The emotional effects of stress

We all have to deal with stress but the emotional effects of stress are too often ignored. Without understanding these we might not recognise and be able to deal with stress, which is important to emotional health and wellbeing. 

Stress can lead to a range of emotional effects on the individual. These can include feeling angry, anxious, depressed, moody, and isolated. It can also lead to changes in how a person sees themselves and in them doing things that can harm them, such as using substances or impulsive behaviours.

What is stress?

The standard definition of stress is ‘an amount of force/pressure, applied in a certain area’. Psychologists, meanwhile, define stress as the body’s reaction to change, which requires either physical, mental, or emotional adjustments or responses.

From an emotions point of view, it can be useful to separate out pressure from stress. Pressure can be good for us, in that it can spur us into action or be proactive, but too much pressure leads to stress. The difference is that you feel able to manage pressure, even if it stretches you, while stress feels unmanageable.

Psychiatrist Peter Panzarino says that stress is simply a fact of human nature. So we cannot avoid stress completely but we can change how we respond to stress. The ability to respond to stress proactively is a skill that can have a profound effect on our lives.

Stress can be triggered by many factors related to work, relationships, and significant life changes.

How does stress affect emotional well-being?

Numerous studies have been conducted on the effects of stress on the body. They have revealed that stress can have all kinds of effects starting from insomnia to neck pain, aching muscles, and even digestive issues. But it goes beyond that. In fact, the emotional effect of stress is often ignored but can pose real problems if not handled well.

Some of the effects of stress on emotional well being are as follows

Feeling angry

General irritability and distress are seen when stress levels are high. There have been studies that have been conducted which show the link between chronic stress and irritability. Increased irritability may come out in displays of anger.

Feeling anxious

Anxiety is another symptom of stress. Anxiety is a constant feeling of dread and fear. It is a gnawing feeling that something will go wrong. When people are experiencing stress at home or at work they often report feeling anxious all the time or in some cases having panic attacks too.

Feeling depressed

Stress has been shown to have a considerable effect on susceptibility to depression. Depression is a feeling of sadness and grief that cannot be resolved. Depression is common for people who are constantly under high levels of stress.

Feeling unable

Stress can affect our ability to stay focused and remember things. Together these impact on how effective and able we feel. We need to feel effective and capable for our self-esteem that is partly based on an idea that we can do certain things well. Continued stress can lead to feeling unable, incapable, and ineffective, which is a recipe for feeling shame, embarrassment, and guilt.

Feeling moody

While our moods are always changing, stress intensifies this process, leading to mood swings and unpredictable behaviour. As the mind struggles to stay focused, thoughts can switch from the present moment to issues and concerns. We may feel happy one minute and anxious or angry the next. The knock on effects on our relationships only make us feel worse. 

Feeling isolated

Stress leads us to think about the problems or issues we are facing. Not always in a direct way, but certainly our mind wanders, we think of consequences and catastrophes, our belief in our self declines, and consequently, our desire to be around others also declines. It becomes hard to stay focused on others and their interests and concerns. We may want to stay away from others because we don’t feel fun or our best. We may want to withdraw because we need to focus on trying to fix things. Isolation, either metaphorically (in our minds when around others) or literally (staying away from others), is a very real emotional consequence of stress. 

The key to dealing with stress

What makes stress difficult is the emotional effects of stress. If it didn’t make us feel angry, anxious, moody, alone, depressed, and incapable it would feel manageable. Indeed, pressure does make us feel these things. So the key to dealing with stress is knowing how to deal with our emotions. There are some core ingredients to doing this. 

Set boundaries

The first is being able to set boundaries and say no to things that you can’t or don’t want to do, to alleviate some of the expectations and pressures. Being able to set healthy boundaries is a vital but difficult skill to learn. 

Get support

The second is talking to people who you trust. While stress may push us towards feeling isolated, talking about our fears allows us understand them better and start to make sense of them. Equally, talking about how we feel starts to take the power away from those feelings so we feel more able to take action. Indeed, research has shown that social support networks can act as a strong buffer against the negative effects of stress on emotional well-being.

Manage expectations

Part of setting healthy boundaries is being able to set reasonable expectations for yourself of what you are able to do and being able to communicate these to others so they know what to expect. This can alleviate some of the social pressure to do certain things at certain times. 

Take care of yourself

There are many research studies that identify the biological and physiological, as well as the emotional, effects of stress. Being able to attend to those is also a core part of stress management. Some of these ways of reducing stress are as follows:

Diet: Caring for ourselves through food is essential. Eating sufficiently healthy food allows the body to handle stress better. 

Exercise: The effects of exercise on coping with stress are well known. Exercise helps us break away from certain mental states and allows us to deal with challenges and problems better. Increased health, energy, and stamina also have a great effect on our ability to manage stress. 

Sleep: Sleep and its benefits are not to be ignored when dealing with stress. Some people feel so stressed, they find it hard to sleep. In fact, in America, insomnia due to stress is a huge problem, and one-third of the adults complain about having trouble sleeping. Healthy sleep habits and skills to get to and stay alseep are important and can be learnt.

Meditation: There are many studies that have shown the benefits of meditation on the reduction of stress. In its very basic sense, meditation is just being and reflecting in a detached manner. It is stepping away from the hustle-bustle of life and spending a few minutes and calmness and quietude. Anyone can do it and it helps us get a sense of calm. Getting into the habit of short meditations during work, just after waking up, or just before going to sleep can help relax, give clarity, and put things into perspective. 

To sum up

Stress not only has considerable emotional effects but it is those emotional effects that make stress so difficult to deal with. While there are many people giving advice on managing stress, and much of this may be helpful, what is often missed is the importance of becoming educated about our emotions and learning how to deal with our emotions that is the key to really being able to manage stress. The process of becoming educated about emotions will not only help with stress but will take you on a journey of self-discovery that will lead to greater levels of satisfaction, fulfilment and confidence. 

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