Stress: impact on body and mind

If stress is experienced for a prolonged period, the body is constantly on high alert, which has a negative impact on both physical and mental health. Conscious relaxation can help reduce stress and its negative effects.

At a glance

  • In stressful situations, the body goes into “fight or flight” mode, in which it is on high alert to deal with any danger that may present itself.
  • This response can be useful in certain situations, as it helps the mind to focus and concentrate.
  • However, prolonged stress can have a negative impact on health, causing headaches and tension and disrupting sleep, for example.
  • In the long term, stress can also cause physical and mental illnesses.
  • To avoid the negative consequences of stress, it is essential to identify the triggers of stress and to deal with or avoid these.
  • In the short term, yoga, meditation or other relaxation techniques may help.
Stress: woman with hair tied up standing in front of the window stretching her arms up and pressing down on her tense neck with her hands. She is twisting her head towards her shoulder to stretch her neck.

What is stress?

Stress is a natural reaction of the body to very demanding periods whereby the body goes on alert and adapts itself to being able to perform more efficiently. This is a beneficial reaction in principle, and short-lived stress responses are perfectly healthy. Short-term stress can help people learn new skills and overcome challenges. In the distant past, when it was a matter of pure survival, stress was quite useful – thanks to this physical alertness, our ancestors were perfectly prepared for fight or flight in the face of danger.

However, if this alertness becomes a permanent condition, it can have negative effects on health. A constantly stressed person is always tense, feels uptight and frantic, and may be unable to handle anything important. This state affects both mind and body. Prolonged stress can impact quality of life and, over time, increase the risk of becoming ill.

How common is stress and what triggers it?

Stress is a very widespread phenomenon. In a national study conducted in Germany in 2016, 6 out of every 10 people said they experienced stress occasionally. Around a quarter of those interviewed said they felt stressed often. Stress occurs most frequently in middle age – between the ages of 30 and 39. In the study, 82 percent of participants in this age group said they were stressed on a regular basis. However, those aged between 18 and 29 also reported high stress levels, as did the 40 to 59 age group. Stress dropped significantly in those aged 60 and older.

According to the study, the main trigger for stress was the person’s job or course of study, followed by having high expectations of oneself. Having too many deadlines and commitments, traffic and being contactable at all times were also cited as triggers for stress. In most cases, however, stress is triggered by several factors rather than just one.

The most frequent causes of stress: work (46%), having high expectations of oneself (43%), deadlines and obligations during leisure time (33%), traffic (30%), being always contactable (28%).

The most frequent cause of stress is work (46 percent), followed by having high expectations of oneself (43 percent), deadlines and obligations during leisure time (33 percent), traffic (30 percent) and being always contactable (28 percent).

Different triggers cause stress in women and men. For men, the triggers are often job-related – a lack of recognition, time pressure, competition, career goals or insufficient room for initiative and decision-making are frequent causes. Meanwhile, women are most frequently stressed by having to juggle career and family commitments and by arguments and conflict.

Can people perceive stress differently?

Everyone perceives stress differently. In other words, stress is a subjective experience. For some people, stress is always in their lives and is perceived as something unpleasant or even threatening. Other people are almost never stressed and perceive stress as something that motivates and challenges them.

An individual’s perception of a stress trigger determines whether or not the trigger provokes a stress response in the body. For example, one person may find it no challenge at all to have to buy groceries, cook a meal and clean the bath after finishing a day’s work. However, another person may feel overwhelmed in this situation, which in turn triggers a stress response for them.

Important: Stress has many faces. That is because stress is not only the result of having too long a list of daily tasks. It can also develop because of interpersonal problems, such as not feeling challenged, being under-appreciated, having conflict with work colleagues, or experiencing stresses and strains within the family.

As with the perception of stress, different people cope in different ways with the stress they experience. There is a marked difference in particular between the sexes. Men generally try to manage stress through risky behavior, such as alcohol consumption, aggression or denial. Women are more likely to seek social support or to become anxious or withdrawn.

How does the body respond when stressed?

Stress is the body’s alarm response to a suspected or actual danger. The response is triggered in the brain, which receives the message that an extraordinary amount of energy is now needed to deal with the situation at hand. This triggers various physical processes and causes certain chemical messengers, i.e. stress hormones to be produced, including noradrenalin, adrenalin and cortisol.

The body reacts to triggers known as “stressors” with physical adjustment responses in three phases:

  • alarm
  • resistance
  • exhaustion
The body responds to stressors (events or situations that prompt stress) with three stages of physical adaptation responses: alarm, resistance and exhaustion.

In the first phase, the body produces increased levels of stress hormones. These cause the following effects:

  • heart rate increases
  • breathing becomes faster
  • blood pressure rises
  • blood glucose level increases
  • the bronchi in the lungs dilate
  • the muscles are supplied with nutrients

The immune system is also temporarily activated in an acute stress response. Stress simultaneously begins to shut down normal physical processes that are not essential for “fight or flight”. This affects the functioning of the stomach, gut and bladder, for example.

