December 7, 2021

The Different Types of Stress

by | Dec 7, 2021 | Anxiety, Other

Stress is an inevitable part of life, but excess stress can take a serious toll on your physical and emotional well-being. 

Research shows that 55% of Americans report feeling stressed during the day. Women report higher stress levels than men, and people aged 30-49 are the “most-stressed” age group. 94% of people feel stressed at work. Furthermore, a staggering 57% of individuals indicate feeling paralyzed by their stress.

But stress itself comes in different shapes and sizes. Understanding how it works- and what you can do about it- can be vital in managing your symptoms.

Understanding Why We Get Stressed

Stress is an evolutionary response that occurs when the body feels threatened. It starts in the brain- the hypothalamus and amygdala send specific hormone signals that cue the adrenal glands to release appropriate hormones.

One of the crucial hormones, adrenaline, refers to the fight-or-flight response you experience when feeling stressed, anxious, or afraid. This hormone increases your heartbeat, facilitates perspiration, and essentially makes you feel “on edge.” 

If you’ve ever been very close to having a car accident, you probably recognize that feeling of immediate adrenaline. You may have been driving and not really thinking about anything- then, suddenly, your heart is racing, you’re breathing quickly, and you’re driving very carefully. 

In many ways, stress is an essential safety component. After all, if you didn’t feel any fear, you wouldn’t survive. You wouldn’t know to avoid touching hot stoves or running into traffic!

Stress can also be a positive motivator. For example, if you didn’t feel stressed about meeting a work deadline, you probably would not feel as inclined to finish your project. Or, if you don’t feel stressed about paying your bills, you might not have much incentive to save your money.

In ideal situations, stress is temporary and situational to a particular trigger. However, when we experience chronic levels of stress, physical and emotional problems may occur.

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Common Stress Symptoms

Stress affects everyone differently, but there is probably a pattern regarding how you react to stress. Keep in mind that symptoms can be either physical or emotional. 

Common physical stress symptoms include:

  • Racing heartbeat
  • Feeling hot and sweating profusely
  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Chest tightness
  • Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
  • Digestive problems
  • Fatigue
  • Suppressed or increased hunger
  • Diminished sex drive

Common emotional stress symptoms include:

  • Agitation
  • Indecisiveness
  • Panic and panic attacks
  • Insomnia or nightmares
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Apathy or other depression symptoms.
  • Guilt and shame. 

Acute Stress 

Acute stress refers to immediate reactions to scary or challenging events. For example, you might feel acute stress just before giving a presentation at school. Or, you may experience it when your child falls on the playground and starts crying for help.

Acute stress is instantaneous. You can’t help your reaction. It tends to escalate quickly- then it dissipates quickly. The body returns to homeostasis as soon as the brain detects the situation is safe. For example, once the presentation is over or your child stops crying, things may feel totally normal again. 

Episodic Acute Stress 

Episodic stress refers to experiencing multiple, consistent episodes of acute stress. This phenomenon may be common for people who have stressful life circumstances. 

Certain professions are associated with episodic acute stress. For example, if you work as an emergency room doctor, you encounter challenging situations on a routine basis. This may apply to law enforcement, military personnel, and other healthcare professionals. 

People who experience chronic episodic stress may be at a heightened risk for physical or emotional problems. If they cannot regulate their emotions adequately, the stress often compounds. At times, it may feel downright unmanageable.

Chronic Stress

Chronic stress occurs when someone experiences high, intense levels of stress for several weeks, months, or years. At that point, the body simply becomes accustomed to the pressure, but it must work in overdrive to maintain this heightened state.

Common situations that may trigger chronic stress include:

  • Chronic illnesses and chronic pain.
  • Caregiving a loved one.
  • Severe financial distress or homelessness.
  • Working in a high-stress or physically dangerous career.
  • Experiencing ongoing abuse or unhappiness in a relationship.
  • Having so much to do that there is no time for self-care or relaxation.

Unfortunately, many people face numerous stressful situations at the same time. For example, someone with a chronic illness may risk losing their job, which places their financial well-being in jeopardy. Stress becomes a domino effect in these situations- it can seem like crises simply repeat themselves without any opportunity to process or heal.

Subsequently, chronic stress is associated with numerous health conditions, including:

Stress itself probably doesn’t cause these conditions. However, the stress may exacerbate preexisting symptoms. Furthermore, chronic stress makes it challenging to take care of yourself. As a result, you may neglect to engage in appropriate stress management activities- which can trigger more problems. 

Stress Management Tools

Learning how to manage your stress is crucial for your overall well-being. Failing to do so often aggravates your stress, therefore making you feel even more tense and uncomfortable. Similarly, engaging in negative habits like overeating, smoking cigarettes, or compulsively working doesn’t address the issue. Moreover, these “crutches” often create more physical and emotional problems. 

Recognize Key Triggers 

Try to spend some time reflecting on the situations that most trigger your stress. In doing this exercise, don’t focus on the most obvious stressors like a sudden death or medical emergency. In those events, anyone would be stressed, and it would be odd to not experience such symptoms.

Instead, spend some time thinking about when you feel stressed during your average week. If you’re not sure, you might consider journaling when you feel stressed to track your emotions. 

