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What is Short-Term Stress?

Have you ever started a new school, argued with your best friend, or moved? Do you have to deal with the ups and downs of daily life — like homework or your parents' expectations? Then you already know about stress. In fact, everyone experiences stress. Your body is pre-wired to deal with it — whether it is expected or not. This response is known as the stress response, or fight or flight.

The fight or flight response is as old as the hills. In fact, when people used to have to fight off wild animals to survive, fight or flight is what helped them do it. Today, different things cause stress (when was the last time you had to fend off a grizzly bear?), but we still go through fight or flight. It prepares us for quick action — which is why the feeling goes away once whatever was stressing you out passes! It can also happen when something major happens — like if you change schools or have a death in your family.

Everyone has weird feelings when they are stressed. Fight or flight can cause things like sweaty palms or a dry mouth when you are nervous, or knots in your stomach after an argument with someone. This is totally normal and means that your body is working exactly like it should. There are lots of signs of stress — common types are physical (butterflies in your stomach), emotional (feeling sad or worried), behavioral (you don't feel like doing things), and mental (you can't concentrate). Most physical signs of stress usually don't last that long and can help you perform better, if you manage them right.

So, when you feel stress, what happens to make your body do the things it does? According to the experts, three glands "go into gear" and work together to help you cope with change or a stressful situation. Two are in your brain and are called the hypothalamus (hipe-o-thal-a-mus) and the pituitary (pi-to-i-tary) gland. The third, the adrenal (a-dree-nal) glands, are on top of your kidneys. The hypothalamus signals your pituitary gland that it is time to tell your adrenal glands to release the stress hormones called epinephrine (ep-in-efrin), norepinenphrine (nor-ep-in-efrin), and cortisol (cor-ti-sol). These chemicals increase your heart rate and breathing and provide a burst of energy — which is useful if you're trying to run away from a bear! These chemicals can also control body temperature (which can make you feel hot or cold), keep you from getting hungry, and make you less sensitive to pain. Because everyone is different, everyone will have different signs. Not to worry — everyone experiences these physical signs of stress sometimes. The good news is that, once things return to normal, your body will turn off the stress response. After some rest and relaxation, you'll be good as new.

What is Long-Term Stress?

But what happens when life continues to throw curves at you and if you have one stressful event after another? Your stress response may not be able to stop itself from running overtime, and you may not have a chance to rest, restore, and recuperate. This can add up and, suddenly, the signs of overload hit you — turning short-term stressors into long-term stress. This means that you may have even more physical signs of stress. Things like a headache, eating too much or not at all, tossing and turning all night, or feeling down and angry all the time, are all signs of long-term stress. These signs start when you just can't deal with any more.

Long-term stress can affect your health and how you feel about yourself, so it is important to learn to deal with it. No one is completely free of stress and different people respond to it in lots of different ways. The most important thing to learn about long-term stress is how to spot it. You can do that by listening to your body signals and learning healthy ways to handle it.

Click here for more on how to cope with stress.

Cold Hands/Dry Mouth/Pounding Heart

You're about to take a big test or star in the school play and you've got cold hands, a mouth as dry as the desert, and your heart is pounding.

Cold Hands
Because you're nervous and under pressure to perform, your body has kicked the stress response into high gear. The stress hormones are shooting through your bloodstream and moving your blood away from your skin. This can give your heart and muscles more strength — which you would really need if you were trying to run away. Because your blood is going to the places that really need it (like your heart, lungs, and liver), your hands can be left feeling like ice.

Dry Mouth
Once that stress response is running full force, your body sends your blood to only those parts that are truly necessary for you to survive. Lots of the fluid in your body goes to really important places (like your organs) and can leave you with a mouth as dry as the desert. Because your blood is busy with your organs and not your muscles, your throat (which is made of muscle!) can tighten, making it hard to swallow.

Pounding Heart
When you're starring in the school play, your body wants to give you what you need to succeed — which goes back to the fight or flight response. Your heart will start pounding to help you out! In fact, it is one of the first signs of the stress response. It happens because the release of stress hormones can speed up the flow of your blood by 300 - 400 percent! Your heart has to beat much faster to move all of that blood to your organs and your muscles. This provides a burst of energy that can help you get through backstage jitters and the first few minutes of your play.

Everyone experiences stress. If you have any of these signs of stress, it means that your body is dong its job. Try to relax and check this out for some easy ways to cope with stress.

For more information about how short-term stress affects the body, click here.


It's your first day back at school, or maybe you're starting a new school, and you've got butterflies in your stomach.