In the resistance phase, the body tries to adjust to a longer lasting stressful situation (chronic stress) and to manage the persistent pressure. Typical symptoms of stress occur in this phase, such as high blood pressure and muscle tension.

In the third phase – exhaustion – overload becomes apparent. Productivity decreases in the long term. The functioning of the immune system is also impaired, which causes people to be more susceptible to disease-causing germs during this phase and to become ill more easily, for example, with a cold. The risk of developing mental illnesses also increases during this phase. These include anxiety and depression.

What are the physical and mental indicators of stress?

Accelerated breathing, sweaty hands, the feeling of needing to go to the toilet more often than usual – many people have experienced these symptoms, for example, when taking an exam, attending an important meeting or going on a first date. These reactions to acute stress should not be seen as negative in principle. After all, they help people to focus and concentrate on the task before them.

However, a high stress load and a mountain of tasks to complete can lead to prolonged physical or mental stress responses. If people feel overworked or overwhelmed for a considerable time, the body reacts with constant tension and tries to keep productivity at a high level. When this happens, physical stress symptoms often occur, such as:

  • tension
  • headaches
  • digestive issues
  • stomach ache
  • grinding teeth
  • skin problems
  • shortness of breath

In addition, stress often affects the mind, including thinking and inner balance. Constant tension makes real relaxation no longer possible. People sleep poorly, have trouble concentrating, are irritable and uptight and feel discontented and despondent. A vicious cycle can develop: there is a tendency to make more mistakes, so self-confidence suffers and negative things are predominantly perceived. Problems seem to pile up in several areas of life.

Can stress make people sick?

As well as the typical symptoms of stress, prolonged stress can also lead to chronic or recurring illnesses. These include problems with the digestive system, such as irritable bowel or functional dyspepsia (indigestion), gastritis, a gastric ulcer or cardiovascular diseases.

Mental health can also be negatively affected by stress – over time, a feeling of exhaustion can develop into a case of burnout. Chronic stress also increases the risk of mental illnesses, such as anxiety, panic attacks and depression. There is also a risk that very stressed individuals will withdraw entirely from social life and resort to drugs or alcohol to allow themselves to switch off at least temporarily.

What is a burnout?

The video below reports on the possible causes, risk factors, and symptoms of a burnout.

This and other videos can also be found on YouTube.

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A person’s individual capabilities and life situation will determine whether or not they become ill as a result of stress. The more resilience a person has (i.e. the ability to recover quickly), the less likely they are to become stressed by potential triggers such as deadline pressure and conflict.

However, a high level of stress experienced over a prolonged period has a negative impact on physical and mental health. According to a study conducted in 2016, almost one third of people who rated their state of health as not very good or poor experienced stress frequently. In contrast, people who regarded themselves as healthy were less likely to feel stressed.

Important: If episodes of stress last a long time and the symptoms listed above or similar symptoms occur, it is important to pay attention to what is happening and seek help. A family doctor or psychotherapist can provide support in finding ways to stop being constantly stressed.

What can be done to counter stress?

Work and other triggers of stress and mental overload often occupy too much of everyday life. The risk that thoughts and actions will only revolve around these triggers is therefore considerable.

Identifying the stressor: identifying, addressing and dealing with problems is an important first step to dealing with long-term stress.

Tips for managing stress:

  • Identify the stressor: identifying, addressing and dealing with problems is an important first step in dealing with long-term stress.
  • Stay on top of things: many people benefit from better time management – this is something that can be learned by doing special courses, for example.
  • Develop strategies to deal with stress and promote relaxation: some people find certain techniques such as meditation or progressive muscle relaxation helpful.
  • Take a deep breath: in stressful situations, people tend to take shallow breaths and take in too little oxygen. Taking regular deep breaths helps people develop the ability to relax.
  • Eat well: a balanced diet supports the immune system, increases resistance, improves performance and increases happiness.
  • Approach the day calmly: making time for a healthy breakfast and relaxed start in the morning can make a big difference.
  • Exercise as balance: daily exercise and sport help people to switch off, counteract stress and increase productivity.
  • Ensure regular relaxation in everyday life: seek your individual calm anchor, such as reading on the sofa.
  • Pursue a hobby: spending time doing something purely because it is interesting and enjoyable gives people a sense of purpose and satisfaction.
  • And sometimes just do nothing: simply lounging around and being lazy every so often can also be very relaxing.

Important: People who spend a lot of time sitting down at work and who also sit down during their relaxation time may experience health problems because it is recommended that adults spend at least 150 minutes per week doing moderate exercise. This means that active forms of relaxation involving movement are healthy for people who spend a lot of time sitting down.

Where can I get advice and support?

Are you feeling overwhelmed and in need of support? The Telefonseelsorge (German telephone helpline) offers first aid and advice, and can also be contacted via e-mail and online chat: www.telefonseelsorge.de.

Help and advice can also be sought anonymously and free of charge from the NummergegenKummer helpline service. 

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