is full of hassles, deadlines, frustrations, and demands. For many people,
stress is so commonplace that it has become a way of life. Stress isn’t always
bad. In small doses, it can help you perform under pressure and motivate you to
do your best. But when you’re constantly running in emergency mode, your mind
and body pay the price. You can protect yourself by recognizing the signs and
symptoms of stress and taking steps to reduce its harmful effects.
What is stress?
The Body’s Stress
When you perceive a
threat, your nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones,
including adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones rouse the body for emergency
Your heart pounds faster,
muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and your senses become
sharper. These physical changes increase your strength and stamina, speed your
reaction time, and enhance your focus—preparing you to either fight or flee
from the danger at hand.
Stress is a normal
physical response to events that make you feel threatened or upset your balance
in some way. When you sense danger—whether it’s real or imagined—the
body's defences kick into high gear in a rapid, automatic process known as the
“fight-or-flight-or-freeze” reaction, or the stress
The stress response is the
body’s way of protecting you. When working properly, it helps you stay
focused, energetic, and alert. In emergency situations, stress can save your
life—giving you extra strength to defend yourself, for example, or spurring
you to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident.
The stress response also
helps you rise to meet challenges. Stress is what keeps you on your toes during
a presentation at work, sharpens your concentration when you’re attempting the
game-winning free throw, or drives you to study for an exam when you'd rather be
But beyond a certain
point, stress stops being helpful and starts causing major damage to your
health, your mood, your productivity, your relationships, and your quality of
How do you respond to
It's important to learn
how to recognize when your stress levels are out of control. The most dangerous
thing about stress is how easily it can creep up on you. You get used to it. It
starts to feel familiar, even normal. You don't notice how much it's affecting
you, even as it takes a heavy toll.
The signs and symptoms of
stress overload can be almost anything. Stress affects the mind, body, and behaviour
in many ways, and everyone experiences stress differently. Not only can
overwhelming stress lead to serious mental and physical health problems, it can
also take a toll on your relationships at home, work, and school.
Stress doesn’t always
Psychologist Connie Lillas
uses a driving analogy to describe the three most common ways people respond
when they’re overwhelmed by stress:
on the gas
– An angry, agitated, or “fight” stress response. You’re heated,
keyed up, overly emotional, and unable to sit still.
on the brake
– A withdrawn, depressed, or “flight” stress response. You shut down,
pull away, space out, and show very little energy or emotion.
– A tense or “freeze” stress response. You become frozen under
pressure and can’t do anything. You look paralyzed, but under the surface
you’re extremely agitated.
Signs and symptoms of
The following table lists
some of the common warning signs and symptoms of stress. The more signs and
symptoms you notice in yourself, the closer you may be to stress overload.
Warning Signs and Symptoms
only the negative
or racing thoughts
or short temper
inability to relax
of loneliness and isolation
or general unhappiness
pain, rapid heartbeat
of sex drive
more or less
too much or too little
yourself from others
or neglecting responsibilities
alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax
habits (e.g. nail biting, pacing)
Keep in mind that the
signs and symptoms of stress can also be caused by other psychological or
medical problems. If you’re experiencing any of the warning signs of stress,
it’s important to see a doctor for a full evaluation. Your doctor can help you
determine whether or not your symptoms are stress-related.
How much stress is too
Because of the widespread
damage stress can cause, it's important to know your own limit. But just how
much stress is "too much" differs from person to person. We're all
different. Some people are able to roll with the punches, while others seem to
crumble in the face of far smaller obstacles or frustrations. Some people even
seem to thrive on the excitement and challenge of a high-stress lifestyle.
Your ability to tolerate
stress depends on many factors, including the quality of your relationships,
your general outlook on life, your emotional intelligence, and genetics.
Things that influence
your stress tolerance level
support network –
A strong network of supportive friends and family members can be an enormous
buffer against life’s stressors. On the flip side, the more lonely and
isolated you are, the greater your vulnerability to stress.
sense of control –
It may be easier to take stress in your stride if you have confidence in
yourself and your ability to influence events and persevere through
challenges. If you feel like things are out of your control, you’re likely
to have less tolerance for stress.
attitude and outlook –
Optimistic people are often more stress-hardy. They tend to embrace
challenges, have a strong sense of humour, and accept that change is a part
ability to deal with your emotions – You’re extremely vulnerable to stress if you don’t know
how to calm and soothe yourself when you’re feeling sad, angry, or
overwhelmed by a situation. The ability to bring your emotions into balance
helps you bounce back from adversity and is a skill that can be learned at
knowledge and preparation – The more you know about a stressful situation, including how
long it will last and what to expect, the easier it is to cope. For example,
if you go into surgery with a realistic picture of what to expect post-op, a
painful recovery will be less traumatic than if you were expecting to bounce
Causes of stress
The situations and
pressures that cause stress are known as stressors. We usually think of
stressors as being negative, such as an exhausting work schedule or a rocky
relationship. However, anything that puts high demands on you or forces you to
adjust can be stressful. This includes positive events such as getting married,
buying a house, going to college, or receiving a promotion.
