Psychological stress is a normal reaction to everyday pressures. However, chronic stress can be unhealthy, particularly when it affects a person’s day-to-day life.

Chronic stress can cause mental and physical symptoms and affect a person’s behavior and relationships.

Although preventing stress is not always possible, a person can learn to change their perception of stress and develop more effective coping strategies.

This article defines stress and outlines the mental, physical, and behavioral symptoms. It also lists some common causes of stress and provides information on diagnosis, treatment, and management strategies.

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The American Psychological Association (APA) defines psychological stress as an emotional response to an external trigger. Stress can be short-term or long-term, depending on whether the cause is temporary or ongoing.

Stress triggers the release of certain hormones, such as noradrenaline and cortisol. These hormones cause physiological changes in the body, which can negatively impact mental and physical health.

However, as the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) notes, people react to stress differently. Whereas one person may find a situation stressful, another may find it motivating. Psychological stress only becomes pathological when it interferes with a person’s health and well-being.

Read about the difference between stress and anxiety.

According to the NHS, stress may affect a person’s mental and physical health and behavior.

Mental symptoms

Psychological stress may cause the following mental health symptoms:

Physical symptoms

Psychological stress may also cause physical symptoms, such as:

Prolonged or “chronic” stress also increases the risk of the following health conditions:

Behavioral symptoms

People experiencing psychological stress may also develop certain patterns of behavior, such as:

  • eating too much or too little
  • sleeping too much or too little
  • drinking or smoking more
  • avoiding certain places or people

Stress can be short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic), depending on the cause.

Causes of acute stress

The World Health Organization (WHO) lists the following as potential causes of acute stress:

  • job interviews
  • school exams
  • unrealistic workloads
  • conflict with family, friends, or colleagues

Causes of chronic stress

In 2022, a global market research company conducted a survey on behalf of the APA, investigating the prevailing causes of stress among United States (US) citizens.

The survey identified several major causes of stress, including:

  • the current political climate
  • the current racial climate
  • concerns over violence, crime, and safety
  • worries about money and inflation

Learn more about chronic stress.

Stress is not an illness, though chronic stress can make a person more susceptible to serious illness. For this reason, people must learn to recognize and treat the early symptoms of stress.

Some people may have difficulty identifying the cause of their stress. A stress diary can help people identify their stressors and develop appropriate coping mechanisms.

A stress diary should record any stressful episodes that occur over 2–4 weeks, along with notes on the following:

  • the date and time that the stressful episode occurred
  • the place the episode occurred
  • who was present
  • the thoughts and emotions a person experienced
  • the physical sensations experienced
  • any behaviors that occurred
  • a stress rating from 0–10, with 10 representing the most intense level of stress

There is no single treatment for stress. Treatment involves identifying the cause of the stress and developing appropriate coping mechanisms. Often, this will involve making multiple lifestyle changes.

Managing stress through lifestyle

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest the following lifestyle changes to help with stress management:

Eating healthily

The central nervous system releases the hormones adrenaline and cortisol in response to stress. Acute stress can dampen a person’s appetite, whereas chronic stress can increase cravings for fat and sugar.

A nutritious diet can boost energy levels, allowing people to better deal with stressors. People should eat a balanced diet high in fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains, and low in unhealthy fat, salt, and added sugars.

Find a guide to eating a balanced diet.

Getting enough sleep

Daytime stress can negatively impact nighttime sleep, causing mood swings and problems with cognition.

Most adults need at least 7 hours of sleep per night. Going to bed and waking up at the same time each day can help to improve sleep quality.

Read about why sleep is essential for health.

Exercising regularly

Physical activity can lower stress levels and cancel out some of the negative effects of stress. People should aim to do around 2.5 hours of exercise per week.

Learn about exercise and how to start.

Limiting alcohol consumption

Some people drink alcohol to alleviate stress, but alcohol does not address the cause of stress and can seriously affect health.

People should drink in moderation or avoid drinking altogether. Moderate drinking equates to two drinks or less per day for men and one drink or less per day for women.

Find the best apps to stop drinking alcohol.

Quitting smoking if you smoke

Many people believe that smoking alleviates their stress. However, smoking can actually cause or contribute to stress because of the unpleasant nicotine cravings a person experiences.

Read about what happens after quitting smoking.

Practicing relaxation techniques

Stress causes muscle tension, which can result in various physical symptoms, including headache, backache, and fatigue. The following relaxation techniques can help boost relaxation and alleviate stress:

  • gentle exercise or stretching
  • progressive muscle relaxation
  • deep breathing exercises
  • meditation or mindfulness
  • taking a warm bath
  • engaging in activities that bring a sense of calm or joy
  • taking time out in nature

Find five relaxation techniques to try.

Connecting with others

A person can talk with trusted friends or family members about how they are feeling or about the issues that are causing them stress.

Trying therapy

The APA recommends cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as a potential treatment for stress. This therapy involves understanding how thoughts influence emotions and how those emotions influence certain behaviors. By reframing the thoughts around a stressor, a person can manage their emotions and reduce feelings of stress.

Learn more about stress and how to manage it.

A person should consider contacting a doctor if they are experiencing difficulties coping with stress or if their stress levels remain high despite trying self-help methods.

A doctor can recommend additional coping strategies for stress and may make a referral for talk therapy.

Alternatively, the APA offers a Psychologist Locator Service that allows people to find a therapist in their area.

The American Heart Association explains that the way an individual perceives stress plays an important role in the impact stress has on their health.

According to the AHA, stress increases the risk of disease, whereas a positive attitude and a sense of optimism and purpose are associated with better overall health.

Although it is not always possible to eliminate the cause of stress, a person can change their perception of stress so that it has less of an impact on their health and well-being. Lifestyle changes and talk therapy can help.

Psychological stress is a normal human reaction to everyday pressures. It can cause emotional and physiological symptoms, and chronic stress can contribute to serious health problems.

Treatment for stress usually involves lifestyle changes, such as exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and practicing relaxation techniques. If these are ineffective, a person can ask their doctor about additional coping strategies or request a referral for talk therapy.