Stress, Chronic Stress, and Stress Relief

Woman massages temples as she looks at a pile of bills

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We hear the term 'stress' being thrown around so often, we may not realize that people mean different things when they're discussing stress. Just what is stress, and what do people mean by the term?

What Is Stress?

First, an answer to the question, 'What is stress?' The term 'stress' refers to the response you have when facing circumstances that force you to act, change, or adjust in some way to maintain your footing or to keep things balanced. (The circumstances themselves are known as 'stressors', but we'll have more on them later.)

This stress response, also known as the fight-or-flight response, triggers many involuntary changes in your body, which give you an extra burst of energy so that you can fight or run away from perceived threats. This was a helpful response for us in earlier times when most of the stresses we faced were physical. This burst of physical energy was needed to keep us alive in many cases. Nowadays, though, more and more of our threats are psychological — job stress, interpersonal conflict, etc. — and this response to stress, which can actually make us think less clearly, isn't always necessary or even helpful.

Chronic Stress

When you face stressors often and find that you have little control in these situations, you are at risk of experiencing chronic stress, which can affect your health in many negative ways.

Having your stress response activated long-term and not getting your body back to a state of relaxation can tax your system, leaving you overstimulated and depleted at the same time.

Studies on health and stress have shown that stress can be a causal or contributing factor to virtually all major illnesses because chronic stress can lower immunity.

Stress Management Basics

No matter what the origin of stress is for you, there are some basic steps you can take to manage the stress that you experience. Try to approach stress from three angles:

Quick Stress Relief

While quick stress relievers aren't a complete stress management plan in themselves, they are an excellent first line of defense against the effects of chronic stress. This is because they can help you turn off your body's stress response and respond to the stressors you face from a calm (or calmer), more relaxed place. This helps you to more effectively deal with what is stress, and keep yourself healthier at the same time. Common strategies for quick stress relief include breathing exercises or the use of humor.

Address the Situation

This step is a little more individualized, but stress management is an important key. As previously discussed, stressed, overwhelmed people aren't always in the best position to solve problems. Once you find yourself in a calmer place, you can work on addressing what's causing stress in your life.

Relationship stress? Try learning some healthy communication strategies or assertive communication skills. Job stress? Learn to find job satisfaction at your current job, or take steps toward moving to a new one. Money stress? You can handle that, too, with some stress management techniques and financial advice resources. Sometimes self-sabotage is at play and you need to learn some strategies to stop being your own worst enemy.)

Long-Term Stress Management

Another important part of a stress management plan is having some regular activities in your life that replenish you and help you become more resilient in facing what is stress in your daily life.

Rather than waiting until you're overwhelmed by stress, if you make certain stress-relieving activities a habit, you'll be less reactive to stressors when you experience them and more able to handle them when you face them.

Press Play for Advice On Managing Stress

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast featuring professor Elissa Epel, shares ways to manage stress. Click below to listen now.

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Some of these habits include meditation, exercise, and regular practice of having fun. You can also learn strategies to become more emotionally resilient.

By Elizabeth Scott, PhD
Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing.