While having a little pressure can help you get motivated, stress can be harmful to your health in myriad ways.

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How Stress Levels Are Measured

When you're exposed to a potential threat, your brain reacts by activating your "fight, flight, or freeze" system to keep you safe. Basically, it prepares you to do what's necessary to keep you alive. A very handy system, but when over-used can cause havoc on the body (and the mind).

The interesting thing is people can present completely differently—how stressors affect one person isn't necessarily the same for someone else. For example, one person may have trouble sleeping, experience a migraine, and find they are constantly forgetting their keys, while their partner sleeps great but notices a flair in their IBS symptoms and becomes overly cranky.

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To account for such a wide range of presentations, psychologists look at a variety of categories such as health, energy, behavior changes, and mood to measure the impact of stressful events. We count on our client's report of what they're experiencing, but often help shine light on symptoms most people would never know were a result of stress.

The timing of their symptoms also helps identify if they are situation-specific or the result of a more chronic state. For example, if blood pressure goes through the roof after a rough chat with their boss, but they find it easy to get back to baseline, it's likely an indicator that their stress response is healthy and functioning as it should. On the other hand, if in the aftermath of objectively stressful events they report being "fine" but then discuss a recent bought with shingles and a new obsession with late-night gaming (two kinds of signs they may be battling a chronic stress response)—that's when our psychologist red flags go up.

The Effects of Stress

While stress is meant to be a normal part of everyday life, it's when your "fight, flight, freeze" response doesn't shut off that health starts being impacted. Difficulties often arise in several key areas: psychological, physical, behavioral, and interpersonal.

Psychological

Development of anxiety and depression is a primary concern. You may experience constant worry because your brain is always on the lookout for danger or start feeling hopeless due to the constant overwhelm, both of which can cause sleep issues. Concentration and memory are often reduced as well due to the overload of information.

Physical

Constant stress causes the adrenal glands to release a hormone called cortisol. High amounts of this in your system can cause weight gain, hypertension, periodontal issues, and changes in blood pressure, among other things. You may also experience flare ups of underlying conditions, such as eczema and IBS.

Behavioral

Since your body is so smart, it knows that being under too much stress isn't good for you, so it starts to crave things that help it to slow down or help it escape. Unfortunately, these aren't always the healthiest—increased alcohol or drug intake, consumption carbohydrate-heavy foods, and distraction methods like hours of mindless scrolling, just to name a few.

Interpersonal

It takes calm to be kind! Ever notice when you're under a tight deadline you can't handle anyone else's inefficiency? Your brain is programmed to keep you safe, not to be nice (that can come after you're safe). You may notice increased irritability, anger, or short-temperedness. And depending on your temperament, increased neediness or pushing people away.

How to Relieve Stress

Before I offer you some tips on bringing your stress level down, let me warn you of one thing: your brain very well may fight you on doing any of these things. When it thinks it's "protecting" you, slowing down may be seen as threatening. Simply notice the hesitation, remind yourself it's OK, and give a few of these a try. 

Buy Yourself Time and Space

Allowing your brain time to adjust and "come down" from stressful activities helps your system to regulate in a healthy way. If you've been jumping from virtual meeting to lunch prep and immediately into a stressful family phone call, remember to add a little space. Pause before answering your phone, give yourself a five-minute breather between work and family time, set an alarm to remind you to stretch a few times a day, and find ways to delegate some tasks. Each little bit helps.

Experiment with Options that Soothe your System

It may take some trial and error but finding stress reduction techniques that work for you can be helpful for years to come. Some things to try: gentle exercise (too extreme may kick you into "fight or flight"), Epsom salt baths, breathing exercises like meditation, and even mindless activities like coloring or crafts. As you try things, keep a list of what works so you can access it again when you need it.

Reduce Things that Amp Up Your System

Caffeine, alcohol, high-sugar foods, and late-night phone scrolling may all be really tempting when stress is high. While these may offer short term energy or relaxation, the longer-term consequence is often increased anxiety and poor sleep quality.

When to Seek Treatment

Getting help if you're feeling overwhelmed is never a bad plan. I've had many clients admit they were nervous to make an appointment because they didn't think their symptoms were "bad" enough. Don't worry, in therapy, there's rarely such a thing.

If you're still on the fence, take a look at how your stress is affecting your everyday life. If you've tried some management techniques and you're still having trouble sleeping, difficulty concentrating, constant worry, or any of the signs listed above, please reach out to a health care provider. Using the "Find a Therapist" tool on Psychology Today is a great place to start to locate counselors in your area. And of course, get immediate help if you're having any thoughts of self-harm. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is there to help at 1-800-273-8255. No one needs to go through it alone. You have full control over the process but the benefit of additional support with managing what is likely a very heavy load.

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