Of course, not all stress
is caused by external factors. Stress can also be self-generated, for example,
when you worry excessively about something that may or may not happen, or have
irrational, pessimistic thoughts about life.
What causes stress
depends, at least in part, on your perception of it. Something that's stressful
to you may not faze someone else; they may even enjoy it. For example, your
morning commute may make you anxious and tense because you worry that traffic
will make you late. Others, however, may find the trip relaxing because they
allow more than enough time and enjoy listening to music while they drive.
Common external causes of
Common internal causes of
thinking, lack of flexibility
Effects of chronic stress
The body doesn’t
distinguish between physical and psychological threats. When you’re stressed
over a busy schedule, an argument with a friend, a traffic jam, or a mountain of
bills, your body reacts just as strongly as if you were facing a life-or-death
situation. If you have a lot of responsibilities and worries, your emergency
stress response may be “on” most of the time. The more your body’s stress
system is activated, the harder it is to shut off.
Long-term exposure to
stress can lead to serious health problems. Chronic stress disrupts nearly every
system in your body. It can raise blood pressure, suppress the immune system,
increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, contribute to infertility, and
speed up the aging process. Long-term stress can even rewire the brain, leaving
you more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.
Many health problems are
caused or exacerbated by stress, including:
of any kind
conditions, such as eczema
Dealing with stress and
While unchecked stress is
undeniably damaging, you have more control over your stress levels than you
might think. Unfortunately, many people cope with stress in ways that only
compound the problem. You might drink too much to unwind at the end of a
stressful day, fill up on comfort food, zone out in front of the TV or computer
for hours, use pills to relax, or relieve stress by lashing out at other people.
However, there are many healthier ways to cope with stress and its symptoms.
Since everyone has a
unique response to stress, there is no “one size fits all” solution to
dealing with it. No single method works for everyone or in every situation, so
experiment with different techniques and strategies. Focus on what makes you
feel calm and in control.
Learn how to manage
You may feel like the
stress in your life is out of your control, but you can always control the way
you respond. Managing stress is all about taking charge: taking charge of your
thoughts, your emotions, your schedule, your environment, and the way you deal
with problems. Stress management involves changing the stressful situation when
you can, changing your reaction when you can’t, taking care of yourself, and
making time for rest and relaxation.
Remember the four As:
avoid, alter, adapt, or accept.
unnecessary stress. Not all stress can be avoided, but by learning how to
say no, distinguishing between “shoulds” and “musts” on your to-do
list, and steering clear of people or situations that stress you out, you
can eliminate many daily stressors.
the situation. If you can’t avoid a stressful situation, try to alter it.
Be more assertive and deal with problems head on. Instead of bottling up
your feelings and increasing your stress, respectfully let others know about
your concerns. Or be more willing to compromise and try meeting others
halfway on an issue.
to the stressor. When you can’t change the stressor, try changing
yourself. Reframe problems or focus on the positive things in your life. If
a task at work has you stressed, focus on the aspects of your job you do
enjoy. And always look at the big picture: is this really something worth
getting upset about?
the things you can’t change. There will always be stressors in life that
you can’t do anything about. Learn to accept the inevitable rather than
rail against a situation and making it even more stressful. Look for the
upside in a situation—even the most stressful circumstances can be an
opportunity for learning or personal growth. Learn to accept that no one,
including you, is ever perfect.
You can also better cope
with the symptoms of stress by strengthening your physical health.
aside relaxation time.
Relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, and deep breathing activate
the body’s relaxation response, a state of restfulness that is the
opposite of the stress response.
Physical activity plays a key role in reducing and preventing the effects of
stress. Nothing beats aerobic exercise for releasing pent-up stress and
a healthy diet. Well-nourished
bodies are better prepared to cope with stress. Start your day with a
healthy breakfast, reduce your caffeine and sugar intake, and cut back on
alcohol and nicotine.
plenty of sleep.
Feeling tired can increase stress by causing you to think irrationally. Keep
your cool by getting a good night’s sleep.
Two core skills for
reducing overwhelming stress: quick stress relief and emotional connection.
The best way to reduce stress quickly and reliably is by using your senses -
what you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch - or through movement. By
viewing a favourite photo, smelling a specific scent, listening to a favourite
piece of music, tasting a piece of gum, or hugging a pet, for example, you
can quickly relax and focus yourself. Of course, not everyone responds to
each sensory experience in the same way. Something that relaxes one person
may do nothing but irritate someone else. The key is to experiment with your
senses and discover the sensory experiences that work best for you.
Nothing contributes more to chronic stress than emotional disconnection from
ourselves and others. Understanding the influence emotions have on your
thoughts and actions is vital to managing stress. Life doesn’t have to
feel like a rollercoaster ride with extreme ups and downs. Once you’re
aware of your emotions, even the painful ones you normally try to avoid or
bottle up, the easier it is to understand your own motivations, stop saying
or doing things you later regret, gain renewed energy, and smooth out the
Once you’ve mastered
these core skills you’ll have the confidence to face stressful challenges,
knowing that you’ll always be able to rapidly bring yourself back into