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Psychological Stress: How Tension Affects the Mind


May 19, 2020 | Published by

Stress is a type of psychological pain consisting of emotional strain or pressure. Stress can be caused by external pressures related to the environment as well as through internal perceptions that can lead to anxiety.1

While small amounts of good stress, referred to as eustress, can be beneficial or even healthy, excessive amounts of stress can lead to serious health conditions such as depression, ulcers, and heart attacks.1  In this blog we are focusing on the way stress affects the mind (psychological stress). First, let’s take a look at some of the basics of stress.

Common Stressors and Signs of Stress

There’s a difference between a stressor and stress itself. A stressor can be a situation, person, or place that causing you stress, while stress is the actual response to stressors.2

While there are numerous situations that can cause stress, common stressors include:2

  • Relationship conflicts
  • Change in work responsibilities
  • Growing demands
  • Financial issues
  • Death of a loved one
  • Health problems
  • Moving
  • Exposure to a traumatic incident

Understanding and acknowledging signs of stress is one of the most important things you can do to start managing stress better. Common signs of chronic stress include:2

  • Rapid heart rate
  • Heightened blood pressure
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Exhaustion
  • Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Anxiety that a stressor won’t go away
  • Changes in behavior, including feelings of sadness, loss of emotional control, social withdrawal, frustration, inability to rest, and self-medication/addiction

Stressor impactLife event scale

A useful way to asses stressful experiences in life can be a life events scale. An example of this sort of scale is the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, also known as the Social Readjustment Rating Scale, which was developed by psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe in 1967.1

The scale lists 43 stressful events. To calculate a score, add up the number of “life change units” that have occurred within the last year. A score greater than 300 means that a person is at considerable risk for illness, while a score between 150 and 299 means that the risk is moderate, and a score under 150 means only a slight risk of illness.1

Stress and disorders

Psychoneuroimmunology research suggests that chronic stress can lead to or worsen mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, bipolar disorder, cognitive issues, and problem behaviors.3

Here are some of the ways stress can affect your psychological health:

Stress and Depression

Under chronic stress, our body gets an increased dose of the hormones secreted by our adrenal glands. In a standard stressful situation this can bring a feeling of calm, but when we absorb a larger amount of these hormones it can lead to a sustained feeling of low energy of depression.3

While some feelings of being sad or “down in the dumps” is a normal part of life, sometimes people experience depressing feelings that endure and begin interfering with their abilities. This can make it difficult to complete daily activities, hold down a job, or be able to enjoy interpersonal relationships.3

Stress and Bipolar Disorder

Also known as manic depression or bipolar affective disorder, this illness involves a dramatic shift in energy level, mood, and behavioral thoughts. These poles are the high of mania, and the opposite low pole of depression.3

Mania can make an individual feel euphoric and hyper-active while having an expansive and positive outlook on life. Mania can also give an individual an inflated sense of self-esteem, and a sense that anything is possible. It is not unusual for manic individuals to show signs of poor judgement and impulsivity.3

The other pole, depression, means individuals can often lose interest in things that once gave them joy. They may develop sleep issues or feel constantly tired or fatigued. Feelings of anger, guilt, failure, or hopelessness may also be experienced.3

Stress and Cognitive Functioning

The continuous presence of stress hormones that remain in a person’s body while experiencing chronic stress can alter some aspects of the nervous system. It’s possible that stress hormones may decrease the functioning of neurons in the region of the brain known as the hippocampus, which is vital for creating new long-term memories.

It can also affect the frontal lobes, which can affect critical functions such as paying attention, filtering out unnecessary information, and the ability to use judgement to solve problems. Individuals suffering from chronic stress often have difficulty concentrating and may experience confusion, while also having trouble learning new information.3

Stress and Personality Changes

When we discuss personality, it is typically defined by persistent individual patterns of emotion, thoughts, and behavior that characterize an individual. Many people can experience personality changes in response to stress hormones, including:3

  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Decreased interest in appearance
  • Aggressive feelings and behavior
  • Problems in communication
  • Hostility
  • Frustration
  • Social withdrawal and isolation
  • Decreased concern with punctuality
  • Obsessive/compulsive behavior
  • Reduced work efficiency or productivity
  • Lying or making excuses to cover up poor work
  • Excessive defensiveness or suspiciousness
  • Impulsivity

Tips for Managing Psychological Stress

If you are experiencing, or know someone that is experiencing chronic stress, here are some beneficial strategies for stress management.4

Try reframing

Sometimes there’s more to a stressor than meets the eye. The practice of reframing teaches us to look at a negative or stressful situation, and look at it in a positive way. While it’s easy to get wrapped up in the negatives of a bad situation, it’s possible that there is more to the picture we are just not seeing.4

Improve your planning

Harvard-trained psychologist Robert Epstein has shown us that it’s possible to manage stress through planning. This can be done with daily checklists or planners.4


There’s no shortage of studies showing that relaxation can be an extremely valuable asset to stressed-out people. Consider trying tools such as progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), deep breathing, and guided imagery.4

Affirm your values

Control groups have shown individuals have a significant decrease in cortisol when they think of their highest values before a stressful situation.4

Balance character strengths

Recent research has explained that the overuse and underuse of character strengths are linked with distress and depression. Research also shows that having balanced character strengths is connected with a greater sense of life satisfaction.4

Express forgiveness

Research led by Luther College professor of psychology Loren Toussaint tells us that practicing forgiveness takes the negative connection between mental illness and stress and nearly eliminates it. People that are more forgiving of themselves and others are far less likely of developing a mental illness.4

Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness is a proven way of dealing with stress that teaches us to be completely aware of what’s happening in the present. Instead of living on “autopilot”, you experience life as it unfolds moment to moment.4

While these tips can be profoundly helpful, if you find yourself feeling depressed for long periods of time, be sure to seek professional medical help.


  1. Psychological Stress. Wikipedia.
  2. Lindberg, S. Psychological Stress, Physical Stress, and Emotional Stress. Healthline.
  3. Mental and Emotional Impact of Stress.
  4. Niemiec, R. 10 New Strategies for Stress Management. Psychology Today.

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