Do you notice any patterns with the time of day, certain people, or specific activities? And what do you typically do when those triggers arise? For instance, do you “trudge through” the stress? Do you try to avoid it and hope it just disappears? Do you lash out at other people instead of recognizing your part in the dynamic?

Anticipate and Plan to React to Your Triggers

Awareness is the first step, but now it’s time to be proactive with that awareness.  Once you identify your triggers, you can create a reasonable plan to manage them. 

We often react to stress without really thinking. That’s part of the fight-or-flight response- because it’s a primitive function, your brain isn’t necessarily concerned with planning ahead. It is focused on making the best choice to keep you safe from danger right now. 

Because the human species has evolved in recent centuries, we have the luxury (and occasional burden) of needing to plan ahead. Therefore, it’s critical that you anticipate your stress triggers and make a tangible plan for how you can cope with the uncomfortable feelings.

For example, if you know that giving a presentation makes you feel stressed, think about how you can best prepare for this situation. Maybe you will spend five minutes meditating beforehand. Perhaps you will practice a few positive affirmations reminding yourself that you’re capable and well-prepared. Afterward, you might commit to calling a friend to distract yourself from ruminating on what happened. 

Of course, you might not always stick to the plan perfectly. But having a plan in place shows initiative, and the more you take that initiative, the more you “retrain” your brain to take care of yourself during stressful situations. 

Reassess Your Expectations

Stress often emerges when reality falls short of your expectations. If you struggle with perfectionism, you probably feel frequently stressed. That’s because you place yourself under extraordinary pressure to succeed- any deviation from that high standard may trigger you to feel like a complete failure. 

Think about your daily expectations.

  • Do you demand perfect outcomes from yourself or others?
  • Do you expect to have full control over what happens in most or all situations?

Unrealistic expectations create an impossible standard. That’s why it can be helpful to try to focus on accepting things as being “good enough.” 

It may also be beneficial to remind yourself often that things rarely go as planned. You can’t control how other people react or how life unfolds. You can only control your reactions. Learning how to let go of control- and release rigid expectations- can create a valuable path towards acceptance and freedom. 

Set Better Boundaries

Many people experience immense stress because they don’t know how to say no. Instead, they overextend themselves in numerous situations or frequently spend time with people they don’t really like.

Having limits can immensely help reduce your stress. People who set firm boundaries recognize their self-worth and try to avoid situations that trigger excess anxiety, anger, or sadness. 

The need for boundaries may not always be apparent. However, you might consider setting a limit with someone if you consistently:

  • Feel resentful towards their behavior or attitude.
  • Act as if you’re walking on eggshells to avoid upsetting them.
  • Wish they would leave you alone or contact you less.
  • Think they are taking advantage of you.
  • Gossip or badmouth about them behind their back.

These signs show that the relationship probably isn’t healthy and needs some serious reevaluation. Keep in mind that such relationships can exist in any setting, but they can be prevalent among families, workplaces, and peer groups.

Practice Reframing 

It can be easy for the smallest inconvenience to trigger immense rage. This anger can fuel stress that lasts for several hours or days. But, unfortunately, holding onto that intense emotion doesn’t serve you any benefits- if anything, it tends to magnify the inconvenience into a cataclysmic event.

Instead, try to focus on how you can reframe the situation. For example, you might reframe sitting in standstill traffic as a chance to catch up on your favorite podcast. Or, you could reframe your favorite restaurant having an hour-long wait as a valuable opportunity to venture somewhere new.

Of course, reframing won’t always work. Discounting or invalidating your stress isn’t the goal, especially in serious situations. But when it’s a minor inconvenience- and when it won’t dramatically affect the rest of your life- applying humor, gratitude, or an alternative perspective can make a tremendous difference.

Strengthen Time Management 

Being “too busy” can undoubtedly trigger stress, and most people relate to the feeling of having far too many items on their agenda. But learning how to optimize your routine can reduce some of the anxiety you experience.

As mentioned, having strong boundaries can help with prioritizing your day. Boundaries reduce you overextending yourself or saying yes to obligations that leave you feeling drained. That leaves more time to focus on what matters.

Try to rank the most important activities each day. Focus on completing the most essential, time-sensitive tasks first. Then, continue moving down your list in order of importance. 

Aim to limit distractions when moving through these tasks. Instead, plan on scheduling routine breaks. We tend to distract and procrastinate when we feel overwhelmed by what we have to do. But building in natural breaks every half hour or hour can keep you motivated to stay on target.

Finally, aim to delegate if and when you can. There’s no reason you need to carry the burden for everything in life. Ask for help when you need it. We are social creatures, so don’t be afraid to enlist others to support you with specific projects or goals. 

Final Thoughts

Understanding how stress works enables you to recognize certain patterns and responses in your own body. That said, stress management is a lifelong skill. 

Sometimes, it will be easier to practice optimal reactions. Other times, you might struggle. Struggling is part of being human, so try to avoid berating yourself when that happens. 

Remember that consistency is the best habit you can implement. Stress is unavoidable. But preparing for it- and reacting appropriately- allows you to feel more empowered in your life. 

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Disclaimer: This information is not specific medical advice and does not replace information you receive from your healthcare provider. This is only a brief summary of general information. It does NOT include all information about conditions, illnesses, injuries, tests, procedures, treatments, therapies, discharge instructions or lifestyle choices that may apply to you. You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

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