Stress is a part of daily life and is only becoming more of a presence in this increasingly-connected world. This can be a problem, as there are all sorts of negative physical and psychological effects of leading an overly-stressed life.
This article will discuss some causes of stress and the negative effects that result from stress. There are also plenty of easy ways to reduce stress and increase one’s well-being, though, so this article will end on a positive note by providing actionable ways anyone can reduce stress in their lives.
First, a distinction must be made between positive stress (sometimes called eustress) and negative stress (sometimes called distress) (Niki, 2016). Positive stress is healthy stress, such as the stress which pushes us to prepare for an exam, a job interview, or another important event. Negative stress, on the other hand, is unhealthy stress, such as stress which leads one to think they are not good enough for the exam, job interview, or other events they are preparing for, and does not help their preparation for or performance on the event.
While both types of stress are important to research and discuss, in this piece we will focus on negative stress (or distress), the unhealthy stress we face in our daily lives.
Stress Harms Us Physically …
While people are often aware of the psychological consequences of leading an overly-stressed life, there are also a lot of physical symptoms that follow from too much stress. For example, according to the American Psychological Association, stress can cause muscle tension, breathing problems, heart problems (which can lead to heart attack or stroke), blood sugar spikes, heartburn, acid reflux, digestion problems, and problems to both the female and male reproductive systems. Other physical symptoms of stress include fatigue, sleep problems, and headaches (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2016).
While stress can lead to physical symptoms in the general population, stress can also exacerbate physical symptoms in more specific situations. For example, Marital stress leads to worse cardiovascular outcomes for married women with coronary heart disease (Orth-Gomer et al., 2000). Work stress can lead to an increased risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD), as well as an increased risk of mortality from CVD (Cohen et al., 2007). Among men with HIV, stress can even lead to worse AIDS-related outcomes (Cohen et al., 2007).
… And Mentally
Now that we have covered the physical symptoms of stress, it is time to discuss the more well-known emotional and psychological symptoms of stress. To begin with, stress can lead to anxiety, depression, problems with focusing, anger problems, drug, alcohol, or tobacco use (or abuse), and social withdrawal (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2016). While stress can lead to depressive episodes, it can also lead to the development of major depressive disorder (MDD) specifically (Cohen et al., 2007).
Like the physical symptoms of stress described in the previous section, stress can also lead to negative emotional and psychological consequences in more specific situations. For example, teachers who experience more “classroom stress” (as opposed to “workload stress”) have lower job satisfaction and lower self-efficacy (Klassen & Chiu, 2010). Long-term care workers who experience more occupational stress are also more likely to experience lower job satisfaction and lower self-efficacy, but are additionally more likely to want to quit their jobs (Park et al., 2017).
Finally, stress can make people more susceptible to the negative psychological effects of financial issues, such as anxiety and interpersonal issues (Adams et al., 2016). This shows that stress not only has its own symptoms but that it can also worsen the consequences of other negative life events. Now that we have discussed the negative effects of stress, we can begin discussing ways to relieve this stress. One of the best ways to do this is by avoiding stressors in the first place.
What Causes Stress?
Since stress is such a big part of daily life, it is important to know some of the different places stress can come from. In general, stress can come from major life events, such as moving to a different country, but there are also more routine stressors, like “family issues, personal health issues, trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle, concern for the health of others, issues in the workplace”, and financial issues (healthdirect).
There is also a variety of new stressors in the modern world coming from technology, as “communication load resulting from sending, receiving, and checking private e-mails and social media messages, as well as Internet multitasking are significantly related to increased perceived stress” (Reinecke et al., 2017).
There are also more specific causes of stress, such as workplace stressors or interpersonal stressors. For example, in the case of teachers, stress can come from having too much work to do, but can also come from “noisy students” (Klassen & Chiu, 2010). On the other hand, having a negative view of one’s relationships, such as feeling insecure about one’s romantic relationship, can lead to increased stress response, which can intensify the negative effects of stress (Farrell & Simpson, 2017).
Long-Term Effects Go Beyond PTSD
While we have covered a variety of short- and medium-term physical and psychological symptoms of stress, there are also long-term consequences of stress. The most obvious is post-traumatic stress disorder(PTSD), which can occur after a single stressful event such as an earthquake (Dai et al., 2016). There are other long-term effects of stress that do not involve PTSD, though.
