Medically reviewed by Aaron Wiegmann, MD, MS Plastic Surgeon February 01, 2024| Written by Zenda Nel


Increasing stress levels are a sad fact of modern life. In fact, stress has become so prevalent that even children experience and need to cope with it.

So, what is stress? 

Unlike common perception, stress is not a disease. Rather, it's the body’s natural response to a stressor. The response can be physical, emotional, or mental. Meanwhile, the stressors could be anything from living in an unsafe neighborhood or a hostile work environment to joining a new job, moving to another country, or some major life events such as sudden death. 

In short, a myriad of happenings and circumstances can cause stress - some of which happen suddenly and some that are pervasive. Yet, all of them make one feel powerless. 

But what happens to the body when we feel stressed?

As soon as the body perceives a threat it responds by increasing the release of hormones like cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. These hormones heighten alertness, increase muscle tension, and raise blood pressure. 

In other words, the body prepares itself for the evolutionary “fight or flight” response. 

However, this response comes from prehistoric times when man needed protection against physical danger. After all, the earliest of stressors were a matter of life and death. 

But most of today's dangers don't come in the form of an attack by a lion or a tiger. And so, we sit with our arteries flooded with stress hormones. But instead of helping to protect us, these endanger our health in the long run. 

It’s because stress hormones, especially repeated exposure to cortisol, can contribute to a range of health problems.

Is All Stress Bad? 

Stress is a natural part of life and without it, we would probably get nothing done. After all, it’s the stress that gets you going in the morning to meet the demands and promises of the day - whether it's doing a presentation, arranging an office party, or taking a child to the doctor.

Stress can be caused by positive life events as well, such as getting married, being promoted, or going on a date. In these circumstances, stress is short-lived and beneficial.

How Prevalent is Stress? 

In recent years, stress levels have skyrocketed. Studies show that adults, teens, and children across the world experience stress. According to a report byIpsos, a third of the world population felt stress to the point that it affected their daily life several times during 2022. 

The same report states that about half of Americans and 60% of survey participants in 34 countries felt stressed to the point where they felt like they could not cope or deal with things at least once in the past year. Women were more likely to report high-stress levels.

According to the American Psychological AssociationStress Report, 13% of teens say they experience extreme stress levels over the summer. Twice that number experience the same level of stress during the school year.

Shockingly, American teens estimate their stress levels ashigher than that of adults. On a 10-point scale, where normal values for adults are 3.8, American teens rated their stress at an average score of 5.8, as reported by 

Common Life Stressors

Stress can be the result of external stressors like a hostile work environment, serious illness of someone you love, or financial worries. It can also be due to internal stressors like the tendency to worry about everything or pervasive feelings of insecurity.

How we deal with stress and what we find stressful is different for every person. Our ability to cope with life depends on many factors, including genetics, childhood experiences, parental influence, personality traits, and social and economic circumstances.

This is why what is stressful for one person may not necessarily be stressful for someone else. 

For instance, for people who love socializing and dancing, there may be nothing more enjoyable than a party. But the same may be an introvert’s worst nightmare and therefore, a major stressor. 

While you are perfectly aware of factors causing stress in your life, it might be useful to look at stressors that may also be at play in your life. Besides, being aware of the most common stressors will help you to have empathy with someone experiencing a difficult time in their life. 

1. Troublesome Personal Relationships

From a busy-body mother or a taciturn spouse to a spiteful co-worker, many of us have at least one relationship in our lives that causes us stress. This difficult relationship can be with anyone from our significant other, parent, sibling, friend, co-worker, or even a child.

That said, toxic relationships are not always characterized by ‘constant conflict’. After all, relationships where parties don't communicate for days, weeks, months, and even years at the end, are also immensely stressful.

A troublesome interpersonal relationship is one of the heaviest stressors. In fact, it can have an immensely negative impact on a person's well-being. 

2. Parenting

Even at its best, parenting is extremely stressful. Add to that household duties, long working hours, school demands, monitoring homework, and preparing healthy meals, and there - you have a recipe for constant stress! 

In most households where both parents must work to earn enough for the family, there is the added stress of what happens to the children after school hours and how to pay for it.  

Under these conditions, there is hardly time to pay attention to a child recounting their day at school. And so, it's easy to miss a critical snippet of information that impacted the child that day. This can later grow into a bigger issue later - adding more stress to the already stressed parent. 

3. Financial Problems

Financial worries are a major stress factor in many American households. Indeed, Capital One'sCreditWise survey found that finances are the number-one cause of stress (73%). Politics contributes 59%, work 49%, and family 46% to stress levels.

