Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 10/8/2022
Stress is a normal part of life. Whether from work, life or another cause, we all deal with stress and the emotions that come with it.
Research has shown how stressed we all are. In 2020, the average stress level of adults in the U.S. was 5.6 on a scale of 1 to 10, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).
But over time, emotional stress can start interfering with your life and negatively affect your health and quality of life.
When emotional stress affects you long-term — called chronic stress — it can impact both your physical and mental health, causing a variety of symptoms.
Know that whatever the cause of your stress is, there are ways to manage and treat the effects of stress.
Emotional stress — also known as emotional distress, mental stress or stress — is a response of emotional or physical tension caused by a physiological response in the body.
Stress can come about as a response to a dangerous situation, feeling a loss of security or internal conflicts.
Short bursts of stress that go away, or acute stress, are normal reactions. In fact, they’re a way our body protects us from danger.
Acute stress happens in situations like when you get into a fight or an accident, or even when you try something new. It typically comes and goes very quickly.
The feelings that arise from stress, such as worry, anger, fear or sadness, are all normal responses.
Our bodies react to stressful situations by releasing different hormones — like cortisol and adrenaline — that cause cognitive and physical responses.
These hormones make you more alert, increase your pulse, provide a burst of energy (the “fight-or-flight” response), cause you to breathe faster and sharpen your senses to better deal with the perceived threat.
In the short-term, these reactions are good because your body is protecting you.
But if your stress lasts for a long time and doesn’t go away, chronic stress is the result. This is a consistent feeling of pressure or being overwhelmed by a variety of causes.
Some causes of chronic stress may include financial issues, marital problems or chronic health problems.
If your body is constantly alert and under stress, this chronic stress can negatively impact your health.
Emotional stress — whether short-term or chronic —can come from a wide variety of causes, including either positive or negative changes.
Life changes often produce emotional stress even if they’re considered positive changes, like having a baby, getting married or moving.
Work-related stress, which is another common type of stress, can be the result of starting a new job or getting laid off, as well as working long hours.
Causes of short-term and chronic emotional stress are similar, but not always the same. Possible causes of chronic emotional stress include:
Having low income or debt
Problems at home (relationship problems)
A serious illness
The death of a loved one
Emotional stress can cause many different types of symptoms, affecting your physical and emotional health.
Physical symptoms of emotional distress can include:
Pain in your shoulders, neck or back
Grinding your teeth
Weight changes, including both weight loss and weight gain
Shortness of breath
Gastrointestinal issues, like an upset stomach
Tiredness, or problems sleeping
Another possible physical symptom of stress is acne, which we explain more about in our guide to stress acne.
Some of the behavioral or emotional symptoms of stress are:
Feeling on edge
Difficulty remembering or keeping track of things
Excessive drinking or drug use, or other risky behaviors
Thinking of hurting or killing yourself or another person
Not only do emotional stress symptoms negatively affect you in the short-term, but they can also lead to more serious health conditions.
For example, a 2015 study found that people who had a lot of work stress were more likely to also have symptoms of depression and anxiety than those with lower levels of work stress.
Chronic stress can also lead to long-term heart problems such as heart attack, stroke or hypertension (high blood pressure), because a stress response can increase your heart rate and blood pressure.
Women are also not only more likely to develop mental health conditions from chronic stress, but they also have an increased risk of heart disease due to emotional stress, especially younger women.
The hormones that your body releases when you’re stressed can also negatively impact your immune system. If you’re under constant stress, it can lead to diabetes, obesity and other immune disorders.
By being aware of the signs of emotional stress and working to treat them, you can potentially avoid developing chronic stress. And fortunately, no matter what emotional stress symptoms you’re experiencing, there are ways to treat both short-term and chronic stress.
Managing and treating symptoms of emotional stress is important for your long-term physical and mental health.
There are many stress-reducing techniques out there, but finding the right one for you is most important, according to the American Institute of Stress.
Learning to become more aware and focus your attention can help manage stress.
A large study even found that six weeks of mindfulness practice lowered stress levels.
Mindfulness-based therapy has also been found to reduce anxiety and depression, mental health conditions that can develop due to stress.
Different mindfulness practices might incorporate breathing techniques, guided meditation or yoga to help you become more aware of thoughts or physical sensations you’re experiencing.
By becoming more aware of your symptoms and sensations in the body, you can learn how to better respond to them through mindfulness.
You can learn more strategies in our guide on how to practice mindfulness.
Besides the many physical benefits, exercise can also help relieve emotional distress.
Exercise reduces stress hormone levels and increases the production of endorphins, the chemical in the brain that leads to a “runner’s high” and naturally elevates your mood.
Physical activity can also improve cognitive function, alertness and concentration and reduce fatigue — all of which can be affected by emotional stress.
Any form of movement will help reduce stress, choose whatever exercise you prefer. Even a 20-minute walk can help.
Even if you can only take a few minutes, dedicating time each day to unwind or taking a moment to pause can help manage emotional stress.
There are many techniques that invoke our “relaxation response,” which is the opposite of the natural stress response. This response lowers blood pressure, reduces heart rate and slows down breathing.
Relaxing can be as simple as doing a body scan, focusing on your breath or practicing gentle exercises like yoga or tai chi for a few minutes.
Writing down your thoughts and feelings can help you process them better and encourages you to slow down and pay attention.
Journaling also lets you uncover stressors and cope with your thoughts in healthy ways.
Emotional stress can sometimes trigger anxiety, and both conditions have similar symptoms of tension, excessive worry, pain and loss of sleep.
A mental health professional may prescribe you medications for your stress. It is important that you find a healthcare provider that you can trust — together, you can devise a treatment plan that is right for you.
If you’ve been experiencing any signs of emotional stress and haven’t found relief from treatments like exercise and meditation, you may need to seek help from a mental health professional.
You can consult with a licensed psychiatrist online to discuss your symptoms and figure out a treatment plan that’s best for you.