The kids won't stop screaming, your boss has been hounding you because you turned a report in late, and you owe the IRS thousands of dollars you don't have. You're seriously stressed out.
Stress is actually a normal part of life. At times, it serves a useful purpose. Stress can motivate you to get that promotion at work, or run the last mile of a marathon. But if you don't get a handle on your stress and it becomes long-term, it can seriously interfere with your job, family life, and health. More than half of Americans say they fight with friends and loved ones because of stress, and more than 70% say they experience real physical and emotional symptoms from it.
Read on to learn why you get stressed out, and how that stress might be affecting your health.
Causes of Stress
Everyone has different stress triggers. Work stress tops the list, according to surveys. Forty percent of U.S. workers admit to experiencing office stress, and one-quarter say work is the biggest source of stress in their lives.
Causes of work stress include:
- Being unhappy in your job
- Having a heavy workload or too much responsibility
- Working long hours
- Having poor management, unclear expectations of your work, or no say in the decision-making process
- Working under dangerous conditions
- Being insecure about your chance for advancement or risk of termination
- Having to give speeches in front of colleagues
- Facing discrimination or harassment at work, especially if your company isn't supportive
Life stresses can also have a big impact. Examples of life stresses are:
- The death of a loved one
- Loss of a job
- Increase in financial obligations
- Getting married
- Moving to a new home
- Chronic illness or injury
- Emotional problems (depression, anxiety, anger, grief, guilt, low self-esteem)
- Taking care of an elderly or sick family member
- Traumatic event, such as a natural disaster, theft, rape, or violence against you or a loved one
Sometimes the stress comes from inside, rather than outside. You can stress yourself out just by worrying about things. All of these factors can lead to stress:
- Fear and uncertainty. When you regularly hear about the threat of terrorist attacks, global warming, and toxic chemicals on the news, it can cause you to feel stressed, especially because you feel like you have no control over those events. And even though disasters are typically very rare events, their vivid coverage in the media may make them seem as if they are more likely to occur than they really are. Fears can also hit closer to home, such as being worried that you won't finish a project at work or won't have enough money to pay your bills this month.
- Attitudes and perceptions. How you view the world or a particular situation can determine whether it causes stress. For example, if your television set is stolen and you take the attitude, "It's OK, my insurance company will pay for a new one," you'll be far less stressed than if you think, "My TV is gone and I'll never get it back! What if the thieves come back to my house to steal again?" Similarly, people who feel like they're doing a good job at work will be less stressed out by a big upcoming project than those who worry that they are incompetent.
- Unrealistic expectations. No one is perfect. If you expect to do everything right all the time, you're destined to feel stressed when things don't go as expected.
- Change. Any major life change can be stressful -- even a happy event like a wedding or a job promotion. More unpleasant events, such as a divorce, major financial setback, or death in the family can be significant sources of stress.
Your stress level will differ based on your personality and how you respond to situations. Some people let everything roll off their back. To them, work stresses and life stresses are just minor bumps in the road. Others literally worry themselves sick.
Effects of Stress on Your Health
When you are in a stressful situation, your body launches a physical response. Your nervous system springs into action, releasing hormones that prepare you to either fight or take off. It's called the "fight or flight" response, and it's why, when you're in a stressful situation, you may notice that your heartbeat speeds up, your breathing gets faster, your muscles tense, and you start to sweat. This kind of stress is short-term and temporary (acute stress), and your body usually recovers quickly from it.
But if your stress system stays activated over a long period of time (chronic stress), it can lead to or aggravate more serious health problems. The constant rush of stress hormones can put a lot of wear and tear on your body, causing it to age more quickly and making it more prone to illness.
If you've been stressed out for a short period of time, you may start to notice some of these physical signs:
When stress becomes long-term and is not properly addressed, it can lead to a number of more serious health conditions, including:
- High blood pressure
- Abnormal heartbeat (arrhythmia)
- Hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis)
- Heart disease
- Heart attack
- Heartburn, ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome
- Upset stomach -- cramps, constipation, and diarrhea
- Weight gain or loss
- Changes in sex drive
- Fertility problems
- Flare-ups of asthma or arthritis
- Skin problems such as acne, eczema, and psoriasis
Managing your stress can make a real difference to your health. One study showed that women with heart disease lived longer if they underwent a stress management program.