


For example, there are various types of accidents, such as physical injuries from unexpected incidents, assaults, and natural disasters.


People who experience or witness that can have severe and long-lasting effects and develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).


Chronic stress

Chronic stress happens when difficult situations that cause stress go on for a long time without being fixed. These long-lasting, difficult situations are called chronic stressors.

Some examples of chronic stressors are ongoing health problems or money issues.

Managing chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, or chronic pain can be stressful for months or years. The illnesses don't go away, so it's a long and stressful situation.


Not making enough money, having lots of debt that's hard to pay off month after month, and not having savings cause chronic stress for many people.


When a difficult situation goes on and on, whether it's health issues or money problems, it leads to chronic stress building up. This type of long-lasting stress takes a toll on people over time.


Common stressors


A woman wearing glasses is managing work stress as she looks at her laptop
Work stress is one the stressor that is hard to manage

Here are 10 common stressors that can make people feel stressed:


  1. Workplace stress: heavy workloads, tight deadlines, long hours, and job insecurity

  2. Financial stress: debt, low income, the high cost of living, poor money management skills

  3. Health issues: chronic illness, disability, pain, caring for a sick family member.

  4. Major life changes such as divorce, moving, death of a loved one, and starting a family.

  5. Parenting demands: the pressures of child-rearing, like lack of sleep and conflict with kids

  6. Relationship problems: frequent arguing, lack of emotional intimacy, infidelity

  7. Poor self-image: negative self-talk, unrealistic expectations of oneself

  8. Lack of social support: isolation, small social circle, lack of close friendships

  9. Early life adversity: history of trauma, abuse, and family dysfunction in childhood

  10. Frustrations and disappointments: perfectionism, procrastination, perceived failures

Some situations can be very stressful. This is especially true when the situations involve intense emotions, feel out of our control, or persist for a long time without relief.


However, everyone has different levels of resilience to stress. To manage stress, you need to understand your limits and find ways to cope that work for you.


Root causes of psychological stress


A stressed girl with a magnifying glass, visually representing her search for understanding in her life marked A girl with a magnifying glass, visually representing her search for understanding in her life marked by childhood trauma and the lack of social support.by childhood trauma and the lack of social support.
A stressed woman thinking about possible causes of her stress

Though many life situations can cause stress, some people are more vulnerable than others. There are a few stressors that increase susceptibility to stress.

 

  • Lack of social support or loneliness: having a small social circle or experiencing loneliness can diminish resilience. It is more difficult to cope with stressful situations without emotional support and practical assistance from close friends and family. Isolation can leave individuals susceptible.

 

  • Childhood adversity or trauma: When children experience abuse, violence, neglect, or family dysfunction, it can affect them later in life. They may have a stronger stress response and fewer psychological resources to handle challenges. This makes them more vulnerable.

 

  • Perfectionism is when someone sets very high and strict standards for their performance and doesn't let others help with tasks. This causes a lot of stress since they always try to control everything perfectly without making any mistakes.

 

  • Pessimism is when someone always expects the worst to happen. This can cause them to focus only on negative things and worry about things that might not even happen. This can make them feel more anxious. On the other hand, optimism can help people feel more resilient and better able to handle stress.

 

Stress effects on physical and psychological health



A diagram illustrating the impact of stress on physical and psychological health.
Stress may affect both physical and psychological health

Long-term or chronic stress affects health. Excessive levels of hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline can cause harmful effects if prolonged for a significant period. Effects of stress include:


Physical health effects

  • Constantly high cortisol levels weaken the immune system. This makes people more susceptible to frequent colds and infections. Elevated cortisol also causes poor digestion, weight gain, and weaker bones over months and years.

  • Adrenaline spikes strain the heart and blood vessels when ongoing. This can raise blood pressure, worsening hypertension. It also increases the risk of heart disease.

  • Both cortisol and adrenaline are only meant to respond to temporary threats. But when stress is chronic, these hormones remain too high for too long. This tyres out the body’s stress response system. It can lead to exhaustion over time.

  • Muscles also tense up in response to ongoing stress. Chronically tense muscles often cause headaches, body aches, arthritis, and back pain when strain continues without relief.

Psychological health effects

  • Long-term stress can negatively impact brain structure and function. It can shrink vital areas. This impairs memory and focus when the brain stays stressed for too long.

  • Increased anxiety and irritability: Chronic stress leads to prolonged high levels of cortisol and other stress hormones. This can make people feel on edge, quick to anger or annoyance, and worsen anxiety disorders.

  • Depression: The constant tension and worry from high stress deplete brain chemicals like serotonin that regulate mood. This can trigger symptoms of depression. Changes in hormones and inflammation also play a role.

To put it simply, the human body cannot endure threat mode without breaks. Short bursts of fight-or-flight hormones can handle immediate danger.


However ongoing high levels of stress can lead to physical and psychological illnesses, so it is essential to manage chronic stress to maintain good physical and mental health.


