North Wales Management School - Wrexham University

Stress and its psychology

Posted on: March 19, 2024
Tired stressed businesswoman feeling strong headache massaging temples exhausted from overwork, fatigued overwhelmed lady executive worker suffering from pain in head or chronic migraine in office

Stress. It’s a word that’s bandied about a lot. But what is its psychological meaning? How exactly does it affect our minds and bodies? And, more importantly, what can we do about it? We take a closer look.

We’ve all felt it at times in our life – whether it’s facing the playground bully, moving house, work stress, an impending round of redundancies, or getting a divorce.

Stress is a state of worry or mental tension caused by feeling threatened or under pressure. It’s a survival mechanism we’ve evolved over millennia; our body’s response to help focus our attention on dealing with challenges. But while everyone experiences stress at one time or another, the way we respond to it makes a big difference to our overall health and wellbeing.

It’s also a common problem. A 2018 survey of people in the UK by the Mental Health Foundation found in the previous year, 74% of people felt so stressed they had been overwhelmed or unable to cope. Of those surveyed, 46% reported they’d over-eaten or eaten unhealthily due to stress, 29% drank more alcohol and 16% smoked more as a result. Just over half of the adults surveyed said they’d felt depressed and 61% reported feeling anxious. Concerningly, of those who’d felt stress, 16% had self-harmed and 32% had had suicidal thoughts and feelings.

What is the body’s stress response?

Think of an angry bull rampaging towards you, hooves thundering and head bowed, ready to gore you with its horns. Pretty stressful. When we are confronted with this oncoming danger, our eyes and ears send a signal to the brain’s emotional processing centre, the amygdala. 

Perceiving the threat, the amygdala sends a distress signal to the brain’s ‘command centre’ – the hypothalamus. This has a direct line of communication with the rest of the body – the autonomic nervous system – and kicks off the fight-or-flight response to provide a burst of energy. That allows us to either attack the threat, or run away fast.

Part of our endocrine system, the adrenal glands begin pumping out the hormone adrenaline (also known as epinephrine) increasing our heart rate and delivering more blood to our muscles, heart and organs. We breathe more rapidly, our blood pressure spikes, and the small airways in the lungs get wider to take in more oxygen and make us more alert. Our sight, hearing and other senses are sharpened. The stress hormone cortisol is also triggered, releasing blood sugar and fats from temporary storage sites and dumping them into the bloodstream, fuelling all parts of the body.

These changes happen instantly, allowing us to leap clear of the bull’s horns before we’ve even had a chance to think about what we’re doing.

What are the three types of stress?

Stress is caused by a danger that may be real (like the charging bull) or imagined, immediate or further away – but unfortunately our bodies can’t tell the difference. The American Psychological Association divides stress into three main types — acute, episodic acute, and chronic.

Acute stress is caused by a sudden stressful situation, such as a serious car accident or your boss asking you to step in for her in giving a keynote speech at the very last minute. You may get the racing heart and adrenaline kick described above, as well as symptoms such as irritability, anxiety, sadness, headaches, gut problems and back pain. This kind of stress is short-term and symptoms subside when the danger or threat is gone and the stress eases.

Episodic acute stress occurs when we experience stressful events regularly, such as tight deadlines regularly cropping up, dealing with a string of emergencies or taking on too much work. This can lead to people living in a state of tension. Over time, this can damage your work or relationships, drive people to unhealthy behaviours like binge drinking or over-eating and ultimately contributes to health problems like heart disease or depression and burnout if it is not managed properly.

Chronic stress is the most damaging form of stress: long-term, relentless levels of stress that wear people down over years. It might come from serious life problems beyond a person’s control, such as poverty or living in a war zone. Chronic stress can harm both mental and physical health. It can leave you tired and lacking focus, cause headaches and result in digestive problems, from ulcers to flare ups of irritable bowel disease. It also depresses your immune system, leaving you more prone to infections, and it affects your cardiovascular health. Several studies have found a link between chronic stress and the development of coronary artery disease.

