Why Does Stress Happen?

There are certain days when we experience the rush of an overwhelming feeling. Whether we are being considerate about our family's safety, travelling to some new place, trying to meet  a work deadline, facing financial/health issues, or suffering from the loss of a close relative. This familiar shift of feeling overwhelmed makes it difficult for us to function efficiently, and is generally referred to as "stress".

Stress is a normal body reaction that happens when changes occur under challenging conditions. Every person experiences stress differently, and it is becoming more prominent in our daily lives. Although it is necessary to feel small amounts of stress in critical situations, being overly stressed out when you can no longer cope can have negative effects on your health. Long-term stress can affect physical and intellectual capabilities, which may require professional assistance.

What is stress?

The body's normal reaction to pressure and other potentially harmful situations is termed "stress". It is triggered when we face something new or unpredicted that may threaten our senses.

Stress is not always a bad thing. The small doses can help to focus and intensify the body's stamina. For example: delivering a speech in public or running a marathon.

However, prolonged bouts of stress can alter changes in the brain's activity. Depending on the situation, stress can be divided into two major categories:

  • Acute stress - that can last for a short period of time in response to a stressful or upsetting event
  • Chronic stress - that may persist or keep coming back without any periods of relief

Situations like being overworked or having constant disagreements at home can greatly alter changes in brain size, structure, and functions, even at the genetic level.

Physiologically, the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis) implies an important role in the onset of stress. It initiates a series of interactions between the endocrine glands present in the brain and the kidney to regulate the effects of stress.

When you encounter any stressful situation, your brain detects it, and the HPA axis is swiftly activated to release two major hormones called cortisol and adrenaline, which primes the body for a quick reaction. This rush of hormonal production is commonly known as the "fight or flight response". which backs up our ability to cope with the situation.

Long-term high levels of cortisol, such as in chronic stress,  has disastrous consequences. A statistical study of stress has shown that in the year 2018, nearly 74% of people residing in the UK experienced stress levels with which they were unable to cope.1

Signs and symptoms of stress overload

Long-term, overloaded stress can have detrimental effects on the body, causing wear and tear on the person's physical, emotional, behavioural, and intellectual abilities.

Symptoms and complications


Stress can vary from person to person. Some people tend to be more affected by stressors (events that can cause stress) than others. Chronic stress, if left untreated, can contribute immensely to various health-related complications.

  • Memory reduction: High levels of cortisol can escalate the activity of neural connections present in the amygdala (the brain's fear centre). Moreover, it can cause a decline in the electric signals of the brain's hippocampus (a part associated with learning and memories). The decrease in the activity of the hippocampus also inhibits the HPA axis, resulting in a loss of the ability to control stress. Moreover, prolonged high concentrations of stress hormones can lead to memory reduction and even memory disorders due to shrinkage of the brain centre (prefrontal cortex) that controls cognitive abilities2
  • Blood pressure: Studies have shown that work-related stress, including aspects of job insecurity, extended working hours, low wages, and dissatisfaction, can lead to the development of hypertension. Prolonged stress can trigger high blood pressure, increased cholesterol, and changes in blood fluidity as well3
  • Mental health issues: Although stress does not fall under the umbrella of mental health problems, it can often result in depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts
  • Psychological influence: A few published reviews have shown that psychological stress and post-traumatic events such as the pandemic, have a great impact on physical and mental health. A study has reported that the global prevalence of stress among the general population during the COVID-19 pandemic was significantly higher than at normal times4

Other complications may include:

  • Cardiovascular diseases, such as stroke
  • Joint and muscular issues
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Insomnia

Stress causes

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact causes of stress. However, there are a number of situations that can play a vital role in negatively impacting the stress response.

What kind of situations can cause stress?

  • Being bullied at work or school
  • Unemployment
  • Low wages
  • Extended working hours
  • Micromanagement
  • Toxic professional environment
  • Constant arguments
  • Relationship issues
  • Losing a loved one
  • Family problems
  • Busy schedule
  • Recent move
  • Financial problems
  • Serious health problems

Stress diagnosis

Since stress is majorly influenced by personal feelings only an individual may determine its presence and its severity.

The general diagnosis is based primarily on a questionnaire rather than a diagnostic test to assess stress levels and  effects on daily routine.

