What Are The Causes of Stress? Ways To Manage It

Lauren-Ann

Medical reviewed by Lauren Ann Teeter, CNS, LCSW

Functional & Integrative Approach To Mental Health, Functional Nutrition, Functional & Integrative Medicine, Psychotherapy, Mental Health

Stress is like a constant companion in life, sometimes gentle and other times overwhelming. It’s our body’s way of alerting us to danger, a system that used to protect us from threats like wild animals but now reacts to modern pressures such as work deadlines or personal problems. What are the causes of stress, and how can we better manage our relationship to stress? Keep reading this article to know what makes you stressed and how to manage it.

Signs and symptoms of stress

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In our modern world, stress seems to be an inevitable part of life. Yet, understanding when we’re stressed and recognizing the signs can be the key to managing it effectively. 

If you’re wondering, “How can I tell if I’m stressed?” or “What are the physical and emotional signs of stress?” you’re not alone. Stress can sneak up on us, manifesting as both physical and emotional symptoms that, if ignored, can lead to more serious health complications. Here are some signs to recognize that you might be under stress (1, 2):

Physical symptoms:

  • Excessive sweating
  • Pain in the back or chest
  • Muscle cramps or spasms
  • Fainting
  • Headaches
  • Nervous twitches
  • Pins and needles sensations
  • Generalized GI complaints 

Emotional symptoms:

  • Anger
  • Burnout
  • Concentration issues
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling of insecurity
  • Forgetfulness
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Sadness

Stress behaviors:

  • Misuse of drugs and alcohol
  • Higher tobacco consumption
  • Changes in appetite (eating too much or too little)
  • Social withdrawal
  • Frequent crying
  • Changes in sexual desire or function (e.g., erectile dysfunction or loss of libido)
  • Excessive exercise 
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What triggers stress: Sources of stress

Understanding the root causes of stress is the first step toward managing it effectively. Let’s explore the most common reasons that stress people out and how these sources of stress affect us (3).

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Main causes of stress

Job insecurity and financial problems: These are among the top stressors in life. The uncertainty of not knowing where your next paycheck will come from or how you will pay your bills can lead to significant anxiety.

Health issues: Whether it’s a temporary illness or a chronic condition, health challenges can profoundly impact our stress levels. The fear and uncertainty that come with health issues can be overwhelming.

Relationship difficulties: From the heartbreak of a breakup to the complexities of family dynamics, relationship problems are a significant source of stress. Each relationship challenge carries its unique set of stressors that affect our emotional state.

Life changes: Major life changes, even positive ones like marriage or retirement, can be stressful. They often require us to adjust our routines, lifestyle, and sometimes our entire outlook on life.

Work deadlines: The pressure to meet deadlines and the fear of consequences if we don’t can be a constant source of anxiety.

Traffic and commuting: Daily commutes, especially in heavy traffic, can start or end our day with frustration and stress.

Family responsibilities: The demands of caregiving, parenting, or managing household tasks can accumulate, leading to feeling overwhelmed.

Social pressures: Meeting societal expectations or maintaining a social image can be exhausting and stress-inducing.

It’s important to know that stress can arise from both negative and positive changes in one’s life. An event or situation that causes stress isn’t always negative. For instance, planning a wedding or moving to a new home can be exciting but also a source of significant stress. This is often termed “eustress”.

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Other things that cause stress

We often focus on glaring stressors like job insecurity, relationship troubles, or financial woes. However, several less apparent sources of stress can significantly impact our well-being. Understanding these can be a game-changer in managing stress (4).

  • Social media consumption: Excessive use can create feelings of inadequacy and anxiety, as comparing ourselves to the idealized lives of others can be disheartening. Constant screen use can also wreak havoc on our brain chemistry and even our circadian rhythm. 
  • Poor nutrition: Diets low in nutrient density and high in processed and inflammatory foods can negatively affect mental health, making it more challenging to manage stress. Diet can impact various processes in the body that help to modulate stress—like digestion, the gut microbiome, and neurotransmitters and hormones—crucial for a healthy stress response.
  • Personality traits: Traits like perfectionism can lead to stress through constant self-imposed pressure to meet unattainable goals.
  • Environmental factors: Noise, overcrowding, and pollution can subtly increase stress levels, making challenging environments harder to live in.
  • Uncertainty and waiting: The brain’s desire for certainty makes waiting for outcomes or dealing with uncertainty a significant source of stress.
  • Previous or current stressors specific to the individual: For instance, becoming intimate or vulnerable with a partner, public speaking, loud noises, or open spaces. 

