According to the National Institute of Mental Health, stress is the brain and body’s response to change, challenge, or demand. It is the body’s natural defense against danger brought on by an event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or nervous. When a stressful event occurs, the body is flooded with hormones to avoid or confront danger. This is commonly referred to as the fight-or-flight response.
Stress can become a chronic condition if the proper steps to manage it are not taken. Chronic stress can cause chemical changes in the body that may raise blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar levels. Long-term stress or high levels of stress may also lead to mental and physical health problems.
Symptoms of Stress
Stress can produce the following symptoms:
- Low energy;
- Upset stomach, including diarrhea, constipation, and nausea;
- Aches, pains, and tense muscles;
- Chest pain and rapid heartbeat;
- Frequent colds and infections;
- Loss of sexual desire and/or ability.
Beyond these physical symptoms, stress can also have a big impact on your emotions and general mood.
Stress.org describes a few of the mental or emotional symptoms of mounting stress:
- Difficulty concentrating, racing thoughts;
- Trouble learning new information;
- Forgetfulness, disorganization, confusion;
- Difficulty in making decisions;
- Feeling overloaded or overwhelmed;
- Frequent crying spells or suicidal thoughts;
- Feelings of loneliness or worthlessness;
- Little interest in appearance, punctuality;
- Nervous habits, fidgeting, feet tapping;
- Increased frustration, irritability, edginess;
- Overreaction to petty annoyances.
How Do You Respond to Stress?
Strategies like ignoring or denying stress (what experts call avoidance coping), or distracting ourselves, which may be effective short-term, can also undermine our health and happiness in the long run. Research published in the Journal of Research in Personality shows that present-moment awareness, a key feature of mindfulness, increases stress resilience and effective coping.
Present-moment awareness involves monitoring and attending to current experience rather than predicting future events or dwelling on the past. Studies show that an individual’s disposition toward remaining in the present moment is linked to numerous health benefits including lower levels of perceived stress, anxiety and depression, improved mood, and a sense of improved well-being.
In the study, a team of Australian researchers examined the effects of present moment-awareness in a sample of 143, well-educated university students and staff (76.3% female) who were part of an online mindfulness training course. The researchers surveyed the study participants with a focus on three stress response variables.
Three stress response variables:
- Your perceived competence in dealing with a stressful situation. Whether people believe they have the ability to handle a situation or not, plays a role in how they deal with stress. This is called coping self-efficacy and is an indicator of our ability to motivate ourselves to effectively respond to stressful circumstances.
- Your reliance on core values when responding to stressful situations. Relying on values rather than reacting to immediate short-term situations is described as “values-consistent responding.” This describes when your responses are consistent with long-term goals and aspirations, rather than being influenced by the current situation. Being present, research shows, allows you to be more aware of your options and values, which translates to a heightened sense of well-being, diminished psychological distress, and greater pain tolerance in the presence of stressful circumstances.
- Your level of avoidance of stressful feelings. Avoidance coping is characterized by a tendency to retreat from stressful life events. This coping style is associated with increased psychological distress, and reduced well-being across the lifespan.
Results of the study confirmed that those with greater present-moment awareness were more likely to respond to stress with strategies that lead to greater health and well-being. Specifically, being present in the moment when stressed was directly linked to greater perceived ability to handle that stress and more reliance on core values to navigate the situation.