Surprising Symptoms and Benefits of Stress

Believe it or not, there is good stress. Find out how short-term stressors bring us focus and energy and protect us from danger. Also, learn the warning signs of chronic stress.

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Dec 8, 2022 UPDATED
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The extent to which stress impacts our lives is difficult to fully comprehend.

This is truer than ever in the face of “COVID stress.” 

In fact, according to the American Psychological Association (APA) "Stress in America 2020" report, nearly eight out of ten U.S. adults (78%) say the COVID-19 crisis has been a main cause of stress in their lives.  

There is even a name for the “unique traumatic stress" people experienced during the global pandemic—it’s being called "COVID trauma."

Fortunately, meaningful dialogue about stress, and its cousin anxiety, is growing. 

Good stress is a real thing. And it even has a fancy name: eustress. 

Navigating the challenges, demands, and concerns of everyday life begins with recognizing the specific types of stress affecting us. 

Did you know that stress is normal and some types of stress can be helpful? 

It’s true. Good stress is a real thing. And it even has a fancy name: eustress. 

Stress developed in early humans to help prepare our bodies to fight predators or to flee—and while we don’t need to fight off animals as much in our modern lives—stress can still be beneficial for us.

Chronic negative stress is known as distress—aka bad stress or toxic stress that can damage our health.

Positive stress can push us to prepare for an important presentation at work, and it can even increase our reaction time and save our lives in emergency situations.

Chronic negative stress is known as distress. This is the type of bad stress or toxic stress that can damage our health.

In order to better recognize the difference between good and bad stress, let’s take a look at the different types of stress and their own unique physical and emotional signs and symptoms.

signs of stress stats

What is stress, actually, and what does it feel like?

Stress is our bodies’ reaction to challenges and pressure. 

It’s an intense feeling of concern, agitation, and worry.

Stress is our bodies’ reaction to challenges and pressure. 

On its own, stress is not a mental health disorder. 

Stress is actually a normal human response we all experience.

When we encounter changes or challenges that stress us out, our bodies produce physical and mental reactions. 

Stress can feel like:

  • A tightness in our chest and faster heartbeat

  • More rapid breathing

  • Excessive sweating

  • Tension in our muscles

  • A clenching, churning stomach

  • Tingling in our legs and arms

These stress sensations may be familiar to you, and it’s OK. We’ve all felt it. 

Physical signs of stress include fidgeting, rocking in our chairs, rubbing our hands, and constantly checking the clock or our mobile phones.

Did you know that stress is normal and some types of stress can be helpful? 

How good stress can benefit us

Believe it or not, short-term acute stress can be positive, according to the National Library of Medicine’s MedlinePlus.

When experienced in short bursts, Villanova University’s Student Life Department explains, “The body's stress response enhances a person's ability to perform well under pressure.”

As Villanova University points out to students, the stress response (also called the “fight or flight” response) is critical during emergency situations to prepare us to react quickly and effectively to handle pressure. 

Stress helps sharpen our senses to assess the possibility of threats in new situations and unfamiliar spaces.

For example, this type of in-the-moment, short-term stress can help us avoid danger, such as when a deer jumps in front of our car on a dark road and we need to quickly assess whether to turn the steering wheel and/or hit the brakes.

Stress helps sharpen our senses to assess the possibility of threats in new situations and unfamiliar spaces.

When walking on a dark road at night, the feeling of stress can be a positive trigger—keeping us alert and ready to react to sounds to ensure we avoid danger. 

This same acute stress reaction can also be activated in a milder form at a time when the emotional and psychological pressure is on but there’s no actual threat of physical harm. 

In these cases, stress can keep us alert while working on a complex project, it helps us to stay up later to get an assignment completed, and it assists in motivating us to meet tight deadlines—such as preparing for an important team meeting at our job or finishing homework for school. 

Reframing our mindset about stress can unlock its benefits

“When you feel your heart pounding from anxiety,” says The Upside of Stress author, Stanford psychologist Dr. Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D, in a 2015 interview with Stanford News, “you think about how your body is trying to give you the energy you need to rise to the challenge.”

While researching her book, McGonigal told Stanford News, she found three surprisingly protective positive beliefs we can have about stress.