Some common sources of stress

Despite all of the technological advances we enjoy to make our lives easier, 21st century life appears to be no less stressful than it was for previous generations. A 2018 Mental Health Foundation survey of 4,619 UK adults identified several common causes of stress:

  • long-term health conditions – either their own or that of a loved one or family member
  • debt – now even more pertinent during the cost of living crisis
  • digital demands – feeling the constant need to respond to emails, texts and messages
  • comparing oneself to others – 49% of 18-24 year olds who were stressed cited this as the source of the problem
  • body image dissatisfaction – especially among women (36% vs 23% of men)
  • housing worries – particularly for younger people (32% of 18-24 year-olds were stressed about this issue)
  • pressure to succeed – felt by 60% of 18-24 year-olds and 41% of 25-34 year-olds.

Top tips for handling life’s stressors

The American Psychological Association suggests these stress management tips, based on good quality evidence, as coping strategies for the difficult life events thrown at us and to help counteract the effects of stress.

  • Do what makes you happy: Don’t drop hobbies and activities you enjoy when life or work overwhelms you. Whether it’s singing, dancing or watching your favourite TV comedy show, doing what you love provides an essential stress relief.
  • Stretch out: Stress causes muscles to contract, giving us all kinds of aches and pains. Stretching, massage, warm baths or progressive muscle relaxation can all help.
  • Eat well: When we’re stressed, adrenaline and cortisol are released which affects our digestive tract. While acute stress suppresses appetite, long-term release of cortisol during chronic stress can make us crave fat and sugar. Eating more of these leads to dangerous storage of fat around our internal organs that’s linked with cardiovascular and metabolic diseases. So to protect your health, cut out the sugar and eat a balanced, nutritious diet.
  • Get some Zzzs: Stress can cause sleepless nights, which affects our mood and mental agility in the daytime. Avoiding late night screen time, cutting out alcohol and caffeine and a consistent bedtime routine can help with insomnia.
  • Meditate: Mindful meditation is backed by robust research as a way to reduce psychological stress and anxiety—even short-term mindfulness meditation works
  • Move it: Exercise – even a brisk half hour walk – fights stress and helps us sleep. One study showed that working adults who were moderately active had half the perceived stress of those who didn’t exercise. 
  • Hello trees, hello sky!: International research has found that green space improves mood. Taking time to notice the birds, trees and flowers, even if it’s just in your local park, can refocus your mind.
  • Reframe your thinking: Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) encourages people to understand that thoughts influence emotions, which in turn influence their behaviours and there’s a wealth of evidence behind its efficacy for stress and anxiety. Reframing your thoughts around a stressor can help manage your emotions and reduce feelings of stress. 
  • Get help: If you’re feeling burnt out, overwhelmed and none of the above are helping, mental health providers can help you learn how to manage your stress effectively. They can help you pinpoint situations or behaviours that trigger your stress and then develop an action plan to change the stressors, change your environment, and change your responses.

Gain a psychological advantage

From managing stress to understanding people’s motivations, a keen understanding of human behaviour is a strength of many effective leaders and managers. The online MSc Psychology from North Wales Management School teaches human psychology and how to apply it in the workplace to make effective decisions and support and motivate colleagues and teams.

This postgraduate course is for private and public sector professionals and managers across HR, education, educational leadership, marketing and more who want to apply their passion for psychology to take their career to the next level.

You’ll learn skills including critical thinking, appraising evidence, educational psychology, neuroscience, understanding psychometric assessments, clinical and forensic psychology and emerging technologies in psychology. Alongside you’ll develop a range of skills increasingly sought by major employers, including data analysis skills, statistical and computer literacy, critical appraisal, and research skills. What is more, this flexible MSc can be studied anytime, anywhere so it fits around your family and career. Find out more