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Stress In Psychology: Definition, Symptoms, Impacts, And Management

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Thorin Tran 05 February, 2024 8 min read

There is a lot to be stressed about in today’s insanely fast-paced world. From the pressures of work and constant digital connectivity to managing personal relationships and societal expectations, the sources of stress seem to be ever-increasing.

Stress has become a ubiquitous experience, often discussed but seldom fully understood. So, what is stress in psychology? What are its symptoms and how to effectively deal with it?

Table of Content

What is Stress in Psychology?

In psychology, stress is defined as the body’s response to any demand or challenge that disrupts an individual’s normal equilibrium or state of balance. It’s essentially how the brain and body respond to any demand, not just negative events like trauma or tragedy, but also positive changes like a promotion or a new relationship.

Stress involves a complex interaction between the mind and body. When faced with a challenging situation, the body releases stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. This response increases heart rate, elevates blood pressure, and boosts energy supplies. While this can be beneficial in the short term, helping to handle potentially threatening circumstances, chronic stress can lead to significant health issues.

Dealing with stress means finding a way to coexist, not completely eliminate it.

Stress in psychology is typically categorized into two types:

  • Eustress: The ‘positive stress’, the kind of stress that motivates and focuses energy, like the excitement before a big event or the pressure that leads to productivity.
  • Distress: The ‘negative stress’, the kind of chronic, unrelenting stress that feels overwhelming and unmanageable, leading to burnout, health problems, and decreased performance.

Psychologically speaking, stress is also linked to perception. How an individual perceives a situation greatly influences whether the situation will be experienced as stressful. Therefore, psychological interventions often focus on changing perceptions and responses to potentially stressful situations, alongside promoting relaxation and stress-reducing behaviors.

The Impacts of Stress

Stress is complex. When it becomes chronic, its impact can be far-reaching and affect various aspects of one’s life. Here are some key areas where stress can have the most significant effect:

  • Physical Health: Increased risk of heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes. Stress can also cause headaches, muscle tension or pain, fatigue, and upset stomach. Over time, it can weaken the immune system, making the body more susceptible to infections and illnesses.
  • Mental Health: Prolonged stress is a major contributor to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
  • Cognitive Functioning: Stress can lead to problems with memory, concentration, and decision-making. It can result in decreased productivity and effectiveness at work or school and can impair judgment and decision-making abilities.
  • Emotional Well-being: High-stress levels can cause emotional symptoms such as irritability, frustration, moodiness, and a feeling of being overwhelmed. It can lead to emotional exhaustion or numbness.
  • Behavioral Changes: Stress in psychology can lead to changes in behavior, such as increased use of alcohol, drugs, or tobacco, changes in sleep patterns, and eating disorders (either overeating or not eating enough). It can also result in social withdrawal and reduced engagement in previously enjoyable activities.
  • Relationships: Stress can strain personal and professional relationships. It can lead to increased conflict, reduced communication quality, and difficulties in maintaining healthy and supportive relationships.
  • Work Performance: In the workplace, stress can reduce the ability to focus and the sense of engagement, lowering productivity.
  • Long-term Implications: Over the long term, chronic stress can contribute to serious health conditions like stroke, obesity, and mental illnesses, and can significantly affect life expectancy.

Symptoms to Identify Stress Early

Stress manifests differently in different scenarios. Its symptoms are just as diverse as its causes. However, there are several tell-tale signs or key symptoms to watch out for:

Physical Symptoms

Physical symptoms of stress are the body’s response to perceived threats or demands and can vary widely among individuals. Common ones include:

  • Headaches: Frequent tension headaches or migraines.
  • Muscle Tension or Pain: Especially in the neck, shoulders, or back.
  • Fatigue: Feeling tired and drained most of the time.
  • Sleep Disturbances: Difficulty falling or staying asleep, or sleeping too much.
  • Stomach Issues: Upset stomach, nausea, or changes in appetite.
  • Frequent Illness: A weakened immune system leading to frequent colds or infections.

Emotional Symptoms

Clear psychological symptoms of stress include:

  • Moodiness or Irritability: Rapid mood swings or a short temper.
  • Feeling Overwhelmed: A sense that you are unable to handle the demands of your life.
  • Anxiety or Nervousness: Persistent worry and unease.
  • Depression or General Unhappiness: Feeling down, loss of interest in life.

Cognitive Symptoms

Chronic stress in psychology also leads to various cognitive impairments. Symptoms include:

  • Difficulty Concentrating: Struggling to focus and stay on task.
  • Memory Problems: Forgetting tasks or appointments.
  • Constant Worrying: An inability to stop worrying about various things.
  • Negative Outlook: Pessimistic thinking about life and the future.

Behavioral Symptoms

Coping with stress can cause various changes in one’s behavior. Signs of stress can be identified in:

  • Changes in Appetite: Eating too much or too little.
  • Procrastination and Avoiding Responsibilities: Delaying tasks or responsibilities.
  • Increased Use of Stimulant: Relying on substances to relax.
  • Nervous Behaviors: Nail biting, fidgeting, or pacing.

Workplace Symptoms

Work-related stress is increasingly common in our society. Notable signs of this are:

  • Decreased Productivity: Inability to complete work as usual.
  • Disengagement: Lack of interest or detachment from work.
  • Conflict with Colleagues: Increased conflicts or arguments at work.
  • Absenteeism: Taking more days off work due to stress-related issues.

How to Effectively Manage Stress?

Managing stress levels requires a more personal approach. as the effectiveness of stress relief techniques can vary greatly from person to person. What proves to be a powerful stress-buster for one individual might have little effect on another. On top of that, different stressors call for appropriate methods of remedy.

people talking stress in psychology
You might be surprised at how a simple conversation at work can help prevent stress development.

Here’s how you can tailor your stress management strategy to fit your unique needs:

  • Understand Your Stress Triggers: Pay close attention to the situations, people, or tasks that elevate your stress levels. This understanding will help you tailor your strategies to address these specific triggers. If you find it challenging to manage stress on your own, consider seeking help from a mental health professional. A therapy session often proves to be effective.
  • Experiment with Different Techniques: Try a variety of stress relief methods to see which ones resonate with you. This could range from physical activities like running or swimming to mental practices like meditation or journaling. After experimenting with different techniques, take time to reflect on which ones you find most effective. Note how each method affects your mood, energy levels, and overall well-being.
  • Incorporate Techniques into Your Routine: Once you identify the methods that work best for you, integrate them into your daily or weekly routine. Consistency is key to managing stress effectively.
  • Adjust as Needed: Be prepared to adjust your stress management techniques over time. As your life changes, so too might your stressors and the ways you need to handle them.
  • Balance is Essential: Your stress management plan should not feel overwhelming or burdensome. In the long run, strive for a balance that incorporates stress relief into your lifestyle without adding to your stress.

Wrapping It Up!

Stress has become the health pandemic of the 21st century, due to its widespread impact on various aspects of life and well-being. Chronically high-stress levels are linked to numerous physical health issues, such as heart disease, hypertension, and weakened immune function. Mental health is equally affected, with stress being a key contributor to conditions like anxiety and depression.

Understanding stress in psychology and its causes is the first step to proactively manage it. Addressing the ‘stress pandemic’ is not just an individual responsibility; it calls for a collective effort. This includes creating supportive work environments, fostering open conversations about mental health, and implementing policies that promote work-life balance.