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How Stress Contribute to Mental Illness

The three different types of stress are acute stress, episodic acute stress, and chronic stress. These types of stress vary in terms of severity and duration.

Navigation: What Mental Illness is caused by Stress?, Anxiety Disorders, Depression, Substance Use Disorders, Insomnia and Sleep Problems, Eating Disorders, Adjustment Disorder, When is Stress a Problem?, Taking Care of Your Physical and Mental Health, Rehab Is Your Best Chance


Stress is how people react whenever they feel threatened or pressured. It usually happens in situations wherein we don’t feel in control or juggling too many responsibilities at once.

Stress can be triggered by a lot of different things, including external events like work pressure and relationship problems, as well as internal factors like worries and personal expectations. Generally, stress occurs when you’re having a hard time for any reason at all, whether you’re facing financial problems, disease, bereavement, academic stress, natural disasters, etc.

The three different types of stress are acute stress, episodic acute stress, and chronic stress. These types of stress vary in terms of severity and duration.

Acute stress refers to short-term stress that is often a response to immediate challenges or threats. It typically subsides once the situation is resolved.

Episodic acute stress is when a person experiences frequent episodes of acute stress due to their lifestyle or personality traits. They may constantly feel overwhelmed and struggle to manage their stress.

Lastly, chronic stress is a type of stress that persists over a longer period. It is often associated with ongoing issues like work-related stress, long-term health problems, or personal struggles. Chronic stress can have serious health implications if left unmanaged.

Stress is both a physiological and psychological response to a perceived threat, demand, or challenge. And even though stress is a normal part of life, it can still be overwhelming, especially when you can’t see beyond the stressful event.

Despite its effects, stress is simply a natural and adaptive reaction that has evolved as a survival mechanism, often referred to as the “fight or flight” response. When faced with a stressful situation, the body releases hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which prepare the body to react quickly to the perceived threat.

In fact, some level of stress can be motivating and help individuals perform better in challenging situations.

However, chronic or excessive stress can have negative effects on physical health, emotional well-being, and overall quality of life.

It’s important to manage stress effectively to prevent its negative impact on both mental and physical health. Here we will discuss how stress can potentially lead to mental health issues, mood disorders, and emotional disorders. Let’s take a closer look.


What Mental Illness is caused by Stress?

Stress itself is not considered a mental health problem. We can even say that stress itself does not cause specific mental illnesses.

Keep in mind that mental illness is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon, and its causes are not limited to just one factor. While stress can play a significant role in the development or exacerbation of certain mental health conditions, it is rarely the sole cause.

However, it certainly plays a part in developing mental illness.

Stress can make existing problems worse. For example, long term stress can affect your health, leading to different physical health problems like cardiovascular disease or heart disease. At the same time, it may contribute to mental health issues like anxiety or depression. A traumatic event coupled with a prolonged period of stress may lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

It also goes the other way around, wherein struggling with a mental illness can also lead to stress. Coping with the day-to-day symptoms of your mental health condition is stressful. It creates a cycle of mental illness exacerbating stress, and stress worsening your mental illness.

This is why managing stress properly is very important. But before we talk about how you can control your stress response, let’s talk about some of the most common mental health problems that are influenced by stress.


Anxiety Disorders

Chronic stress can contribute to the development or exacerbation of anxiety disorders.

Anxiety disorders are a group of mental health conditions characterized by excessive and persistent feelings of anxiety, fear, and worry. These feelings can be so intense that they interfere with a person’s daily life, relationships, and overall well-being.

Here are some common forms of anxiety disorders:

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): Involves chronic and excessive worry about a variety of everyday situations and events, often without a specific trigger. People with GAD may find it difficult to control their worry and experience physical symptoms such as restlessness, fatigue, muscle tension, and difficulty concentrating.

Panic Disorder: This involves recurrent and unexpected panic attacks, which are sudden episodes of intense fear or discomfort accompanied by physical sensations like a racing heart, shortness of breath, and a feeling of impending doom. People with panic disorder often fear future panic attacks and may change their behavior to avoid triggering them.

Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia): Individuals with social anxiety disorder experience extreme fear and anxiety in social situations due to a fear of being judged, embarrassed, or humiliated. This fear can lead to avoidance of social interactions and events.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): OCD involves persistent and unwanted intrusive thoughts (obsessions) that cause anxiety, as well as repetitive behaviors or mental acts (compulsions) aimed at reducing the anxiety caused by the obsessions. For example, someone might have obsessions about germs and engage in compulsive handwashing to alleviate the anxiety.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): PTSD is a type of anxiety disorder that can develop after experiencing a traumatic event. Symptoms include intrusive thoughts, nightmares, flashbacks, and emotional distress related to the traumatic event. People with PTSD may also avoid reminders of the trauma and experience heightened arousal and emotional numbing.

