What is mental stress? Definition

Stress is a mood that comes from emotional or physical strain. It can arise from an incident or an idea that upsets, annoys, or makes you anxious. It is the body’s natural defense that prepares you against danger.

Emotional stress can come from the workplace, or due to relationship problems, financial pressures, and other situations that pose a challenge to a person’s well-being. It can arise from other situations such as facing aggressive behavior, a speeding car or even going out on a first date. These factors that trigger the stress response are called stressors.

Stress is your body’s reaction to a challenging situation. It is the body’s fight-or-flight mechanism that tells you how to respond to danger.

It can cause harm to your health if it lasts for a long time. Managing mental stress talks of effective techniques to deal with such a situation.

When you face a demanding situation, your body reacts to it physically and mentally as it is designed to do. Stress can be positive or negative. The positive form keeps us alert to face a new situation. It can be a motivator. For example, an exam causes tension, which makes us stay awake longer and work harder. This produces better results.

However, long-term stress can become problematic when it continues for a long time without any relief. At such times, it can damage a person’s mental and physical health and cause harm.

Stress is a natural reaction of the body to not being able to cope with a demanding situation. However, if it lasts for a long time, it can become chronic. As far as possible, you should avoid this because chronic stress can cause or worsen many serious health conditions including:

During a stressful situation, the body produces larger quantities of the stress hormones cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. This causes increased blood pressure, faster heart rate, sweating, and alertness. All these factors improve a person’s capability to react to a potentially dangerous or challenging situation.


The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) classifies stress into two types: acute and chronic, each having its own type of management.

Acute stress

The acute form of stress is the more common type and lasts for a short period. It develops mainly due to a traumatic event of sudden onset such as an unexpected life crisis. The symptoms of an acute type reaction develop quickly, are severe, and last for a short period.

Examples of situations that cause acute stress would be a traffic jam that is making you late for an important meeting, an argument with your spouse, an upcoming deadline, disapproval from your boss, or a break-in and robbery in your house when you aren’t there.

With time, it is possible to get out of an acute stressful situation. The mental strain will reduce or disappear once you resolve the argument or meet the deadline.

The acute form produces short-term effects such as tension headaches, stomach upset, and some anxiety.

However, acute stress can become chronic and harmful if instances that lead to it keep occurring repeatedly over a long period.

Chronic stress

As the name suggests, this type develops over a long period and can cause more serious harm.

Examples of chronic stressors include continuing poverty, endless family problems, an unhappy marriage, divorce, the death of a loved one, and the loss of a job.

It occurs when there is no way to avoid the situation and solutions are not there. Chronic stress makes it difficult for you to return to a normal life. It affects almost every system in the body, either directly or indirectly.

The increased level of stress hormone activity over a prolonged period can cause problems to health, which include:

  • Cardiac and respiratory problems
  • Loss of sleep
  • Immune disorders
  • Reproductive problems

Chronic stress can also increase your risk of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. You can develop serious mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

With no solution in sight, the chronic form can lead to suicide, aggressive actions, a heart attack, or stroke.


There are many causes of stress. Different people react differently to the same type of demanding situation. There is no known reason why one person may feel less stressed than another when facing the same demanding situation.

Many of the causes of stress are common in most people. For example, money matters, security of a job, health, and relationship issues.

Some causes are exclusively common in women due to the many extra roles they have to take on. Home responsibilities, family obligations, rearing children, and/or looking after older people at home along with job responsibilities can all cause stress in the woman.

Common major causes that can trigger stress include:

  • Loss of job
  • lack of money
  • mourning
  • family problems
  • poor health
  • relationships, marriage, and divorce

Other common causes of stress are:

  • an abortion
  • an accident
  • problems with neighbors
  • pregnancy and becoming a parent
  • excessive noise, overcrowding, and pollution
  • uncertainty of an important outcome because of no control

The list of causes that lead to psychological stress is long. Health24 gives an exhaustive list.

Symptoms of stress in men and women

Uncontrolled chronic stress that continues over a prolonged period can cause psychological and physical symptoms.

There is a difference in the symptoms of stress presented by both genders. Women are more likely to feel physical and psychological symptoms than men, such as having a headache, the sensation to cry, or an upset stomach.

Psychological symptoms of stress

Psychological symptoms of stress can include:

Physical symptoms

Physical symptoms can include:

  • Muscle strain and pain
  • Muscle spasms
  • Feeling low
  • Headaches
  • Loss of appetite
  • Erectile dysfunction and loss of libido due to decreased levels of testosterone
  • Shortness of breath

Previous life experiences can affect how you react to stress. These experiences give different levels of support and ways of coping. The amount of mental strain you experience depends on certain factors such as:

  • The level of your comfort in the particular situation
  • Any other accompanying stressful situation
  • Your past experiences with such demanding mental situations
  • Your available resources vis-à-vis time and money
  • How much support do you have from your family and friends


Long-term, uncontrolled stress is associated with the development of health complications, which occur due to biochemical imbalances that weaken the immune system and stimulates the autonomous nervous system that controls heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, digestion, and sexual arousal.

Medical complications

Medical complications that can result due to chronic (long-term) stress include:

  • Heart palpitations
  • Chest pain
  • Rapid or deep breathing leads to shortness of breath
  • Gastrointestinal problems such as indigestion, heartburn, irritable bowel syndrome
  • Worsening of pre-existing skin conditions like dermatitis and eczema
  • High blood pressure
  • Rapid pulse
  • Recurrent infections due to weakened immunity resulting in frequent attacks of colds and flu (influenza)
  • Excessive stress also can cause an irregular menstrual cycle and infertility in women
  • It can also lead to an increased risk for common vaginal infections like yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis in women.
  • Again, in women, there may be an increase in vaginal discharge as a result of emotional anxiety.

Social complications

Social complications include:

  • Drinking too much alcohol (alcohol abuse)
  • Resorting to gambling
  • Overeating or developing an eating disorder.
  • Participating compulsively in sex
  • Shopping often
  • Excessive browsing on the internet
  • Smoking too much
  • Using recreational drugs