Understanding Stress and What Causes It

By Amalia Sirica, LCSW on December 7th, 2021

If you feel overwhelmed, are using drugs or alcohol to cope with stress, or if you have thoughts of hurting yourself or others, seek medical attention.

Stress is defined as “a physical and emotional reaction that people experience as they encounter changes in life.” In the United States, 55% of Americans reported experiencing stress during “a lot of the day,” compared with 35% globally. The American Psychological Association recently declared a national mental health crisis in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic.

Nearly eight in ten (78%) adults said the pandemic has been a significant source of stress in their lives, and two in three adults (67%) say they have experienced increased stress over the course of the pandemic. In addition, nearly half (49%) say that their behavior has been negatively impacted.

It is clear from these statistics that people are experiencing stress at high rates. That said, there are ways that we can manage strains and our subsequent response to them. Unfortunately, life is not always predictable or without difficulty, but there are ways that we can build up resilience and strength to better handle stressful times.

Article at a Glance

  • Stress can have a significant effect on our bodies and minds over time.
  • Stress is much more common than would be ideal. 55% of Americans report experiencing stress during “a lot of the day.”
  • The best treatment for stress is prevention.
  • If we can catch the early warning signs of these pressures, we can take action to change before it becomes worse.

What Is Stress?

Stress is “a physical and emotional reaction that people experience as they encounter changes in life.” Stress can arise from big and small changes and is particularly likely when change is rapid and unexpected. Stress is usually diagnosed by the presentation of physical and mental symptoms and sometimes behavioral changes.

Ideally, we would only experience stress for short periods of time. Short-term stress (or acute stress) usually arises from a difficult situation that has an endpoint. An argument with a partner or a stressful work meeting would be an example of acute stress. Sometimes, it can even be a positive thing — certain stress can motivate us to make changes in our lives. For example, exercise puts short-term tension on the body, which results in building muscle and endurance.

It is not always the case that stress lasts for a short amount of time. Long-term stress (or chronic stress), in contrast, lingers and can have profoundly negative impacts on mental and physical health. For example, most of us just experienced the effects of prolonged stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Another example of chronic stress would be someone living in an unsafe environment and being unable to remove themselves.

Symptoms of Stress

Physical symptoms of stress might include headaches or dizziness, muscle tension, stomach issues or rapid heart rate. Mental symptoms could present as difficulty concentrating or struggling to make decisions.

If stress is left untreated for long enough, it may start to cause changes in our behavior. Chronic stress can lead to many negative effects — from increased irritability and feelings of anger to becoming overly reliant on drugs and alcohol. Additionally, it might manifest as more significant health issues, such as tension headaches or migraines.

Stress can significantly affect our bodies and minds over time, leading to chronic pain conditions and muscular difficulties. Long-term stress can put someone at higher risk for hypertension, heart attack or stroke.

Causes of Stress

Most adults experience stress at different points in their lives, and there are many reasons that stress arises. Some common causes include:

  • Changes in personal relationships (perhaps a breakup or a divorce)
  • Loss of a loved one
  • Money difficulties
  • Health issues
  • Problems with housing
  • Feeling lonely/a general lack of belonging

Sometimes, there are things that we can do to improve our situation and lessen our stress, but often stress is present due to factors beyond our control. For example, early childhood experiences and trauma have been shown to influence the stress that an individual experiences later in life.

In addition, socioeconomic status, racial identity and ethnicity all play roles in stress levels and are connected. In the United States, 39% of African-American children and adolescents and 33% of Latino children and adolescents are living in poverty, compared to non-Latino, White, and Asian children. Poverty has been shown to exert chronic psychological stress on children and adults. This chronic stress leads to poorer health outcomes and a higher risk for disease.

How Common Is Stress?

Stress is much more common than would be ideal. As mentioned above, 55% of Americans report experiencing stress during “a lot of the day.” Much of this is governed by things outside our control: long work hours, minimal time for rest, etc. But there are things that we can do to moderate our anxiety and increase resilience.

Treatment for Stress

The best treatment for stress is prevention. We can potentially prevent stress by improving our organizational abilities as well as creating routines and structure in our lives.

When stress does inevitably happen, there are some ways that we can manage it:

  • Relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises, meditation and yoga
  • Engaging in therapy to help us address thought patterns and past difficult experiences
  • Getting active! Engaging in physical activity
  • Spend time connecting with loved ones
  • Take breaks from technology and spend time in nature
  • Focus on taking things one day and sometimes one task at a time

These activities can also help us increase self-awareness and recognize when we begin to feel the signs and symptoms of stress. If we can catch the early warning signs, we can take action to modulate the stress before it becomes worse.

Note: as mentioned above, certain kinds of stress stem from things completely beyond individual control, such as socioeconomic status and racial identity. These factors can only be addressed and changed with widespread systemic change.

If you or a loved one are struggling with feelings of significant stress, there is help available. Consider trying out the Nobu mental wellness app or getting in touch with a trained professional. The app also offers online sessions with a licensed therapist for an additional fee.

abby doty headshot

Edited by – Abby Doty

Abby Doty graduated from Hamline University in 2021 with a Bachelor’s in English and Psychology. She has written and edited creative and literary work as well as academic pieces focused primarily on psychology and mental health. Read more.

Amalia Sirica

Written by – Amalia Sirica, LCSW

Amalia Sirica is New York State Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a writer. She received her bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Duke University and her master’s degree in Social Work from New York University… Read more.

dr angela phillips

Medically Reviewed by – Dr. Angela Phillips

Angela is a licensed therapist and clinical researcher, and has worked in public, private, government, and not-for-profit organizations, across clinical and research-oriented roles. Angela’s clinical and research experience has included suicide prevention, cognitive behavioral… Read more.