Stress can creep up on you slowly, or descend suddenly like a runaway roller coaster. Each person feels it in a unique way, and has their own physical and mental response to it. Most adults have felt stress at one time or another, whether it’s triggered by an upcoming presentation at work, dinner with the in-laws, or a monthly bill-paying session when your debit card gets a workout. Even though you’ve lived through it, there’s probably a lot you don’t know about the details of stress, the different types, and how best to keep it under control.
What is stress?
First, it helps to understand that stress is your body’s reaction to a specific event – or to your thoughts and feelings about that event. And stress is different from anxiety, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. While anxiety is the body’s internal reaction to stress for some people, it’s also an almost constant state of being, even if it is not tied to an immediate or specific threat.
In contrast, stress is how people respond to a specific upcoming or in-the-moment event, like the way you felt before taking a big exam you weren’t prepared for in high school, or the day you fought with a sibling or best friend. In these cases, feelings of stress are pretty immediate. They also typically fade away when the event is over. Stress can be positive, for example, when it motivates someone to meet a deadline or do their best work. But sometimes stress can also cause health issues. So it’s important to recognize when you are feeling stress and how to handle it.
Causes of stress
There is no one specific cause of stress. Both the mental and physical signs of stress can be triggered by any number of things. These include:
- Getting a bad grade on a test
- Receiving a poor performance review at work
- Getting ready to leave for vacation
- Living through a traumatic event like a tornado or a house fire
- Witnessing or being targeted by violence
Types of stress
Most people use stress as a general term, but it’s really more of an umbrella description. There are three main types of stress, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). Each type can make people feel and respond differently. The types of stress include:
Acute stress. This is the runaway roller coaster kind of feeling. Small stressors can pile up into a big mess. For example, you’ve got a project deadline looming on the same day a co-worker calls in sick, shifting his work to your desk. The check-engine light in your car went on, and you can’t remember if you let the dog back in the house before you left for work.
Episodic, acute stress. This type describes people who ping pong from one mini crisis to another. Their stress levels rise and fall and tend to be very reactionary. This type of stress can trigger feelings of physical tension and anger.
Chronic stress. People living in this state are dealing with an ever-present feeling of stress caused by situations largely out of their control. It’s used to describe people who live lives permeated by poverty, hunger, war, social injustice, racism or other societal ills.
Chronic stress symptoms, according to the APA, are:
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure
- Increased risk of heart attack and stroke
- Inflammation in circulatory system, affecting heart function
- Higher cholesterol levels
Three ways to keep stress in check
Everyone learns their own coping mechanisms to deal with stress in their daily lives. Some people lace up their running shoes, while others look forward to a daily call or text session with a friend. The APA recommends building your stress-relief plan around these three tenants:
- Make sure to have a good social support network. This could be family, friends, co-workers, neighbors or all of the above.
- Get regular physical exercise. Take a walk outside, hit the treadmill at your gym or lift weights with a buddy.
- Get enough sleep. Being tired can only compound stress. Make sure you’re setting aside enough time for sleep.