A healthcare professional may evaluate your symptoms based on the results of the questions asked before advising on any treatment options. If symptoms like high blood pressure or diabetes appear due to stress, doctors may prescribe medications accordingly.

How much stress is too much

Little amounts of stress processed by our autonomic nervous system act as a vigilant part that helps us survive harmful situations. But when this stress becomes constant over long periods of time, where you are unable to cope and have outburst reactions to even small stressors, means that it is imposing a damaging effect on a person's physical, psychological, and cognitive health. Furthermore, chronic stress can lead to serious health illnesses, including heart disease, low immunity, diabetes, and anxiety disorders.

Tips and ways to manage stress 

It is impossible to avoid stress entirely. Fortunately, there are many ways to reverse the effects and coping strategies that can help to manage a stressed brain.

  • Physical activity: Exercise is one of the most powerful weapons against stress. Even a short walk or light exercise can help to boost your mood
  • Healthy diet: A well-balanced diet does wonders for the body. A healthy diet can uplift positivity within the body
  • Take breaks: It is good to remain informed, but taking breaks from watching and reading upsetting news for a few hours can be effective. Consider turning off your smartphone or computer screen from time to time to practise gratitude and improve your mental health
  • Relaxation techniques: Yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, and stretching are good options to keep stress at bay
  • Set goals: Narrowing down your task into simpler tasks can help you manage long-term projects
  • Stay connected: Consider engaging in social interaction. Talk with people who can make you comfortable and provide emotional support. You may also consider volunteering at any social welfare organisation
  • Avoid using drugs or cigarettes
  • Talk with your therapist if you need further help to overcome the stress
  • Take care of what your body needs, getting plenty of rest, regular physical activity, and eating healthily

When to seek medical attention?

Seeking professional assistance when overwhelmed by chronic stress is a confident step toward better health. It is advised that you talk to your doctor about your stress. They might be able to help identify the right choices for your treatment. Reach out to primary care if you observe:

  • A decline in daily life activities or work performance
  • Experience excessive anxiety
  • Having trouble remembering stuff
  • Constant fear
  • Significant changes in sleeping patterns and eating routines
  • Withdrawn behaviour or mood swings
  • Overeating
  • Misusing drugs or alcohol as a coping alternative
  • Having thoughts of hurting yourself
  • Indulging in self-mutilation or self-destructive behaviour
  • Avoiding social interactions, especially with family and friends


Stress is the body's reaction to the changes that occur, whether they are real or perceived. Although it is natural to feel overwhelmed, it is essential for our bodies to encounter stressful situations. A constant feeling of stress over a long period of time can impose significant effects on a person's physical, emotional, and behavioural capabilities. It is necessary to determine your symptoms to avoid detrimental health circumstances. 

Stress can be easily managed by following stress management strategies and implementing a healthy lifestyle. However, if your symptoms become severe or you are unable to resist negative thoughts, consult your doctor; they may be able to assist you by recommending the best course of treatment.


  1. Stress: statistics [Internet]. www.mentalhealth.org.uk. Available from: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/explore-mental-health/mental-health-statistics/stress-statistics
  2. Yaribeygi H, Panahi Y, Sahraei H, Johnston TP, Sahebkar A. The impact of stress on body function: A review. EXCLI journal [Internet]. 2017 Jul 21;16(1):1057–72. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5579396/
  3. Mucci N, Giorgi G, De Pasquale Ceratti S, Fiz-Pérez J, Mucci F, Arcangeli G. Anxiety, Stress-Related Factors, and Blood Pressure in Young Adults. Frontiers in Psychology [Internet]. 2016 Oct 28;7. Available from: http://europepmc.org/abstract/MED/27840615
  4. Mahmud S, Mohsin M, Dewan MdN, Muyeed A. The Global Prevalence of Depression, Anxiety, Stress, and Insomnia Among General Population During COVID-19 Pandemic: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Trends in Psychology. 2022 Jan 4;
This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Sadaf Ahmed

Master of Science - MSc, Physiology, Clinical & Molecular Hematology, Karachi University, Pakistan

Sadaf is an experienced writer who creates a quality and well-researched scripts particularly related to Health Sciences.

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