Chronic and excessive stress can contribute to the development of anxiety disorders in several ways. For starters, prolonged stress can lead to a state of heightened physiological arousal, where the body’s “fight or flight” response is activated for extended periods. This prolonged activation can increase the overall sensitivity to stressors and make people more prone to feeling anxious.

Stress can also make people hyper vigilant or overly focused on potential threats. This constant scanning for danger can lead to a cycle of persistent worry and anxiety.


Stressful life events and stressors can be a trigger for depression. Depression, often referred to as major depressive disorder, is a mental health condition characterized by persistent feelings of sadness, low mood, and a lack of interest or pleasure in activities that they used to consider enjoyable.

Depression isn’t the same as just feeling sad. It is a mental health condition that goes beyond the normal ups and downs that people experience in life. Depression can affect how a person thinks, feels, and behaves, often leading to various emotional and physical symptoms.

Watch out for sudden changes in their sleep patterns, appetite, weight, or appearance. They may experience feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt. They may also have difficulty concentrating or making decisions. Depression may even cause physical symptoms like aches, pains, headaches, or digestive issues.

Some depressed individuals may even contemplate self-harm or suicide.

Depression can vary in severity, and not everyone experiences all of these symptoms. Additionally, depression can have a variety of causes. It’s a complex condition that is influenced by genetics, brain chemistry, hormonal imbalances, early life events, and other factors. Stress is just one of those factors.

Stress and depression can be interconnected in various ways. While stress itself is not the sole cause of depression, it can contribute significantly to its development.

Stress triggers the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, which are meant to prepare the body for a “fight or flight” response. However, when stress is persistent, the prolonged exposure to high levels of stress hormones can disrupt the endocrine system and lead to imbalances. These hormonal changes can contribute to mood disturbances and increase the risk of developing depression.

Chronic stress can also lead to negative thinking patterns. A depressed individual may become pessimistic or spend too much time worrying about things that are out of their control. Over time, these negative thought patterns can become ingrained and contribute to a negative self-perception, a sense of hopelessness, and a distorted view of reality—all of which are characteristic of depression.

Substance Use Disorders

When stressed, a lot of people turn to drugs and alcohol in order to cope with their difficult emotions. This can potentially lead to substance abuse or addiction.

Substance use disorder (SUD), also known as addiction, is a complex medical condition that is characterized by the compulsive intake of an addictive substance, even when the person is already suffering from its adverse effects.

An addicted person will keep drinking or abusing drugs due to their intense cravings, even when they are already facing the various consequences of their substance abuse.

SUD is considered a mental health disorder and falls under the broader category of behavioral health disorders. Addiction tends to affect every aspect of a person’s life, including their physical and mental health, their relationships, their career, their finances, etc.

Over time, a person’s body might develop tolerance to the substance, requiring larger amounts to achieve the desired effect. They may even develop drug dependence, wherein they have to take drugs just to feel normal. When the substance use is abruptly reduced or stopped, they may experience withdrawal symptoms, which can vary depending on the substance and severity of the disorder.

SUD can encompass a wide range of substances, including alcohol, opioids, stimulants, cannabis, sedatives, hallucinogens, and more. But one common theme among people with SUD is that some of them take these substances in order to cope with stress and forget about their problems for the short term.

Substance use can provide temporary relief from emotional distress, anxiety, and other negative feelings. This relief can create a cycle where individuals rely on substances whenever they experience stress, eventually leading to dependence and addiction.

People who rely on drugs and alcohol as a form of self-medication may not have healthy coping strategies or access to proper mental health care, so they turn to these harmful substances to alleviate their symptoms temporarily.

Insomnia and Sleep Problems

Stress can disrupt sleep patterns and contribute to insomnia or other sleep-related problems, which can in turn affect mental health.

Insomnia and sleep problems are conditions that involve difficulties in falling asleep, staying asleep, or getting enough restful sleep. These conditions can have a significant impact on a person’s daily functioning and quality of life.

Let’s start with insomnia. This is a common sleep disorder that is characterized by difficulty in initiating or maintaining sleep, or experiencing non-restorative sleep despite having the opportunity to sleep.

People with insomnia often have trouble falling asleep when they go to bed, wake up frequently during the night, or wake up too early in the morning and are unable to fall back asleep. This can lead to daytime sleepiness, fatigue, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and a reduced ability to perform daily tasks effectively. Insomnia can be acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term).

Aside from insomnia, there are many other sleep-related difficulties that people may experience such as sleep apnea, narcolepsy, and parasomnias. Here are some of the most common examples of sleep problems:

Sleep Apnea: A condition where a person’s breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep. It can lead to loud snoring, choking, and gasping for breath during sleep, often causing fragmented sleep and daytime sleepiness.