Younger generations are also anxious about finances. The majority of Gen Z’ers (82%) and millennials (81%) indicated they find finances somewhat stressful.

Financial insecurity is extremely stressful because it affects survival. For sole breadwinners, it can be especially stressful because there's no one to fall back on. In relationships, it can lead to constant conflict and sometimes even the demise of that relationship. 

All this can cause more stress and therefore, increase the risk of developing health problems. 

4. Work

Work is a massive part of life and for many people, it's a major stress factor. An average worker works at least 40 hours per week for about 40 years. This adds up to roughly 83,200 work hours in a lifetime - but many people spend even more time at work. 

Now, that's a lot of hours for a lot of things to happen that can cause stress. No wonder, a Gallup study found that 44% of employeesindicated that they experience stress at work daily.

A constant heavy workload, job insecurity, interpersonal conflict, constant changes, an overbearing boss, and conflicts with co-workers can all cause unbearable stress at work. This can also lead to soaring absenteeism due to ensuing physical and mental health problems. 

5. Being Too Busy

These days, we are busier than ever before, and it adds to the stress in our lives. If you are in a relationship, have children, and work full-time. Then, you are already extremely busy. But if you are juggling two jobs, you are then hopelessly too busy. 

Busy people tend to multitask, are constantly exhausted, have a hard time focusing, and have a constant, nagging feeling of guilt – a sure sense that they are not paying attention to what is truly important, like nurturing their friendships or spending time alone. 

Being too busy can lead to high levels of stress, and in severe cases, to burnout. 

6. Internal Stressors

Internal stressors are the sources of stress that are within us. Most of us are burdened by internal stressors, i.e. thoughts and feelings that make us feel stressed, such as a feeling that we are not good enough, harboring unrealistic expectations, feeling unsure, and having misgivings.

Negative self-talk, warped thinking, and a tendency to dramatize or catastrophize can also make an external stressor appear worse than it is.

Since our thoughts and feelings color every situation. Therefore, internal stressors can change even a happy event into a stressor by giving it a different meaning. 

However, internal stressors are one aspect of stress that we can control if we are sufficiently aware. One way is to identify these contributing factors and deal with them one at a time to cope better with stress.

Chronic Stress vs. Normal Stress

Normal or ‘Acute’ stress is short-lived. Meanwhile, chronic stress is long-term stress. 

You experience normal stress when something frustrates you, like someone walking slowly in front of you when you're in a hurry, or when you struggle to unlock your car door in a quiet street at night. As soon as you pass the dawdler or unlock your car door, the stress vanishes.

The body can easily handle short-term stress. So, as soon as the threat is gone, heart rate, breathing, and muscle tension return to normal. 

But chronic stress doesn’t easily go away. It’s usually a result of repeated exposure to a stressor. And so, the body gets accustomed to living in stress. 

For instance, living in a dangerous neighborhood, constant conflict with a partner, or job insecurity for long periods can cause chronic stress. In this case, the stress slowly increases resting heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, and levels of muscle tension. 

But these don’t just go away in the absence of stressors as the body is already conditioned to these. Over time, these changes culminate inserious diseases.

Research has linked chronic stress to serious health conditions, including neurological disorders, heart diseases, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. 

Stress hormones impact a wide range of bodily systems. According to a study,75-90% of human diseases are related to the activation of the stress system.

Considering these findings, it's critical to recognize and address chronic stress symptoms.

Stress Symptoms

While it is not possible to prevent stress and stressful situations, there is no need for despair. It is possible to get a grip on stress, so it doesn't sabotage your life.

The first step is to identify what causes you stress. You can do so by noticing the following effects it may have on your body:

  • Headaches and migraines
  • Unexplained pain in your body
  • Constant severe tiredness
  • High blood pressure and heart rate
  • Feelings of depression and anxiety
  • Diminishing self-confidence
  • Difficulty concentrating and focusing
  • Sleeping problems
  • Loss of enthusiasm
  • avoidance of interaction with others

Positive Stress Management Techniques

1. Stop Catastrophizing 

As mentioned earlier, stress can be caused by internal stressors. One such internal stressor is anticipating problems so you're always ready to cope with anything. This habit can lead to unnecessary worry and anxiety. However, the tendency to constantly anticipate problems when there are none is called ‘catastrophizing’. 

This habit can result in chronic stress. After all, catastrophizing also means interpreting life and everyday events negatively. This may lead to strained relationships and an inability to enjoy life. 

In severe cases, it can lead to physical symptoms like muscle pain, stroke, and mental health conditions like depression, and anxiety. 

To stop this negative cycle, it's helpful to practice present-moment awareness and gratitude. Instead of fretting about what might go wrong, open your eyes to everything right about this very moment. 

2. Cherish and Prioritize Human Connections

Human connection is the sense of closeness and comfort you experience with close friends and family members. Strong human connections form a strong support system, essential for mental and psychological wellness and the ability to deal with stress.

A good idea is to meet people one-on-one rather than connecting only via social media. After all, an image on a screen, no matter who it is, cannot be a substitute for a warm hug. 

3. Find Solace in Nature

Spending time in nature can have a profound impact on how one feels. Sitting under a tree or going for a walk reduces stress and anxiety, boosts the immune system, and improves mood. 

Research has shown that spending at least ten minutes outdoors can help reduce the mental and physical effects of stress.

4. Get Some Exercise

The mood-boosting effects of exercise are well-known. Areview of scientific studies on the effect of exercise on mood found exercise alleviates negative mood and enhances positive mood. It’s because regular exercise reduces tension, depression, anger, and confusion.

A comprehensivescientific review also found that moderate-to-vigorous intensity exercise of no more than 60 min supports the immune system.

5. Practice Cognitive Reframing

Cognitive reframing is a powerful tool for handling stress and other life problems. It is based on the premise that everyone perceives situations differently – what you may see as a disaster may hardly register as something significant for someone else. 

Cognitive reframing can help you to view stressful experiences differently. After all, your view may not be accurate.

It is not a difficult technique to learn. You can find many onlineresources or a professional to help you. Once you have mastered the technique, it can help you in many spheres of life.

What Role Do Food and Lifestyle Play?

We’re all aware that stress negatively affects our eating habits. After all, we’ve all been through those secret forays to the fridge in the middle of the night after a stressful day.

Uncontrolled eating or so-called “stress eating” is something many of us do to cope with everyday stress. But then, the increasing weight further adds to the stress levels. 

So, here are some positive lifestyle modifications that can help us with stress.

1. Healthy Eating

Follow a whole food diet consisting of whole grains, fruits, non-starchy vegetables, nuts, and some dairy. Be sure to prioritize protein by choosing lean meat, chicken, fish, eggs, beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds as your protein sources.

Food high in proteins has the nutrients to meet the body's stress response needs. Vegetables like broccoli and onions provide vitamins and minerals that support the adrenal glands.

2. Don't Skip Meals

While some people overeat when stressed, others lose their appetite and regularly skip meals. This may be unhealthy if not fasting in a planned and scientifically backed way. 

When you skip a meal, your blood sugar drops. When that happens, there is too little glucose for the brain to function properly. And so, the body increases cortisol production, and you may start feeling even more stressed.  

It's tempting to simply skip a meal when you are very busy. But you shouldn’t cause this habit may lead to increased stress levels.

3. Avoid Highly Refined Carbs and Sugar

Here is a list of food that is best to avoid:

  • Sugary cereals
  • Pastries
  • White bread
  • Pasta 
  • Biscuits
  • Candy

Instead, settle for food rich in complex carbohydrates, such as whole wheat bread, unpolished rice, whole wheat pasta, rye, oats, barley, and quinoa.

Wait, why should you avoid refined carbs? Does that delicious croissant with jam in the morning add to your stress levels? 

It mustn’t. But oh, it so does. 

You see, refined carbs cause first a sharp spike, then a spectacular drop in blood sugar levels. This sharp drop triggers the stress response, which can make you feel stressed or anxious.

4. Limit Your Caffeine Intake

Caffeine is present in coffee, tea, chocolate, and energy drinks. It stimulates the central nervous system, which can lead to sleeping problems. Some people have a low tolerance for caffeine, which makes them jittery or anxious when they have too much, while others can't tolerate it at all. 

Consider that too much coffee caninterfere with your sleep and if you don't sleep enough, your stress levels will increase over time.

Learn to Say "No"

For anyone who carries many responsibilities, knowing when to say "no" is an essential skill. You can reduce your stress levels considerably by not taking on tasks and social responsibilities that don't add value to the quality of your life. 

A good start is to set clear boundaries to let people know what they can expect from you.

Final Thoughts

Stress is a fact of life; we can't avoid it. Some level of stress is necessary for a productive life. However, excessive stress depletes one's energy and takes all the joy out of life. It has also been found a contributing factor to diseases like high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease. 

So, we must manage the stressors in our lives. We can do so by identifying the stressors and adopting positive stress management techniques to keep our stress levels in check.