Understanding Stress

stressed woman sitting on a bed

Nearly all people on earth experience stress at different times throughout their lives. But did you know 67 percent of Americans say they have experienced increased stress over the course of the pandemic?
This may seem expected, or even “the new normal.” After all, we’re living through a period of unprecedented extreme stress.
Stress is normal. It’s true. Stress is even necessary.  But prolonged stress is neither normal, necessary, nor healthy for anyone. In fact, experiencing significant amounts of stress for long periods of time has significant negative effects on every aspect of our health.
So what are we supposed to do with all of this stress? Understanding stress is the first step in managing it.

Understanding Stress

Stress is the body’s biological response to a perceived threat.
The stress response sends chemicals and hormones surging through your body. That’s what causes your heart rate to increase or your stomach to flutter. It’s your body reacting to something it thinks could be dangerous.
Stress alerts your brain and energizes your body. It gives you the heightened awareness you need to combat the perceived threat.
The hypothalamus sends nerve and hormone signals to your adrenal glands. This causes the adrenal glands to release hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.  These hormones are nature’s way of increasing your chances of survival.

Why Does Stress Exist?

Not all stress is bad.  Stress is what allowed our hunter-gatherer ancestors to survive. It helped them avoid dangerous situations like predator attacks. Without stress, the human species would not have been able to evolve and reproduce.
Stress triggers the fight or flight response. It helps us decide whether to fight the stressor or to run away from it.
A mild or moderate amount of stress can actually be good for you. Stress can be a source of motivation and excitement. It can even improve performance.
Over a prolonged period of time, however, stress becomes harmful.  Stress should always be temporary.

Types of Stress

Stress doesn’t operate the same way in everyone. There are several different types of stress. The main three types people experience most often are acute stress, episodic acute stress, and chronic stress.

Acute Stress

Acute stress is the most common type of stress. When the majority of us say we feel stressed, this is the type of stress we’re talking about. Acute stress is the body’s immediate response to a challenging or unfamiliar situation. It’s the type of stress you might experience when you ride a roller coaster or engage in public speaking.

Joy can also cause an acute stress reaction. Sometimes being a little bit frightened is enjoyable. It gives your body and brain the chance to practice responding to stressful situations. When the stressful situation passes, so should your body’s reaction.

Severe acute stress isn’t like that. This is the kind of stress that happens when you experience a situation that is life-threatening. Severe acute stress can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health challenges.

Episodic Acute Stress

Episodic stress is like acute stress. The difference is in how frequently they occur. Acute stress goes away quickly, but the episodic version continues to reoccur.

Anxiety can make this type of stress reaction even worse. This type of stress can make life feel turbulent and out of control. Without proper stress management, episodic acute stress can have damaging effects on your physical and mental health.

Chronic Stress

Chronic stress is what happens when you experience high levels of stress over prolonged periods of time. This type of stress can have serious negative impacts on your overall health.

Chronic stress contributes to anxiety and depression. It can also contribute to a suppressed immune system, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease.

What are the Symptoms of Stress?

Although some stress can be good for you, it is important to be able to identify the negative effects of stress.  There are many different physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral symptoms of stress to watch out for. Symptoms of stress can look different in different people.

  • Symptoms of stress include:
  • Headache
  • Lethargy
  • Heartburn & indigestion
  • Dizziness
  • Sexual Dysfunction
  • Bodyaches and pains
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Tension
  • Moodiness
  • Restlessness
  • Forgetfulness
  • Lack of focus
  • Severe disorganization
  • Impaired decision-making abilities
  • Insomnia
  • Crying
  • Loss of appetite
  • Withdrawal
  • Suppressed immune system
  • Addictive behaviors

When stress is prolonged, ignored, or poorly managed it may lead to medical conditions like depression, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

Where Does Stress Come From?

Most people experience a wide range of stressors every day.  Problems in our relationships, the demands of work, and traumatic events like losing a loved one are all triggers of stress. These triggers are called stressors. Some common examples of stressors include difficult relationships, problems at work, grief & loss, unemployment, academic pressure, health problems, and financial difficulties.

But not all stressors are external. Many of the things that cause us stress are things we’ve internalized. Internal sources of stress can include negative thinking, social anxiety, aggression, suppressed emotions, and exhaustion.

There is no limit to the various causes of stress. They are as individual as the people they affect.  Maybe you have lived through a natural disaster, are battling chronic illness, or are trapped in an abusive relationship. All of these are stressful experiences.
The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, has had a significant effect on levels of stress and rates of depression.

Poverty and homelessness cause extreme amounts of stress. Being the victim of a crime and working in a dangerous profession is stressful.  Common experiences like caring for terminally ill loved ones, getting a divorce, and navigating a custody battle are sources of immense stress, as well.

Whatever is causing your stress. It is important that you manage it. Unaddressed, prolonged stress can take a significant toll on the mind and body.

How to Manage Stress in Everyday Life

Everyone experiences some level of stress on a daily basis. It is important that we have techniques for learning how to manage stress.  When we don’t learn how to manage stress it tends to spill over into many other parts of our lives.