Effects of stress on your health

When faced with stress, the body releases hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones are beneficial in the short term because they prepare the body to face immediate challenges (4).

They heighten alertness, tighten muscles, and quicken the heartbeat. However, when the body is constantly exposed to these hormones due to chronic stress, the effects can become detrimental.

Over time, being in a constant state of high alert can lead to severe health issues. Let’s see how acute and chronic stress can affect your health.

The immediate impact: Acute stress

Acute stress is the body’s instant reaction to a new challenge, event, or demand, often called the “fight or flight” response. It’s the kind of stress you feel when you narrowly avoid a car accident, face a tight deadline, or navigate a heated argument. This type of stress is short-lived and usually resolves itself once the immediate threat or pressure is over (4).

While acute stress can cause tension headaches, an upset stomach, and a significant, albeit temporary, amount of distress, it doesn’t usually inflict long-term damage on our health. However, when experiences of acute stress are frequent and relentless, they can pave the way for chronic stress, a far more sinister adversary.

The long-term danger: Chronic stress

Chronic stress festers and lingers in our lives, arising from ongoing situations like financial difficulties, unhappy relationships, or prolonged health problems. This type of stress is insidious, often becoming a constant background noise that we learn to live with, sometimes without even realizing its toll on our health.

The effects of chronic stress on our bodies and minds are extensive:

  • Cardiovascular system: Chronic stress can lead to elevated blood pressure, increased risk of heart disease, and a higher likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes (5). Moreover, this level of stress can also induce inflammation in the system, further compounding these issues. 
  • Brain: Repeated stress may influence the etiology of mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, or PTSD, depending on the nature of the stress and the individual (6).
  • Immune system: Our ability to fight off illnesses is compromised, making us more susceptible to infections and diseases (7).
  • Gut health, hormonal balance & weight: Stress can lead to weight gain or loss, disrupt normal eating patterns, and affect metabolism. Chronic stress can also cause shifts in the microbiome and hormones.
  • Reproductive system: It can affect menstrual cycles, cause erectile dysfunction, and decrease libido (8).
  • Skin and hair: Stress can manifest physically in the form of acne, eczema, and even hair loss if extreme (9).
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Stress management and treatment

Coping with stress requires management techniques and treatments. Understanding the sources of your stress and your personal relationship with stress can facilitate your journey toward effective stress management. This can improve your current state and fortify your resilience against future stressors.

Here’s how you can manage stress effectively, incorporating both tried-and-true methods and emerging strategies.

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Management: Exercises and more

Try to eliminate the stressors

At the heart of stress management is identifying and addressing the root causes of your stress. While removing every stressor from your life is impossible, you can often take steps to reduce their impact. This might mean reassessing your commitments, setting more realistic standards for yourself, or seeking help when needed. Remember, how you perceive and respond to a stressor can significantly affect its impact on you.

Seek good nutrition

Your diet is crucial in how your body and mind respond to stress. The hormones released during stress, such as adrenaline and cortisol, directly affect your mood, appetite, and cravings. 

Opting for a balanced diet rich in various nutrients can bolster your health and energy levels, making you better equipped to tackle stress. Incorporate different fruits, vegetables, nuts, and fatty fish into your meals, and be mindful of using substances like alcohol as a stress relief tool, as they can lead to further health complications (10, 11).

Protect your sleep

Quality sleep is a pillar of stress management. 

Stress can disrupt your sleep patterns, which in turn can exacerbate stress, creating a vicious cycle. Having a consistent sleep routine, practicing relaxation techniques before bedtime, and ensuring your environment is conducive to sleep can significantly improve your sleep quality (12). 

Additionally, engaging in regular physical activity can enhance both the quality and duration of your sleep. Getting sunlight in the morning can also support sleep as it supports circadian rhythm synchronization, which is also vital for regulating mood. 

Get physical

Physical activity is a powerful antidote to stress. Exercise triggers the release of endorphins, your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters, acting as a natural stress reliever (13). 

Activities don’t have to be intense or time-consuming; even a brisk 30-minute walk daily or a 15-minute yoga session during lunch can also be greatly beneficial! 

Exercise can significantly reduce your perceived stress levels. The benefits extend beyond the immediate, as regular physical activity can improve your immune system, which is often compromised by chronic stress.

Connection

Never underestimate the power of human connection in combating stress. Interacting with others can trigger hormones that reduce stress and help you feel more grounded (14). Connection with nature is also imperative for reducing stress! 

Investing time in relationships that uplift you and seeking out positive social interactions can provide a much-needed buffer against stress. If your current relationships are sources of stress, prioritizing the development of supportive and fulfilling connections is key.

Medicine and therapy

Medication and therapy are often seen as a path to explore when other strategies have not provided sufficient relief. It’s essential to approach the subject of medicine for stress with a clear understanding and in consultation with healthcare professionals. Here’s what you need to know about considering medication as part of your stress management plan.

When to consider medication

Medication may not be the first line of defense against stress. Still, it becomes a consideration when stress manifests into physical or mental health complications such as chronic anxiety, depression, or insomnia. If stress is significantly impacting your daily life and well-being, and if you’ve tried various stress management techniques without adequate relief, it may be time to discuss medication options with your healthcare provider.

Types of medications for stress-related symptoms

While there’s no specific “stress medication,” there are medications available that can help manage some of the signs and symptoms associated with stress. It’s crucial to understand that these medications are typically considered when stress has led to other diagnosable conditions, such as:

  • Antidepressants: Often prescribed when stress contributes to depression or anxiety disorders. Antidepressants can help adjust the brain’s chemical balance, aiding mood regulation and reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety.
  • Sleeping pills or minor tranquilizers: For those struggling with sleep disturbances due to stress, the doctor might prescribe these medications for short-term relief. However, they are not typically recommended for long-term use due to the risk of dependency.
  • Medication for physical symptoms: Stress can exacerbate conditions like high blood pressure or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). In such cases, medications targeting these specific symptoms may be part of a broader stress management plan.

Considerations and cautions

Medications can provide relief but also come with potential side effects and risks. For example, antidepressants might cause drowsiness, weight gain, or sexual dysfunction. A study highlights that while antidepressants can be beneficial for long-term treatment, patients often express concerns about side effects, withdrawal symptoms, and the desire for more information from healthcare providers (15).

Additionally, it’s essential to recognize that medication may mask stress symptoms without addressing the root cause. This is why it is so important to be curious about why stress exists in the first place. 

The role of talking therapies

Besides medication, talking therapies play a critical role in stress management and treatment. Speaking with a trained professional can offer new perspectives on dealing with stressors and help develop effective coping strategies. 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is particularly beneficial for understanding and changing thought patterns that contribute to stress (16). The research also supports Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Mindfulness-based Meditations (17, 18).

While medication can alleviate symptoms, therapy addresses the underlying issues, providing tools for the long-term management of stress.

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What is the purpose of stress?

Stress is your body’s way of responding to any kind of demand or threat. When it works properly, stress helps you stay focused, energetic, and alert. In emergency situations, stress can save your life by giving you extra strength to defend yourself or spurring you to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident. But beyond a certain point, stress stops being helpful and starts causing damage to your health, mood, productivity, and quality of life.

How does stress happen?

Stress happens when you perceive a challenge or threat, and your body reacts with a chemical response, allowing you to act to prevent injury. It’s your body’s way of gearing up to face a challenging situation with focus, stamina, and heightened alertness

What are the signs of stress overload?

Signs of stress overload include feeling overwhelmed or anxious, irritability or short temper, difficulty concentrating, mood swings, and physical symptoms like headaches, stomach problems, or chest pain. You might also experience stress overload if you constantly worry, feel rushed, or are overwhelmed by responsibilities.

How to diagnose stress?

Stress isn’t diagnosed like other medical conditions because it’s a subjective experience. However, if stress affects your life, a doctor or mental health professional can help identify the symptoms by discussing your experiences, lifestyle, and recent challenges. They may use questionnaires or assessments to understand your stress levels and their impact on your well-being, guiding you toward appropriate stress management strategies or treatments.

Can you get hives from stress?

Yes, stress can indeed lead to hives. When you’re stressed, your body releases chemicals like histamine, which can cause an outbreak of hives as a physical reaction to stress (19). These hives can appear anywhere on the body and might be accompanied by other stress-related skin problems. It’s a clear sign that your body is telling you to take a moment to relax and manage your stress levels.

Summary

Throughout our exploration of the causes of stress, we’ve discovered its many forms, from daily challenges to deeper, chronic issues. We’ve looked at how stress appears, what triggers it, and how to manage it, including exercise, meditation, and medication. Remember, dealing with stress is about more than just today—it’s about keeping healthy in the future. If it gets too tough, seeking help from friends, family, or professionals shows strength, not weakness. Managing stress is vital for our overall health, and asking for help is a smart step in taking care of yourself.

How Do You Feel About This Article?

Lauren-Ann

Medical reviewed by Lauren Ann Teeter, CNS, LCSW

Functional & Integrative Approach To Mental Health, Functional Nutrition, Functional & Integrative Medicine, Psychotherapy, Mental Health

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