3 positive mindsets we can cultivate about stress:

1. To view our bodies’ stress response as helpful, not debilitating—for example, to view stress as energy we can use

2. To view ourselves as able to handle, and even learn and grow from, the stress in our lives

3. To view stress as something that everyone deals with, and not something that proves how uniquely screwed up our lives are.

Harnessing the power of stress to help us thrive

The human body is not only designed to experience stress, and it can be a tool to help us build resilience and tenacity in the face of the many obstacles we may encounter in life.

In a 2021 study, University of Rochester psychologists found college students who “reinterpreted their stress response as performance-enhancing” to be less anxious and generally healthier.

“Conventional thinking suggests that stress is inherently bad and should always be avoided—this may sometimes be misguided, however, because stress is a normal and even defining feature of modern life,” the study’s author, Dr. Jeremy Jamieson, Ph.D., tells University of Rochester Newscenter.

“For instance, a student preparing for their first job interview might perceive their racing heart and sweaty palms as signs they are nervous and about to ‘bomb’ when, in fact, the stress response is helping deliver oxygen to the brain and releasing hormones that mobilize energy,” he says.

According to Jamieson, an associate professor of psychology and the principal investigator at the University of Rochester’s Social Stress Lab, over the course of our lives, all humans need to learn a tremendous amount of complicated social and intellectual skills, and then we need to apply those skills to be successful and to thrive. 

Jamieson acknowledges that the process of learning is “inherently stressful.”

“If people simply disengaged from the stressors they faced, it could put them at a serious disadvantage,” Jamieson says in the article about his research.

“So, for people to thrive in modern life and overcome threats to personal and global survival," he explains, "they must find a way to embrace and overcome the stressful demands.”

Previous 2013 research and studies by Stanford University associate professor of psychology, Dr. Alia Crum, Ph.D., and her husband, author and coach, Thomas Crum, showed that people who view stress as debilitating tend to either over-or-under react to stress, whereas those with a “stress is enhancing” mindset are better able to learn, adapt, and grow.

fight or flight

What happens during the fight-or-flight response?

Our bodies have evolved to have a “fight-or-flight” response to experiences that cause anxiety, fear, distress, or conflict.

It’s a physiological reaction that occurs when we’re in the presence of something that is mentally or physically terrifying.

This in-the-moment fight-or-flight response (also known as the acute stress response) helped our prehistoric ancestors rally the strength needed to fight off predators such as cave bears, hungry wolves, and saber-tooth tigers. The term represents the choices our ancestors had when faced with danger: they could either stand and fight or flee.

In either case, the physiological and psychological response to stress prepares the body to react to the danger.

The fight-or-flight response is triggered by the release of hormones that prepare our bodies to either stay and deal with a threat or to run away to safety.

The physiological and psychological response to stress prepares the body to react to the danger.

In response to acute stress, the body's sympathetic nervous system is activated by the sudden release of hormones. 

The nervous system then stimulates the adrenal glands, triggering the release of neurotransmitters (catecholamines). 

This chain of reactions results in what you might expect when dealing with danger or a life and death situation. 

This includes an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate. 

You can probably think of a time when you experienced the fight-or-flight response when you felt your heartbeat and breath quicken, and your entire body became tense and ready to react.

The fight-or-flight response can happen in the face of imminent physical danger, such as encountering a mountain lion during a hike or because of a psychological threat such as driving in traffic when you’re late to an appointment.

This is an original infographic showing the major causes of stress

Signs of chronic stress aka bad stress or distress

When stress lasts for extended lengths of time, it can harm our health.  

Trauma, PTSD and/or stress-related disorders can develop.

According to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), warning signs of chronic stress or distress may include:

  • Losing interest in daily activities

  • Palpitations, muscle tensions, possibly panic attacks

  • Increasing physical distress symptoms such as headaches or stomach pains

  • Fatigue, exhaustion or trouble sleeping–or even insomnia

  • Feeling guilty, helpless, or hopeless

  • Crying spells or bursts of anger

  • Avoiding family and friends

  • Eating too much or too little

  • Pulling away from people and things

  • Having low or no energy, 

  • Unexplained aches and pains, such as constant stomach aches or headaches

  • Feeling helpless or hopeless

  • Excessive smoking, drinking, or using drugs, including prescription medications

  • Worrying a lot of the time; feeling guilty but not sure why

  • Thinking of hurting or killing yourself or someone else

Causes of chronic stress

There are many reasons why people develop distress—aka the bad, chronic, toxic, dangerous stress. 