Narcolepsy: A neurological disorder that affects the brain’s ability to regulate sleep-wake cycles. It is characterized by excessive daytime sleepiness, sudden and uncontrollable episodes of falling asleep (called sleep attacks), and sometimes a sudden loss of muscle tone (cataplexy) triggered by strong emotions.

Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS): An uncomfortable sensation in the legs, often described as crawling, itching, or tingling, that occurs primarily when at rest. This sensation is relieved by movement, leading to disrupted sleep.

Parasomnias: A group of sleep disorders that involve abnormal behaviors, movements, emotions, perceptions, and dreams that occur during sleep. Examples include sleepwalking, sleep terrors, and night sweats.

Circadian Rhythm Disorders: Conditions where a person’s internal body clock is misaligned with the typical sleep-wake schedule, leading to difficulties falling asleep or waking up at the desired times.

Shift Work Sleep Disorder: A condition that affects individuals who work night shifts or rotating shifts, causing disruptions in their natural sleep-wake patterns.

Stress can have a significant impact on sleep and can contribute to the development of insomnia and other sleep problems. When you’re stressed, your body’s natural “fight or flight” response is activated, leading to increased alertness and arousal. This heightened state of alertness can make it difficult to wind down and relax, which is essential for falling asleep.

When you’re stressed, your mind also has the tendency to race, thinking about your worries, problems, and upcoming challenges. This mental preoccupation can make it challenging to calm your thoughts and transition into a state conducive to sleep.

Stress even triggers the release of cortisol, which is a stress hormone. Elevated cortisol levels at night can disrupt the natural circadian rhythm that regulates sleep and wakefulness. This can lead to difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or experiencing restful sleep.

To address stress-related sleep problems, it’s important to manage stress itself and improve sleep hygiene. Techniques such as relaxation exercises, mindfulness, deep breathing, and regular physical activity can help manage stress and promote better sleep.

Eating Disorders

Chronic stress may be a factor in the development of eating disorders such as binge eating disorder, bulimia nervosa, or anorexia nervosa.

Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions characterized by irregular eating habits, extreme concerns about body weight, shape, and appearance, and often a distorted perception of one’s own body. These disorders often have physical, emotional, and psychological consequences, and can significantly impact a person’s life.

Anorexia nervosa is one example of an eating disorder. People with this condition have an intense fear of gaining weight. Their body image is distorted and they often engage in extreme food restriction. Despite being underweight, individuals with anorexia may still perceive themselves as overweight. This disorder can lead to malnutrition, organ damage, and other health complications.

Another example is bulimia nervosa. Bulimia involves a cycle of binge eating (consuming large amounts of food in a short period) followed by behaviors aimed at compensating for the calories consumed, such as vomiting, excessive exercise, or using laxatives. People with bulimia often experience a sense of lack of control during binge episodes and have a strong emphasis on body shape and weight.

Other people suffer from binge eating disorder or BED, which is similar to bulimia. BED involves recurrent episodes of consuming large amounts of food in a short time.

Unlike bulimia, individuals with BED do not regularly engage in compensatory behaviors like vomiting or excessive exercise. Instead, feelings of guilt, shame, and distress often follow binge eating episodes.

Stress can contribute to the development of eating disorders through a complex interplay of psychological, physiological, and social factors. Many people use food as a way to cope with stress and emotional discomfort. This can lead to unhealthy eating patterns, such as overeating or binge eating.

Stress also tends to amplify negative thoughts and feelings about one’s body image. People under stress might feel more pressure to meet certain societal standards or control aspects of their lives, including their bodies. This pressure can lead to the development of unhealthy eating habits as they try to achieve an unrealistic body ideal.

In situations where people feel stressed and overwhelmed, they might seek a sense of control in other aspects of their lives. Controlling what they eat and how much they eat can provide a temporary sense of control and relief from stress. For some, this need for control can escalate into restrictive eating or other disordered eating behaviors.

Take note that like other mental health disorders, eating disorders are complex conditions, meaning stress is often just one contributing factor. These disorders often result from a combination of genetic, psychological, environmental, and social factors.

Adjustment Disorder

When a person has difficulty coping with a significant life stressor, they might develop an adjustment disorder, characterized by different emotional and behavioral symptoms.

Adjustment Disorder, also known as “Situational Adjustment Disorder,” is a mental health condition that involves emotional and behavioral symptoms in response to a specific stressor or life event. It’s characterized by a person’s difficulty in coping with or adjusting to a certain situation or life change.

This condition typically occurs within three months of the stressful event and can cause significant distress or impairment in various areas of a person’s life, such as work, relationships, or social functioning.

Certain stressors that can trigger adjustment disorder include: starting a new job, getting married, going through a divorce, suffering from a serious illness, getting injured, receiving a certain medical diagnosis, losing a loved one, feeling academic pressure, going into bankruptcy, and experiencing a traumatic event.

