chronic stress and mental health

The Link Between Stress, Mental Health, and Mental Illness

Stress is so common that we’ve all stopped paying attention to it – it’s just our status quo. But Stress, especially when long-term, intense, or both, is strongly and intricately linked to mental health and can have a profound effect. Stress can increase the risk of developing burnout, anxiety,  depression, and even physical health problems.


What is stress?


Stress is any type of change that causes physical, emotional, mental, or psychological strain to the human body or mind. It is our reaction to pressure in any situation that the brain feels a lack of control over. 

This change manifests across a wide range of external stimuli – deadlines, fighting with family, unpleasant public interactions, looming debt, esoteric fears about the future – all of these can cause stress. 


How do we recognize stress? 


Stress has a clear-cut effect on our bodies and minds. Here are the following noticeable symptoms of stress: 

How we feel mentally: Irritable, angry, overburdened, anxious, fearful, tense, lonely, unable to concentrate, indecisive, and forgetful.

How we feel physically: Difficulty breathing, panic attacks, sleep problems, fatigue, body pain, indigestion, heartburn, constipation, dizziness, sweating, getting rashes, and/or sudden weight gain or loss.

How we behaveWithdrawal from others, nail biting, snapping at people, picking at skin, teeth grinding, jaw clenching, inability to enjoy anything, sexual problems, drastic diet change, smoking/drinking/using drugs more than is typical, crying, overspending, and/or loss of interest in physical activity.

In specific situations of high stress, people might also experience serious health conditions like cardiomyopathy (heart attack) or the absence of a period.


How is stress different from mental illness?


Though stress shares a lot of symptoms with other mental illnesses or mental health struggles, they are quite different. Stress is a condition that affects everyone, regardless of their mental wellness. It is important to note that while stress is different from all three conditions, it can be the trigger that causes these conditions. 

Burnout is a mental, physical, and emotional state that causes mental health struggles — but it’s not technically a disorder. When we are stressed, we are over-engaged or over-reactive; by contrast, when we are burnt out we tend towards disengagement and  minimal reaction due to lack of motivation and energy.

Burnout typically develops after a long period of chronic stress, or a short period of intense stress from multiple sources. While it is easier to walk back from stress with the right help, burnout is more complex and requires a longer recovery.

Stress and anxiety have a lot of similar symptoms but stress is a condition that requires an external stressor to cause a reaction. Anxiety, on the other hand, is a mental illness characterized by persistent worries that exist without any cause.


Though depression and stress have similar possible symptoms like withdrawal from life, anger, and/or rapid weight gain/loss, stress is a physical and mental state, unlike depression, which is a disorder. Unlike stress, depression can manifest without a specific trigger. Depression also benefits from a psychiatrist’s help, whereas stress does not require it. 


Can stress cause mental health disorders?


Stress experienced over a long period of time can lead to a host of more complex mental and physical problems or illnesses. Research has shown that chronic stress can generate long-term changes in the brain, leading to a higher risk of developing mental illnesses. 

Stress over time can cause states like burnout, or contribute to the development of mental health disorders like anxiety and depression or to physical conditions like high blood pressure and stroke. 

Our risk of developing other conditions during a long period of stress is influenced by many factors, however, including:

  • Our access to social support
  • Our ability to regulate or balance emotions
  • Whether we’re experiencing multiple stressors at the same time 
  • Our degree of self-confidence

What kind of support does stress require?

Stress is often temporary and caused by an external source. Because of this, it’s often dealt with independently. But mental health care can help people develop stress management and emotional regulation skills that lower one’s risk of stress contributing to a mental illness.

In stressful periods, we can:

Confide in someone we trust. Talking about a stressful situation opens up avenues to solving it or to realizing that we need more help.

Take a break. One of the  best ways to deal with a situation that seems overwhelming is to take several steps back from it. Breaks refresh our minds and help us come up with new ideas.

Exercise and relax. Keeping up with our physical health both provides an excellent distraction from the stressor and makes our bodies produce feel-good endorphins that counteract the damage from stress. Ten minutes of exercise a day and simple relaxation techniques like yoga, meditation, stretching, or deep breathing can all help ease stress.

When stress manifests in ways that go beyond what we can handle, we can seek out the help of a professional mental health practitioner or a community leader who can help guide us. Whom we seek out depends on how serious the situation feels.

Seek out a community elder / counsellor / trusted mentor if: You feel isolated and need to confide in someone, but can’t bring yourself to do so for a variety of reasons. Community elders like religious leaders can both listen to your worries themselves and point you towards group activities that may help you feel more sociable and relaxed.

Seek out a psychologist if: You feel like stress is worsening behaviors like substance abuse or mood swings that you cannot control in public and private spaces. A psychologist can use various forms of talk therapy to help you cope or refer you to a psychiatrist if they feel like you need more help.


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