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Feeling stressed out? Here’s What It Means and What You Can Do About It

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

Stop feeling stressed out and start building your health and wellbeing.

Do you know that over 77% of people suffer from stress?

Feeling stressed out is so common, that you most likely accepted it as normal. But here is the twist. Only because it is common, it doesn’t mean that you have to feel stressed out every single moment of your life.

What would your life look like if you were calm, relaxed, more focused, and motivated? What would you be able to accomplish if you were productive and inspired?

Keep reading as in this blog post, I explain what stress is, what are the types of stress, how stress affects your health and wellbeing, why you feel stressed out and how to manage it.

What Is Stress?

Shallow breath, increased heart rate, sweaty palms, not being able to concentrate, feeling irritated, afraid, and having digestive issues are all ways you experience stress. Actually, I could go on and add more such as lack of motivation, weight gain, poor quality sleep, or hormonal imbalance.

Stress impacts more areas of your life than you think.

Stress definition is pretty simple because anything that takes you out of your comfort zone will cause you stress. And why wouldn’t it? After all, stress is a survival mechanism.

Stress is a biological response that is more than 100, 000 years old. It is your body’s response to danger. Back then, the perceived danger our ancestors faced was a tiger or a hostile tribe.

In both instances, the threat was real, and it could have cost lives. It is only natural that your body created a mechanism to protect you.

The stress response is called ‘fight or flight’ response, and some schools of thought add also ‘freeze’. Those are all actions your body undergoes during a stress response.

You either stay in the arena and fight the opponent, or you flight the scene to protect yourself from harm, or even possible death. The third option is to freeze. If you heard the saying: ‘deer caught in the headlights’ now you know where it comes from.

What Are the Types of Stress

Nature designed a body response to deal with immediate danger to our lives, but stress evolved the same way humans did. Hence, there are two types of stress.

The type of stress you are most familiar with is acute stress.

Acute stress is one-off event stress. Nowadays, this is stress that you experience before an exam, an important job interview, or when you deliver a presentation. But acute stress can also come from what may be seen as positive events such as going on a date, a wedding, the birth of a child, big celebration, and so on.

The second type of stress is chronic stress.

Chronic stress is more complex because it is stress that you experience for a prolonged period of time. It most likely started as acute stress, but for many weeks, months, or even years you still experience the effects of stress.

You might have been stressed before your first day at work. And that is perfectly natural. You felt excited about something new, you were eager to show that the company made the right decision hiring you, and you were ready to make new friendships.

But six months down the track, you still feel stressed. This time the feeling comes from you obsessing about what others think about you and worrying that you won’t meet your KPIs proving that you weren’t a good candidate after all. The novelty of the job ended, and now you feel the real pressure.

Unfortunately, the stress that the majority of us feel is chronic stress.

Chronic stress if not treated has enormous consequences on your health and wellbeing. Many of us don’t recognize the danger of living in a constant state of stress until is too late.

How Stress Affects Your Wellbeing

Both acute and chronic stress affects your health and wellbeing. Three major ways to distinguish how stress affects you are biological, cognitive, and behavioural.

Biological Effects of Stress

When you unpack stress to the bare bones, stress is a biological reaction. This means that when your stress response is triggered, a number of biological reactions happen in your body.

Firstly, your body starts producing adrenaline and cortisol, the main stress hormones. Adrenaline helps you to get into action. It motivates you and gets you to do things that ordinarily you wouldn’t be brave enough to do.

This is the good side of adrenaline.

The downside of adrenaline is that it creates hormonal havoc inside you. It interferes with other hormones, such as progesterone. Progesterone is linked to fertility, therefore if your body is constantly flooded by adrenaline, you may experience difficulties with conceiving.

The main role of cortisol is to keep you alert. Actually, your body produces cortisol naturally, at about 3 am to help you to wake up in the morning. However, as with adrenaline, being constantly flooded with cortisol is not good for you.

Cortisol directly affects the way your body stores fat tissue. Therefore, if you are constantly stressed out, you may experience weight fluctuation and possible weight gain, and difficulty losing those extra kilos.

But during the fight or flight response, your body re-prioritizes what biological processes are to happen.

Your blood is being pulled and delivered to your extremities. You need to be ready to either fight or run away. Your digestive processes stop because, at the moment when you are fighting for life, you can’t waste any energy thinking about dinner!

Cognitive Effects of Stress

If you ever had trouble concentrating, making a decision, or remembering something while under stress, you experienced the cognitive effects of stress. In other words, your brain went on strike.

The biggest change, during a stress response, happens in the logical part of your brain. First of all, there is less oxygen being delivered. This causes you to have a foggy brain and not be able to focus.

You may also notice that you are more emotional while under stress. You may be angry, irritated, or impatient. Or you can be very emotional, on the verge of crying, feeling sad, or even depressed. You may have negative thoughts coming up to the surface.

This happens because the logical part of your brain is switched off. When you are in danger, there is no time for logical thinking, looking for solutions to your financial problems, or trying to plan the next birthday party.

At that critical moment in life, your emotional brain is in charge. You feel the need to do something to save yourself. You simply need to be a bit emotional.

Behavioural Effects of Stress

Now you came to the most important part of how stress affects you, because, you see, all those biological and cognitive reactions don’t just happen. They influence your behaviour.

Whether you act on something or not is directed by stress.

Also, the way you respond to a situation is directed by stress. Every thought, feeling, action or non-action is a direct reaction to what is happening to you on a biological and cognitive level.

If you had a stressful day at work, how do you behave when you get home? Most likely you are starving, possibly even suffering from a headache, so you go to the pantry and eat whatever you find there. At that moment your body will be craving carbohydrates (aka sugar) so it is no surprise that crisps, ice cream, cookies or other sugary treats are your first choice.

Because you are on an emotional rollercoaster, you want to calm yourself and stay focused but your patience is at its lowest, so you snap at your loved ones not even knowing why. You may even reach for some stimulants such as alcohol, cigarettes, or medication.

And before you know it, you talk yourself out of going to a gym or that Pilates or yoga class, working on a goal that would help with your financial situation, or ordering takeout instead of cooking a nutritious dinner.

That avalanche of behaviours happens because you were stressed out.

Long Term Effects of Stress

You may recognise some of the effects of stress already, either in your physical or mental health. Stress was designed to protect us from danger, and on the contrary, it is a good thing.

Acute stress helps to get you moving, take a risk and move forward.

Your body is ready to cope with the consequences of acute stress because it happens for a short period of time. Back in your ancestors’ times, when they saw a tiger, they either fought it or ran away.

Either way, it happened very fast.

Your body initiated all those chemical reactions and shortly thereafter came back to homeostasis. The issue here is that nowadays you get stuck in that stress response and your body can’t handle it.

There is still more research needed, but scientists have already mapped out some of the consequences of chronic stress on your health and wellness. Some of them are very serious, or even deadly.

The most common stress symptoms are fatigue, lack of energy and quality sleep, hormonal imbalances, weight gain, and a decrease in productivity just to name a few. But the constant wear and tear, the chemical imbalances, and the shutting down of digestive and reproductive systems can all lead to chronic health conditions such as coronary disease, diabetes, and many immunological issues, including cancer.

What Causes Stress

Now that you know what the consequences of stress are, including chronic stress, it is time to understand what causes stress. The first thing I need you to understand is that you will always experience stress.

Stress is a biological response, and it cannot be eliminated.

But I want you to look at it from a positive perspective. Sometimes stress is good, and frankly, you need to feel stressed out to simply act. How many times did you say you would do something, but you procrastinated? It wasn’t until you had some pressure that it got you into action.

Adrenaline motivates you. You heard about all those heroic events. Or possibly even conducted one yourself and helped someone in danger. That was stress in action.

But putting this aside, stress is beneficial only in short episodes.

Ultimately stress is caused because you perceive something as a danger to your life. For your ancestors, it was a tiger or a member of another, possibly hostile tribe. It was a real threat.

Today, your stress response is triggered every time you perceive something as a danger.

This is fundamental to understand because once you can recognise what you perceive as a threat, you can get to the bottom of why, and make plans to manage your stress.

Of course, when I am talking about threats to you, I am not talking about a physical, violent or harmful threat. The stress you perceive happens on your psychological level and it is a threat to your ego, or self-esteem and self-confidence.

How to Manage Stress

Stress is a biological reaction and it cannot be eliminated. It affects you biologically and cognitively. As a result of the changes that happen to you during the stress response, you either act on something or not, you either follow healthy habits or not, and you either feel motivated and inspired or not.

Stress relief is possible, regardless of what type of stress you experience. I believe that there is only one way you can manage stress. And that is by building habits, aka routines, that support your wellness.

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