Adjustment disorder involves symptoms such as anxiety, depression, impaired concentration, and other behavioral symptoms. It can also cause physical symptoms like headaches, stomach aches, or other physical complaints without a medical explanation.

It’s important to note that adjustment disorder is different from other mental health conditions like depression or anxiety disorders. The symptoms are directly linked to a specific stressor and usually improve once the stressor is removed or the individual adapts to the situation.

Not everyone who experiences stress will develop a mental illness. Effective stress management and seeking professional help when needed can play a crucial role in maintaining mental well-being.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, it’s advisable to consult a mental health professional for proper assessment and guidance.

When is Stress a Problem?

Stress is a fact of life. Small amounts of stress can help people complete tasks. It can even make you feel more energized. But stress can become a problem when it lasts for too long. Even when the duration is short, if the stress is intense or traumatic, it can still affect your physical and mental health.

Chronic stress can become overwhelming or unmanageable. So how do you know if your stress is already problematic?

First, look for the physical signs. If your stress is already causing headaches, fatigue, muscles tension, digestive problems, and sleep disturbances, then it’s a sign that your stress is taking a toll on your body.

In some cases, chronic stress may even cause serious health problems including cardiovascular issues, immune system suppression, and an increased risk of chronic conditions like diabetes and certain autoimmune disorders.

Also pay attention to the way your stress affects your emotional state. You may feel irritable, moody, anxious, helpless, hopeless, or depressed because of your situation.

You may struggle to relax and enjoy your usual hobbies. You may even struggle to fall asleep at night. Pay attention when you start using unhealthy coping mechanisms such as overeating, smoking, excessive drinking, or substance abuse to deal with stress. These unhealthy coping strategies will only exacerbate the problem.

When stress becomes problematic, you might experience difficulties in concentrating, making decisions, and solving problems. Racing thoughts and constant worry can also be signs of excessive stress. While stress can initially enhance performance, chronic stress can lead to decreased productivity, decreased focus, and impaired ability to meet responsibilities and deadlines.

Stress can even affect your relationships. If you start withdrawing from social activities, avoiding friends and family, stress might be impacting your ability to connect with others. Excessive stress can strain relationships, leading to conflicts, misunderstandings, and reduced communication with loved ones.

It’s important to note that individuals vary in their ability to handle stress, and what might be stressful for one person might not be as stressful for another.

If you notice these signs and symptoms in yourself or someone else, it’s a good idea to seek help. Talking to a mental health professional, counselor, or doctor can provide valuable guidance and strategies for managing and reducing stress before it becomes a more serious issue.

Taking Care of Your Physical and Mental Health

It is a known fact that your physical and mental health are interconnected. Taking care of your body may help with your mental health. Taking care of both your physical and mental health is crucial for leading a balanced and fulfilling life. Not to mention it can also help you deal with stress.

Make sure you eat a balanced diet, get adequate sleep, drink plenty of water throughout the day, and get plenty of exercise. Engage in regular physical activity to improve cardiovascular health, maintain a healthy weight, and boost your mood. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise per week.

Eat a variety of nutrient-rich foods, including fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats. Limit your intake of processed foods, sugary drinks, and excessive amounts of unhealthy fats and sugars.

Also prioritize getting 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night. Sleep is essential for physical recovery, cognitive function, and emotional well-being.

Limiting your substance use can also help boost your physical and mental health, allowing you to minimize the effects of stress. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. Avoid smoking and recreational drug use, as they can have serious negative impacts on your health.

Engage in activities that bring you joy and relaxation, whether it’s reading, spending time with loved ones, or pursuing hobbies. If you are in a stressful situation, find time to relax, unwind, and breathe.

Practice mindfulness techniques and meditation to reduce stress, increase self-awareness, and improve emotional regulation. Learn more about healthy coping mechanisms so you can avoid the adverse effects of chronic stress and mental illnesses.

Finally, if you are experiencing mental health conditions that are being exacerbated by excessive stress, do not hesitate to look for a treatment center near you and ask for professional mental health treatment.

Rehab is Your Best Chance

Treatment is an addicted individualʼs best option if they want to recover. Beating an addiction not only requires eliminating the physical dependence, but also addressing the behavioral factors that prevent them from wanting to get better. Simply quitting may not change the psychological aspect of addiction. Some people quit for a while, and then take drugs or alcohol again, only to overdose because they did not detox properly. Recovery involves changing the way the patient feels, thinks, and behaves.



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Fel Clinical Director of Content
Felisa Laboro has been working with addiction and substance abuse businesses since early 2014. She has authored and published over 1,000 articles in the space. As a result of her work, over 1,500 people have been able to find treatment. She is passionate about helping people break free from alcohol or drug addiction and living a healthy life.

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