What to Know About Stress and How It Affects Your Mental Health

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on September 14, 2023
3 min read

Stress is normal and everyone experiences it in response to situations considered threatening or dangerous. When you're stressed, your body responds by producing physical and mental reactions. These stress responses can be positive, keeping you alert to danger, motivated, or adaptable to new situations. 

Stress in itself is not an illness but when you experience it frequently, it increases the risk of mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, psychosis, and substance use problems.

Stress causes changes in the body that can range from mild to severe. Symptoms can be cognitive, physical, emotional, or behavioral. When under stress, your body’s autonomic nervous system takes control. This system regulates the function of your internal organs, such as the heart, stomach, and intestines. 

Your muscles tense, there is an increase in heart rate and breathing, short-term memory becomes more effective and prepares the body for ‘fight or flight’ when you sense danger. Stress intensity or frequency can be good or bad. In small doses, it can improve thinking skills and help you cope in situations where you need to perform, like during an exam. It can also improve your ability to think on your feet, like figuring out a way to solve a problem on the spot.

Long-term stress has signs and symptoms that you can identify to help you manage it. Some common ones include:

  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Anxiety and restlessness
  • Feeling hopeless and depressed
  • Panic attacks
  • Lack in self-confidence
  • Unable to make decisions
  • Uncaring attitude towards family and responsibilities
  • Mood swings
  • Loss of appetite and trouble sleeping 
  • Change in sexual drive
  • Unmotivated and unfocused
  • Social withdrawal
  • Drinking too much
  • Reduced levels of performance and productivity

You can experience stress when:

  • There's pressure or a threat to your well-being with little or no resources to counter the problem
  • You have no network of support system in place
  • You experience major life changes such as losing a job or a change of environment
  • You're unable to sleep at night
  • You're in poor physical health
  • You find it difficult to control your emotions

Different triggers cause stress. Identifying your trigger will make it easier to develop personalized ways to deal with stress or experiment with various ways to manage your mental health. Here are some basic approaches. 

Exercising regularly. Daily exercise produces stress-relieving hormones that improve your physical and mental health.

Have a support system. Reach out to others. Attending support groups or stress management programs, consulting a health care professional, or talking to a friend helps.

Engage in hobbies you enjoy. Intentionally setting time to do something you enjoy can help you relax and increase your overall mental health.

Eat healthy. When you eat healthy foods, you reduce stress triggers and stabilize your mood.  

Practice relaxation techniques. Adopt a technique that works for you such as meditation, yoga, deep breathing, or massage to manage your stress levels.

Manage and prioritize tasks. To avoid feeling stressed, consider establishing a system where you address the most important tasks first and gradually work your way through the ones of lesser importance.

Know your triggers. Identify the types of situations that make you feel out of control — these are your triggers. When you know what your triggers are, you can avoid these situations or manage them better.

How Long Does Stress Last? 

It's normal to feel stressed sometimes, and it can happen over the short- or long-term. Long-term stress may cause unhealthy behavior.  Try to prevent stress by avoiding your triggers and seek medical attention when you:

  • Can’t cope with the pressure and demands of your life
  • Have thoughts of hurting yourself
  • Have taken steps to manage your stress but your symptoms persist
  • Feel chest pain and experience shortness of breath, back pain, pain burning into your shoulders and arms, dizziness, or nauseous