What is Stress? | Symptoms, Causes and Treatments

Stress is an automatic physiological response that a person experiences on a mental and physical level.

It often occurs when put in a stimulating situation or experiencing an exciting event.

Stress is often an unconscious physiological response to any event that challenges an individual’s safety or well-being.

As a result, the fight or flight response (attack or run) often occurs during stressful events.

Stress may also occur during heightened feelings of pleasure or excitement (positive stress).

In many cases, stress causes strain on our bodies and mind.

However, life would be much more boring, and our ability to respond to threats is reduced significantly without it.

Stress improves our physiological performance by responding to negative or positive situations quickly and efficiently.

In addition, it enables us to focus on the most critical decision-making factors to ensure our survival.

On the other hand, too much negative stress can hamper our ability to lead happy and healthy lives.

It creates issues in our relationships, weakens our immune system, and makes us more susceptible to injuries & illnesses.

Simply put, stress is an early warning system that activates an automatic physiological response to provide us with the best possible survival.

What Causes Stress?

For an individual to experience stress, there must be a stressor (the object that causes stress).

Stressors may be physical or psychological and can include almost any stimulation.

For instance, stress can occur due to hunger or a lack of sleep.

It can also result from negative music, loud noises, financial difficulties, or a lousy date.

To give you some examples of the many stressors a person may face daily, we’ve included some examples below.

Examples of Physical Stressors:

  • A lack of sleep
  • Hunger
  • Physical exercise
  • Overexertion of the body’s muscles and tendons
  • Prolonged exposure to an uncomfortable or unnatural sitting, standing, or lying position
  • Sickness, diseases, or injuries that cause pain
  • Heat & light exposure
  • Body altering chemicals such as steroids  (may also cause mental stress)

In addition to the physical stressors, numerous mental/psychological stressors increase stress.

It includes facing overwhelming situations, unhealthy relationships, mentally challenging activities, and verbal abuse.

The following list provides examples of mental/psychological stressors. 

Examples of Mental/Psychological Stressors:

  • Being overwhelmed by a particular event or set of events
  • Mentally challenging activities
  • Unhealthy relationships
  • Dating
  • Verbal abuse
  • Managing numerous demanding tasks in an insufficient amount of time.
  • Being exposed to adverse or unwanted stimulation (i.e., music, movies, or games)
  • Negative internal dialogue
  • Brain-altering chemicals (may also cause physical stress)

In primitive times stressors and our stress response often meant the difference between life & death.

For instance, stress prevented people from being eaten.

It also triggered hunters to search for food to remain healthy and avoid becoming deathly ill.

Today stressors are often related to work, relationships, dieting, physical/mental health, and sleep.

How Stress Works

When we experience stress, our body enhances our brain and physical functions.

It impacts our neurological response, strength, sensory systems, and attention by releasing adrenaline, noradrenalin, and cortisol into our bloodstream.

This release of chemicals and our autonomous fight or flight response system allows us to react quickly to situations.

It enables us to perform feats that may be considered supernatural or impossible during non-threatening events.

Stress also causes our body to slow down non-essential functions such as our immune and digestive systems.

As a result, it can focus its full attention on the most vital factors and physiological components involved in our survival.

Fight or Flight Response

During stress, our body may experience a fight or flight response.

Fight or flight is an unconscious response to a threat or challenge.

It causes our brain to determine whether a particular individual, animal, or object (the stressor) is a threat.

It also determines whether we can safely defeat that particular stressor without injury or if it can cause us harm or death.

If we can easily defeat the stressor, our brain may tell us to fight or ignore the stressor.

However, if the stressor can harm us and we stand little chance of winning, our brain will likely tell us to flee.

In sports, we generally feel a less intense fight or flight that entices us to accept a challenge and continue participating in an event.

Nevertheless, when we are physically threatened, especially by a larger opponent, our body may tell us to flee (flight) from that situation.

From a psychological perspective, fight or flight may also affect us on a social level, such as when we go on a date.

While this type of interaction may cause an individual to experience stress and trigger a fight or flight response, it is often a perceived fear based on previous experiences.

While their fear may not be correct, it can falsely trigger stress and lead an individual to flee a non-threatening event.

Symptoms of Stress

There are numerous symptoms of those experiencing stress.

Understanding these signs and symptoms enables people to reduce stress quickly or use it more effectively.

Short-term stress may provide positive effects like improved focus, faster decision-making, and enhanced strength.

However, long-term stress can lead to various negative consequences.