When to seek professional help for psychological stress



A client and a psychologist are sitting on a couch discussing stress symptoms
It is important to seek professional help for psychological stress

It's a good idea to seek professional help for stress when it's interfering with your daily life or causing significant distress. Here is a checklist below for when you need professional help.


Stress symptoms checklist

  • You feel overwhelmed, anxious, or depressed most days.

  • You struggle to complete routine daily tasks like work, caring for your home or family,

  • You have trouble sleeping most nights or are sleeping too much.

  • You struggle to concentrate, learn new things, or make decisions.

  • Irritability, mood swings, or withdrawal strain your relationships.

  • You're turning more often to unhealthy coping mechanisms like excessive drinking, drugs, gambling, etc.

  • You struggle with uncontrollable worry, panic attacks, and obsessions or compulsions.

  • You have persistent physical symptoms like headaches, stomach issues, muscle tension, etc.

  • You have suicidal thoughts or self-harm urges.

If you experience the above-mentioned signs of stress, you'd better visit a mental health professional. He can help identify and manage stress, explore underlying issues, and determine medication options.


People with PTSD need specific treatment. PTSD treatment properly addresses the symptoms and challenges of this difficult condition. The counsellor or therapist specialising in trauma should provide the therapy.


When stress becomes unhealthy and disruptive, professional help can prevent long-term complications such as anxiety disorders and depression. Don't hesitate to get outside support.

 

 Coping strategies for psychological stress


A woman practicing self-care to manage stress through meditation on the beach at sunset.
Self-care is essential for coping with stress

Alongside professional help, it's important to develop stress management strategies that can help reduce stress and anxiety.


Here are 10 healthy coping strategies for dealing with stress:


  1. Exercise: Physical activity helps relieve tension, release endorphins, and improve mood. Even light exercise, like a daily walk, can make a big difference.

  2. Meditation and deep breathing: Meditation helps calm the mind and reframe negative thoughts. Deep breathing triggers a relaxation response and helps relieve symptoms.

  3. Maintain social connections. Having support from family or friends provides perspective. Sharing feelings with loved ones eases anxiety burdens.

  4. Prioritise self-care: Focusing on your needs through enough sleep, healthy food, and leisure activities improves resilience for handling stressors.

  5. Set realistic goals and schedules. Breaking big tasks into baby steps and allowing flexibility reduces overwhelm. Learn to say no.

  6. Find humour and laughter. Laughter can instantly boost the mood to cope better with challenges. Surround yourself with things that make you smile.

  7. Practice gratitude and optimism. Notice things, however small, that you are grateful for. Reframing thoughts positively changes outlooks over time.

  8. Relaxation techniques like progressive relaxation and self-hypnosis can be useful to release tension.

  9. Keep a journal. Writing about stressful events and associated emotions can help process trauma or challenging circumstances. It enables you to organise thoughts, identify triggers, and track personal growth.

  10. Listen to relaxing music. Soothing music has significant calming effects on both the mind and body. It decreases stress, heart rate, and anxiety while triggering the relaxation response. Create playlists that induce your desired mental state.


Consistency is key. Make stress management strategies part of your lifestyle. Seek professional help if needed when you get through challenging times.


Conclusion

Psychological stress can have a serious impact on our physical and mental health.    It is important to identify the causes and effects of stress to better manage it.


There are various treatments and stress management strategies available to help handle stress levels. Talking to a professional or getting support from family and friends can be an important step to taking control of your stress and improving your well-being.


Don’t hesitate to reach out for help if you’re struggling; you don’t have to go through it alone.


FAQ

Q: What are the effects of chronic stress on health?

A: Chronic stress may cause a range of physical and psychological health problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, and depression.


Q: How can I cope with stress?

A: Managing stress through techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, exercise, and seeking social support can help you cope with stress more effectively.


Q: Are there long-term health consequences of stress?

A: Yes, chronic stress may affect immune function, digestion, and the cardiovascular system, leading to a higher risk of various health conditions over time.


Q: What are the behavioural effects of stress?

Stress can lead to changes in behaviour, such as overeating, substance abuse, and withdrawal from social activities, which can further impact overall health.


Q: How does stress affect mental health?

A: Stress is associated with increased anxiety, mood disorders, and cognitive impairments, affecting mental well-being and overall quality of life.


Q: Can stress be a positive influence?

A: There is such a thing as good stress, known as eustress, which can motivate and enhance performance in certain situations, but it's important to manage it effectively to prevent negative impacts on health.


Q: What are the common symptoms of stress?

A: Symptoms of stress may include headaches, muscle tension, fatigue, irritability, and difficulty sleeping, among others, reflecting both physical and psychological responses to stress.


Q: Can stress management improve overall health?

A: Yes. Effective stress management can reduce the negative impact of stress on health, promote better physical and mental well-being, and improve the overall quality of life.


Q: What is the link between stress and cardiovascular health?

Stress is associated with increased levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol, which can affect heart health and contribute to the development of cardiovascular diseases.


Q: How does stress impact job performance and satisfaction?

Job stress can lead to reduced productivity, job dissatisfaction, and increased absenteeism, affecting both individual and organisational well-being.

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