Living with high levels of stress puts your entire well-being in jeopardy. It has significant negative effects on your physical health. Stress impairs your emotional equilibrium, too.

Identifying Sources of Stress

To manage stress, it is necessary to identify its sources. The majority of us are aware that we feel stressed, but we don’t always know what’s causing it. Identifying the source of your stress allows you to better handle it. You can’t always control the things that cause us stress, but we can definitely control how you react to it.

In order to determine the source of your stress, you first need to develop self-awareness. What makes you tick? What frustrates you? What patterns are you stuck in that could benefit from evaluation?

Once you are aware of patterns that could use some adjustment, you can begin to change them. Changing your patterns of negative thinking will eventually change your behaviors and reactions to stressors.

It’s also important to have goals and dreams. Exploring your passions in life can provide a sense of direction and motivation. A sense of direction allows you to feel a greater amount of control and purpose in your life.

Support systems provide the reassurance and validation you need to navigate stressful situations. It’s important to have friends and family you can talk to about things that cause stress.

Most of the time, stress is the result of being out of balance. Without balance we start to feel lost and insecure. Being flexible and seeking balance in life is key to managing stress.

Basic Stress Management Techniques

The goal of managing stress shouldn’t be to rid yourself of stress entirely. Remember that some forms of stress are actually good for you. It’s also impossible to completely rid your life of all stress. That’s okay because eliminating stress is not the goal.

The goal is to understand and manage stress so you don’t suffer negative consequences. Once you have identified and learned how to avoid your triggers, you can learn how to cope with the stressors you can’t avoid.

  • Here are a few basic techniques for managing stress:
  • Eat a nutritious diet
  • Get seven to eight hours of sleep each night
  • Exercise regularly
  • Limit caffeine and alcohol consumption
  • Maintain a social life and support system
  • Take time out of each day to rest, relax, and practice self-care
  • Practice relaxation techniques

Relaxation Techniques for Stress Relief

In order to combat the negative effects of stress, you need to activate your body’s relaxation response. This is the state of deep rest that decreases the stress response, slows down your breathing and heart rate, lowers your blood pressure. It is what brings your mind and body back into balance.

Despite what we might want to believe, screentime does very little to relieve stress. In order to deal with this, you need to get up off the couch and face it head-on. Techniques like deep breathing, meditation, visualization, yoga, tai chi, and rhythmic exercises are excellent relaxation techniques for stress relief.

Keep in mind that no one relaxation technique works for everyone. We all process stress in our own way. Here are several different relaxation techniques you can try. See what works best for you.

Meditation & Mindfulness

Mindfulness teaches us how to be present in the moment. It helps us free our minds from dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. Mindful meditation has been used to treat stress, anxiety, and depression for a very long time. There are many different techniques to mindful meditation.

Some techniques will have you focus on a single repetitive action or movement. Other techniques will have you follow and release internal thoughts and sensations. Even others will show you how to apply mindfulness to activities like exercising and eating. If you’ve ever tried meditation, you know that focusing on the moment can be more challenging than it seems.

Meditation takes practice before you really experience the full benefits. Every time you try to focus your attention on something you’re strengthening a muscle and creating a new mental habit.

Try meditating on your own or use one of these recorded meditations.

Deep Breathing

The great thing about deep breathing is you can practice it practically anywhere. It is often hailed as the cornerstone of many other relaxation techniques, such as yoga and meditation. Deep breathing exercises are an efficient method for getting stress levels under control.

When you’re ready to practice, take a few minutes and find a quiet place to sit. Sit in a position that is comfortable for you. Breathe in through your nose. You should feel your stomach expand, but not your chest. Your chest should remain still.

Then breathe out through your mouth, pushing out as much air as you can. You should feel your stomach contract, but again your chest should remain still.

Continue breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth, slowly. You can stop once you feel your body returning to normal and your mind becomes calm. If it’s uncomfortable to practice deep breathing while sitting, try it lying down.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation is the process of tensing and relaxing different muscle groups in the body. This technique helps you become aware of the places in your body where you carry tension and what that tension feels like. It can also be combined with deep breathing.

You should not practice progressive muscle relaxation if you have any injuries or a history of back pain or muscle spasms. Begin with your feet. Slowly tense the muscles of your right foot. Squeeze tightly, holding for ten seconds, and then release.

Now, switch feet. Slowly tense the muscles of your left foot. Squeeze and hold, then release. Make sure you breathe deeply and slowly throughout your practice. Keep your attention focused on the body part you’re working on.

Continue this process by moving slowly up your body until you’ve tensed and relaxed all muscle groups, ending with your face. Once you get started, you’ll notice how as your body relaxes your mind follows suit.


Visualization is a variation of traditional meditation. It is also called guided imagery. In visualization, you’ll imagine a setting or scenario in which you feel at peace. It should be something where you can completely let go of all of your tension and anxiety.

For some, their peaceful place might be a flowering field, a wooded mountainside, or a calm lakeshore. For others, it might be a favorite place from childhood where you felt safe and secure.