It includes lethargy, difficulty breathing, panic attacks, chronic fatigue, sleeping difficulties, chest pain, and muscle and headaches.

The following list includes common symptoms related to short and long-term stress.

Signs and Symptoms

  • Abnormally high heart rate
  • Abnormal menstrual cycle
  • Anxiety | long-term stress
  • Chest pain
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dizziness | feeling sick to the stomach
  • Headaches
  • High blood pressure
  • Muscle aches
  • Muscle tightness
  • Sleep issues
  • Sweating

The previously mentioned list doesn’t cover all symptoms of stress.

However, it provides an excellent reference for common signs associated with the condition.

Treatments for Stress

Numerous treatments and therapies are available to help people manage and reduce stress.

It includes acupuncture, cognitive-behavioral therapy, massages, meditation, and yoga.

Some people also learn to prioritize tasks betters, develop automation systems, and delegate duties to reduce stress.

A hybrid of personalized therapies and improved management of tasks/duties is essential for treating stress effectively.

Treatments and Therapies

  • Acupuncture
  • Aromatherapy
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy
  • Developing better systems to manage tasks
  • Eliminating stressful activities
  • Limiting stimulants and depressants
  • Massages
  • Meditation and mindfulness
  • Optimizing diet, rest, and recovery
  • Prioritizing tasks and responsibilities better
  • Setting attainable goals
  • Regular exercise
  • Talk therapy
  • Yoga

Using Stress to Complete Vital Tasks

Stress is sometimes beneficial when we must complete a task that we don’t find interesting.

For instance, stress helps us finish a school paper to pass a class when regular motivation doesn’t work.

By imagining ourselves failing and being humiliated or not being successful, we can trigger our fight or flight response.

It boosts our concentration and commitment by creating harmful negative consequences of failing our class.

Understanding how we respond to imaginary threats helps us develop strategies to control our fight or flight response.

As a result, we can lead happier, healthier lives by using stress to complete necessary tasks and responsibilities.

Protecting Ourselves and Our Loved Ones

In addition to protecting ourselves, stress helps us in emergencies where a family member may require help.

For example, numerous cases exist of individuals lifting heavy objects off people trapped in debris or large objects.

In these cases, the stress they received released adrenaline and other muscle-stimulating chemicals.

It boosts the individual’s physiological state and strength.

As a result, they reacted quickly and lifted an object that would otherwise be too heavy to pick up.

Stress may also cause us to be less susceptible to pain by temporarily numbing the pain.

Accordingly, it enables us to fight through a highly uncomfortable experience to save ourselves or others.

How stress Affects us Today

Stress was a vital component of our survival during primitive times and war.

However, it has numerous positive and negative effects in modern times.

For instance, stress can improve our mental/physical health.

Nevertheless, it can cause implications and unnecessary physiological damage during civilized times.

For example, an employee may set a deadline for a project, creating an artificial stressor.

This stressor may get the employee to complete a project promptly.

However, it can also cause them to burn out and become mentally exhausted and physically stressed.

Over time, stressors lower the immune system, reduce concentration, and cause adverse physiological effects.

It can also cause the employee to develop problems in their personal life among their most important relationships.

The unnatural release of cortisol and adrenaline can also cause issues with the individual’s ability to sleep and respond to real emergencies.

Stress can improve our performance, longevity, and pleasure when used effectively.

Positive Stress

Not all stress is negative.

For instance, an individual can improve their health, flexibility, cardiovascular system, and strength by participating in a sport or exercise program.

It enables them to place a manageable amount of stress on the body to get fit while enjoying what they are doing.

Nevertheless, receiving adequate rest and recovery in between these stressful activities is essential.

These physical activities allow the body to release the same physiological boosting chemicals released during fight or flight.

It includes adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol.

However, it also releases positive chemicals like dopamine and other reward/pleasure chemicals.

These positive chemicals enable people to enjoy interactions with others and the activities they are performing.

The chemicals and activities lead to pleasurable experiences while conditioning the body to respond to future stressors.

From a natural selection perspective, those who frequently participate in social interactions and physical activities often stand the best chances of passing on their genes.

While these activities often cause individuals to experience stress and burnout, they also cause the same individual to experience pleasure and realize their genetic potential.


Stress heightens an individual’s ability to respond to a real or perceived threat.

It boosts people’s focus, senses, and physical abilities and gives them the best chance for survival.

When used effectively, stress can improve our lives and allow us to become healthier.

However, misused stress can create health and relationship problems with long-lasting harmful consequences.