For example, one study showed that people who experienced “multiple childhood traumatic stressors” are at higher risk of premature death than people who did not (Brown et al., 2009). Another study has shown that high levels of stress in early childhood or adolescence are associated with negative health outcomes in adulthood (Farrell et al., 2017). Traumatic events (in childhood or otherwise) are associated with increased long-term risk for cardiovascular disease (Cohen et al., 2007).
While childhood stress has been shown to lead to long-term negative effects, even prenatal stress can affect someone’s life. For example, children whose mothers experience a lot of stress during pregnancy are more likely to be born underweight or undersized (Lupien et al., 2009). This shows the pervasiveness of stress, as even indirect stress (such as that experienced by one’s mother while in the womb) can have effects at a later time.
Women Become More Prosocial, Men Become More Antisocial
While we have seen how stress can affect people differently depending on their situations, sex is another variable to account for, as stress seems to affect men and women in different ways. For example, one study looked at the effect of stress on the “self-other distinction”, a social skill which affects one’s ability to empathize with and understand others (Tomova et al., 2014).
Researchers interestingly found that stressed women exhibited a higher self-other distinction than non-stressed women, while stressed men exhibited a lower self-other distinction than non-stressed men. This indicates that stress may potentially play a prosocial role in women and a more antisocial role in men.
Stress affects men and women differently in other ways as well. One study found that, when faced with a stressor, boys are more likely to engage in risk taking behaviors, while girls are less likely to engage in risk taking behaviors after exposure to the same stressor (Daughters et al., 2013).
Another study found a greater association between stress and increased alcohol consumption in men than in women (Dawson et al., 2005). Similarly, a study examining recent Hispanic immigrants to the United States found that stress from this immigration was associated with more severe alcohol use in men, but not in women (Cano et al., 2017).
Men and women respond differently to stressful events in other ways as well. One study looking at earthquake survivors 10 months after an earthquake found that women showed more post-traumatic stress symptoms than men (Dell’Osso et al., 2013). In general, women are also more likely to have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than men, though it is unclear how much of this is due to report bias (Ditlevsen & Elklit, 2010).
Stress affects men and women differently at work, too. In traditionally masculine workplaces, such as correctional institutions, women are more likely to encounter more job stress than men do from the same stressors (Paoline et al., 2015). A study looking at hotel employees found that role stress had a greater negative impact on job satisfaction in female employees than in male employees (Kim et al., 2009).
Taken together, all of these findings show that there is nuance in how stress affects people, as there seem to be sex differences in how people respond to stress. This may be due to social differences, though, such as how men and women are treated differently (in the workplace, for example).
Family, Meditation, and Education Can Reduce Stress
Now that we have covered all of the negative effects of stress as well as a way to measure the amount of stress we are personally experiencing, it is time to discuss some of the ways to reduce stress. Fortunately, there are a variety of ways to reduce stress, whether one wants to reduce stress in a group or by themselves, or whether one wants to reduce stress through therapy or otherwise. One way to reduce stress is to surround yourself with family, as prioritizing one’s family and having strong family ties can buffer the negative effects of high levels of stress (Corona et al., 2017).
Among therapy-based ways to reduce stress, a meta-analysis determined that cognitive-behavioral interventions were the most effective way to reduce stress (Richardson & Rothstein, 2008). There are other non-therapy ways to reduce stress that are also directed, however, like mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). In fact, a study found that low-dose mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR-ld) led to stress reduction on par with regular MBSR (Klatt et al., 2009). This shows that even small attempts at reducing stress can be effective, so that stress-reducing programs do not have to be restricted to people who have time to dedicate to long programs.
In fact, even just a bit of education about stress-reduction can be effective. For example, a leisure education program has been shown to be effective in reducing stress in older adults (Kao & Chang, 2017). The program encouraged them to think about how (and if) they practice leisure in their own lives, and suggested a few ways they could add some leisure into their days.
Know Your Stressors and Avoid Creating Stress for Others
Stress is a part of everyone’s life, but unchecked stress levels can have all sorts of negative emotional, psychological, and physical consequences. The first key to reducing stress in our lives is to identify the stressors in our lives, so that we can remove anything causing us undue stress from our lives. Beyond that, there are a variety of anti-stress techniques (such as deep breathing exercises) we can use to manage the unavoidable stress in our lives, such as work stress.
One more important thing to think about is the negative long-term effects of childhood stress. Since stressful events during childhood can lead to lifelong consequences, we can all do our best to make sure we don’t contribute to anyone’s stressful childhood, whether as parents, teachers, or anyone else who regularly interacts with children. In fact, anything we can do to avoid injecting unnecessary stress into anyone else’s life is a step worth taking.
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