What is stress?

Learn about what stress is, symptoms and causes of stress, the difference between stress and anxiety, chronic stress, and how to cope.

What is stress?

Stress is your body’s response to anything that causes your body strain in some way, including physical, emotional, or psychological strain. Most often, stress is caused by an external trigger, or a specific situation. For example, if you have an exam or baseball game coming up that you’re worried about, you might experience stress in the form of nervousness or an inability to sleep. Sometimes, people under stress may also experience physical symptoms, such as muscle pain or digestive troubles. These types of temporary stressors are common – we all experience them. Sometimes, they can even be a good thing. Short bursts of stress tied to a specific situation can help provide motivation or focus, like when you have an exam to study for or need to react quickly while driving, for example. But when stress is long-lasting and doesn’t let up, also known as chronic stress, it can be harmful to your health in a variety of ways, including impairing your immune system and affecting your mental health. Chronic stress can occur as a result of ongoing stress-triggers, such as a demanding job or persistent worry about performance.

Anxiety gif - knitting

Signs and symptoms of stress

Stress looks and feels different to every person. It can affect you both physically and emotionally. Most often when you are stressed, you will feel a general sense of worry or fear about something that is going to happen or you think might happen. Here are a few other symptoms of stress.

  • Feeling worried or nervous about an upcoming event 

  • Having trouble sleeping

  • Having digestive problems

  • Having difficulty concentrating or focusing on anything other than what is worrying you

  • Feeling more tired than usual

  • Experiencing muscle pain that can’t be explained 

  • Having headaches, often around your forehead or your neck

  • Eating too much or too little

If you’re worried that someone in your life is experiencing stress, here are a few signs or outward signals to look for.

  • Can’t sleep or going to bed later than usual

  • Seem more tired than usual 

  • Seem to be panicky, disengaged, or down

  • Having unexplained headaches or stomach aches 

  • Feeling irritable about themselves or others

  • Avoiding school, activities, or people that they didn’t previously avoid

  • Changes in eating habits

It’s important to remember that stress can manifest differently for every person. These are just a few examples of symptoms of stress. If you suspect you or someone you know is experiencing stress, there are a few steps you can take, including:

"It’s OK  to pace yourself, get a little rest , and speak of your struggles out loud. It’s OK to prioritize your wellness. To make a habit of rest and repair."

-Michelle Obama

What causes stress?

The brain is a miraculous but complex organ, consisting of webs (also called circuits) of specialized cells called neurons. When your brain detects a threat or reward, these neurons send electrochemical messages throughout the body to elicit a response. So, when your brain detects something pleasurable, like laughing with a friend, the brain releases chemicals that signal the body to feel good and relax. On the other hand, when the brain detects a threat, whether that's worry about upcoming midterm exams or anger due to an argument with a friend, it releases adrenaline and cortisol, signaling our body’s stress (“fight or flight”) response. Typically, once the perceived threat is gone or ends, so too does the fight or flight response, allowing the body to relax. However, in cases of chronic stress, this is not the case. 

The “fight or flight” stress response may be activated for any number of reasons. Here are a few examples of things that can cause stress:

  • Big life changes, such as moving, starting a new school or job, a loss of a family member, or a new family member

  • Expectations and pressure to do well, whether at work, in school, or for activities such as sports or other hobbies

  • Social relationships with family members, friends and/or boyfriends, girlfriends, or partners

  • Busy schedules and having too much to do can lead to feeling unprepared or overwhelmed

  • Lack of sleep whether due to stress or for other reasons

These are just a few examples of things that might lead to stress. Ultimately, the causes of stress are different for every person. If you’re feeling stressed, no matter the cause, try a few of our tried-and-true self-care tools to help you feel better.

Stress vs. anxiety

We often hear people talk about feeling stress or feeling anxious synonymously. However, it’s important to understand the difference between the two. While stress, including chronic stress, is associated with a specific external trigger, anxiety is not. Anxiety refers to an emotion that is characterized by persistent feelings of worry, uneasiness, or fear without a clear trigger. Sometimes, stress can trigger anxiety. For example, let’s say you are worried about playing well in an upcoming game. You might experience stress in the form of a lack of appetite or inability to sleep in the days leading up to the game. Sometimes, however, that stress about your performance may continue even after the game is over, and even if you played really well and won the game. This might be a signal that you’re experiencing anxiety for reasons beyond the specific situation. Trying to determine whether you’re experiencing stress or anxiety? Here’s a 3-step plan to help. 

  1. Think about what’s going on. Try to take a step back from how you’re feeling and consider what’s going on in your life right now. Are there specific situations occurring that you might be reacting to?

  2. Check to see if the stress gets better. If there is a specific situation that you think you’re reacting to, check in with yourself after it’s over. Did the feelings of stress go away or are they still there?

  3. Can’t put your finger on it? If the feelings of stress continue after whatever you thought might be the trigger, or if you just aren’t sure why you’re feeling stressed in the first place, you might be experiencing anxiety.

Whether you’re experiencing stress or anxiety, practicing self-care can often help alleviate how you’re feeling. If you’ve been feeling stressed for a while or if you believe you’re experiencing anxiety, it may be time to reach out for help. There are a few routes you can take, including:

Understanding chronic stress

Unfortunately, self-care isn’t always enough to help us feel better. This is particularly the case if we’re experiencing chronic stress or anxiety. Chronic stress occurs when our brain’s natural stress response remains stuck in high alert mode. In other words, our brain becomes trained to operate under a threatening situation, even when there is no threat in reality. When you’re experiencing chronic stress, you might feel nervous, stressed, or worried all or most of the time. You might feel like you’re not able to relax. Over time, chronic stress can lead to other health consequences, including but not limited to anxiety disorders, depression, the inability to regulate emotions, memory challenges, and even physical pain. These types of changes in the brain can set the stage for more severe mental health challenges. Watch the below TED-Ed video to learn more about how chronic stress affects you and your brain.

Ok, so how do I cope with stress? 

If you have been stuck in a stress spiral for a while – a week, a month, or most of your life – it may be time to seek professional support. Therapeutic talk therapy practices such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) have been shown to be highly effective in treating anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and specific phobias.

Your thoughts and thinking patterns play a big role in your body’s stress response. CBT explores the relationship between thoughts and behaviors, and, with the help of a trained therapist, helps us reframe our thoughts in ways that can induce more healthy behaviors (such as lower stress). So, paying attention to your thoughts, and offering yourself grace and nurturing can be a first step toward feeling better. 

Thoughts are powerful. Being aware of them helps. 

In addition to therapy, there are lots of things you can do yourself to manage stress and anxiety: 

  • Spend time with another person or with your pets, find a routine and stick with it. Waking up at the same time, keeping a schedule, and getting a good night’s sleep everyday are all crucial. 

  • Be aware of your diet and the foods you eat. Eating healthier can help keep you feeling rejuvenated. 

  • Tap into your creative side. Find an outlet, whether singing, painting, or anything else that gets you excited and calm. 

  • Remember to breathe. Life can get overwhelming, so pause and take a deep breath during especially stress-inducing situations.

Reminder: Stress shouldn’t be part of everyday life. If you are feeling an overwhelming sense of worry or restlessness every day, more support might be needed. Learn more about anxiety or visit our find support page for more resources.