To do it, close your eyes and picture your peaceful place in as much detail as you possibly can.

Visualization works best when it is a full sensory experience. Try to incorporate as many senses as you can in your visualization. You might hear birds singing, smell the eucalyptus trees, taste the fresh air, or feel the warm sand beneath your feet.

Focus on these sensations and continue visualizing this place until you feel your anxieties drifting away. When you are ready, gently open your eyes. Your limbs may feel heavy and your muscles might twitch. Don’t worry; this is normal.

Practice visualization on your own or try one of these guided imagery resources.


Yoga is the ancient Hindu practice of deep breathing combined with a mixture of moving and stationary poses. It not only reduces stress and anxiety, but improves strength, balance, and flexibility.  Yoga can be done in a class setting, with a private instructor, or by following a video or app.

If you don’t have much experience with yoga, it is important to take caution when practicing alone. Injuries from yoga occur when poses are performed incorrectly.

The best types of yoga therapy for stress are beginner-level practices focused on gentle and slow movements geared toward deep relaxation. Some of the more popular types of yoga for managing stress are Satyananda and Hatha yoga.

Tai Chi

Originating in ancient China, tai chi is a self-paced series of slow, flowing movements using the whole body. It is an art that embraces the mind, body, and spirit. Some call it “meditation in motion.”  Originally developed as a self-defense tactic, tai chi is now commonly used for stress management.

Tai chi promotes serenity through a series of gentle and flowing movements. The relaxed, spiraling motions release tension and stiffness. Tai chi improves the flow of blood and energy.  It is a safe, low-impact option for all ages and fitness levels.

Rhythmic Exercises

Exercise may not sound like a particularly relaxing undertaking. However, rhythmic exercise can be very relaxing because it gets you into a repetitive flow of movement. Some examples of rhythmic exercise options include: running, walking, swimming, dancing, climbing, rowing, jogging, or boxing.

Whichever you prefer, the purpose is to get you to perform a repetitive movement. It is important that you perform the exercise mindfully. You need to be fully engaged at the moment.

If you’re having trouble staying engaged, try to pay attention to your body rather than your thoughts. You can focus on your feet hitting the ground, your arms pushing through the water, or your heart beating.

If your mind does wander, gently bring your attention back to your breathing and movement.

Other Stress Management Strategies

If relaxation techniques don’t work for you, or you have trouble fitting them into your schedule, try one of these other stress management strategies.

Do something you enjoy

Engage in activities that feel pleasurable to you. Doing things we love allows us to feel calm, centered, and happy.

Listen to music

Well, maybe not just any music. Listen to something you love. Music that makes you feel soothed and at peace can help you relax and relieve stress.

Spend time with an animal

Play with your pet. If you don’t have one, borrow one from a friend! Playing with animals brings pleasure, joy, and calmness.

Immerse yourself in nature

Going outdoors, smelling the fresh air, and putting your feet on the ground can have major positive effects on stress. It is important to try to get outdoors at least once every day, whether you are experiencing stress or not.

Incorporate naps into your daily schedule

This is especially important if you are experiencing interrupted sleep or insomnia. Taking time out of your day to let your body rest is incredibly valuable.

Take a walk

Whether you do this outdoors or indoors, getting up and moving around can have a positive impact on your stress levels.

Talk to a friend

Sometimes what you need is to talk to a trusted person about your stress. Often the act of venting your frustrations can significantly relieve the burden of stress on your body.

When Stress Management Techniques Don’t Work

Do you feel like you’re struggling to handle the amount of stress you’re under all on your own? Maybe you’re on your way to understanding stress, but life has not put you in a position to cope with it. We’re here to help.
D’Amore Mental Health is one of Southern California’s leading mental health treatment facilities. You can read testimonials from the many individuals who have benefitted from our mental health services.
At D’Amore, we believe in destigmatizing mental health concerns and breaking the shame cycle. We offer a wide variety of treatment options, including group, family, yoga, equine therapy, and more. Contact us today to see the many ways we can help you.


  1. Stress in America™ 2020: A National Mental Health Crisis. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2020/report-october
  2. PTSD and Trauma Treatment in Orange County: D’Amore. (2021, May 12). Retrieved from https://damorementalhealth.com/orange-county-mental-health-treatment/trauma-ptsd/
  3. Hybrid Depression: Prolonged Lockdowns, Politics, and Seasonal Depression Create Perfect Storm. (2021, March 25). Retrieved from https://damorementalhealth.com/hybrid-depression/
  4. Guided Meditations. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.uclahealth.org/marc/mindful-meditations
  5. Stress Management: Breathing Exercises for Relaxation. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/uz2255
  6. Stress Management: Doing Progressive Muscle Relaxation. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/uz2225
  7. Guided Imagery & Visualization. (2018, June 27). Retrieved from https://students.dartmouth.edu/wellness-center/wellness-mindfulness/mindfulness-meditation/guided-audio-recordings/guided-imagery-visualization
  8. Yoga Therapy. (2020, November 06). Retrieved from https://damorementalhealth.com/yoga-therapy/
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