Chronic stress could be caused by the increasing cost of living and figuring out how to pay your bills each month.  

Particularly living during the COVID-19 pandemic and through economic collapse such as the 2008 housing crisis, where many people lost their jobs or had reduced earnings, money can be a big stressor. 

Conflicts at work, serious relationship strife with your significant other, grief after the death of a loved one, and severe health issues, can all impact our ability to cope.

What you can do to reframe and reduce stress

As mentioned earlier in this article, our goal is not to completely eliminate short-term stress and stressors from our lives. 

Instead, we will be better served by aiming to actively recognize and manage stress.

When we prioritize time for our emotional and physical self-care routines, we can relieve or reduce the negative impacts chronic stress can have on our bodies in the long run.

According to advice the Amherst College Counseling Center offers students, these are the healthiest ways to get some stress relief and combat stress’s negative effects.

1. Get exercise or physical activity each day

Get outside and go for a 20-minute walk. Or walk around inside your house while you’re on a phone call.

Engaging in regular physical exercise is one of the best ways to help manage stress. Aim for at least 20-30 minutes of aerobic exercise to generate feelings of calmness that can last several hours after exercise.

Other enjoyable ways to incorporate movement into your day include dancing, yoga, pilates, and tai chi.  

2.  Prioritize self-care and time management

Planning how we use our time is about finding balance for all the activities we want and need to do. 

Good time management can help you ensure we’re making time for self-care activities that support our mental health.

3. Be mindful and meditate

Meditation, mindfulness, and conscious breathing are relaxation techniques that can be practiced anytime, anywhere. 

A 2013 study using MRI scans showed that a regular mindfulness meditation practice can shrink the amygdala, the brain’s “fight or flight” command center. The more we focus on mindfulness, conscious breathing, and meditation practices, the more we build this mental resilience that can increase our capacity to manage stress and be more aware.

4. Enjoy time outdoors

Spending time in nature can be just the cure your body needs. 

In addition to fresh air and sunlight, stepping outside can provide an excellent space for us to slow down and reflect.

5. Eat healthy and nutritious foods

As the old saying goes—“we are what we eat.”

It’s important to fuel our bodies with healthy, nutritious food to encourage optimal physical and mental states.

Mindful eating practices and a healthy diet helps stabilize our moods.

Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables and try to avoid sugar, processed foods, caffeine, and alcohol. Here are ten of the best foods that will help with your mental health.

6. Cultivate a sense of community with your circle of close friends and family

Social connection with your loved ones is key to our wellbeing. Human interaction can help us recognize, acknowledge, and manage stress. 

Talking through a problem you are having at work, or a difficult relationship with a friend can give you insights you may not otherwise discover. 

7. Practice a sleep routine

Make sure your bedroom is conducive to sleep by keeping the room dark and quiet, and don’t use your bed for studying or other activities that are not related to sleep. 

We can improve our sleep hygiene by keeping a stable sleep schedule and building good habits that get us ready for bed. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy and, particularly, CBT-I can help you develop a successful sleep routine.

8. Try therapy and coaching

Sessions with a licensed mental health therapist or counselor can help us develop stress management techniques. 

Finding a professional who is an unbiased third party who is there to listen to just you, also helps us uncover the underlying causes of chronic stress. 

Depending on your specific issue or concern, life coaches and career coaches may be able to help you develop healthy routines as well. 

When and how to seek professional help for stress

If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms of chronic stress or distress listed above, it’s important to talk with your primary care physician and/or mental health professional about your concerns. 

On the Monarch Directory by SimplePractice you can find a therapist near you who specializes in helping clients with stress.

see all therapists near me

You might also want to consider therapists who utilize Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, as that approach can help you reframe your stress.

If you have health insurance coverage, you can also browse therapists who accept your insurance.

You can quickly and easily view their availability and book a therapy session. Many offer free 15-minute initial consultations and in-person or teletherapy video sessions.

READ NEXT: What's the Difference Between Stress and Anxiety?

Find a therapist: Check out the Monarch Directory by SimplePractice to find therapists who specialize in helping clients with stressmany with online scheduling and booking.

Article originally published Sep 14, 2022. Updated Dec 8, 2022.

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