Stomachaches, or a queasy feeling, happen all the time in stressful situations like this. And it's no wonder! Once the stress response kicks into high gear, one of the stress hormones (cortisol) shuts the stomach down and won't let food digest. It can also put your digestive tract into high speed, making you feel nauseated.

Butterflies are normal, but check these easy ways to cope with stress so that butterflies don't get the best of you.

For more information about how short-term stress affects the body, click here.

Red Face / Lots o' Sweat

You're about to make an election speech for student council and your face is beet red and you are sweaty all over.

Even though it's just a speech and you aren't planning on fighting off any tigers, remember that what you are feeling is part of the fight or flight response. The body turns on its climate control system, raises its temperature and produces sweat — and lots of it. Originally, this helped keep your body cool in case you did need to run away from a horde of wild animals. Of course, now that your making your speech (which is the modern day equivalent of facing down those tigers and bears), you end up drenched in sweat and your face is the color of a fire engine.

To keep from feeling the heat during your next oral book report, check out this list of easy ways to cope with stress.

For more information about how short-term stress affects the body, click here.

Can't Concentrate?

You have so much to do, but you just can't seem to concentrate.

Got too much to do? You know how it goes — you have tons of homework to do RIGHT NOW, you've got a game this afternoon, your little brother is annoying you, and your mom is insisting that you clean your room — but you just can't seem to focus on any one thing. You feel like you have no energy to finish all that you've got to do. This is because the stress hormones fill up your short-term memory with the immediate demands of dealing with stress. They also signal your brain to store the memory of the stressful event in your long-term memory so you know how to respond the next time something stressful happens. All of this means you are more likely to forget something, feel like you can't concentrate, snap at your family, be mean to a friend, or feel tongue-tied.

When you're feeling overwhelmed, bring things back into perspective with these easy ways get to back into the groove.

For more information about how short-term stress affects the body, click here.


It's been a long, tense day and you feel like you've got a rubber band squeezing around your head that just won't stop.

Headaches are one of the most common signs of long-term stress. They can feel dull and achy — just like a rubber band tightening around your head. Although it is unclear what exactly causes these headaches, tight head and neck muscles are generally thought to be to blame. The chemical messengers in your brain get really busy and tell your blood vessels to get really small. This means that less blood is getting to your head — and that can cause a headache. Your eyes, forehead, or the top of your head will be the first places you feel the pain.

Check here for more ideas on how to take control of your stress level.

For more information about how long-term stress affects the body, click here.


You're exhausted but when you try to sleep, you lie awake for hours.

During the day, the levels of hormones that give you energy (epinephrine and norepinephrine) and those that help you stay happy (called dopamine) stay consistent. Towards the end of a normal day, these hormones begin to decrease and the hormone that helps you sleep (called serotonin) kicks into high gear. But if you've been trapped in a stress cycle, your body continues to produce those stress hormones from the adrenal glands (see short term stress for more details). They "rev" up your body and block out the serotonin, making it hard to sleep even if you feel tired.

Check here for more ideas on how to take control of your stress level.

For more information about how long-term stress affects the body, click here.

Change in Appetite

You've just had a fight with your best friend and eating is the only thing that makes you feel better. Or, maybe you feel like you could never eat again.

While you might become ravenous after a stressful event, your best friend might be grossed out by the thought of food. It just depends on how your body reacts to stress. If you get hungry, you may crave comfort foods (like candy bars, soda, or ice cream) because they increase the levels of a feel-good hormone called serotonin in the body — meaning that you will be in a better mood. Keep in mind that your body is just responding to the stress you are feeling and that your appetite will go back to normal.

On the other hand, your best friend might lose her appetite because the stress hormones make it difficult for her to eat. If you can't eat when you're stressed, try something small — like peanut butter on toast or a piece of fruit.

Check here for more ideas on how to take control of your stress level.

For more information about how long-term stress affects the body, click here.


You are starting to feel overwhelmed by it all and you don't know if you can handle it.

Everyone has different ideas of what you should be doing and it feels like you have so many different roles to play — good student, kid, brother, sister, and friend — that things can sometimes seem out of control. It can make you tired just thinking about all you have to do! If you're feeling overwhelmed, you may notice that you can't sleep — whic h makes you tired and cranky. Then, you realize that you don't feel like doing the things you like to do and you feel a little bit sad or anxious. You may begin to feel achy and tired all over. These are signs of being stressed out. Your stress response system is having a hard time turning off. Don't panic — your body is just trying to tell you something. Take the time to figure out what is stressing you out and try to lessen the load you're carrying.

Check here for more ideas on how to take control of your stress level.

For more information about how long-term stress affects the body, click here.


Things are crazy right now and you just don't have any patience with anyone. You feel angry at someone at the drop of a hat.

Anger is another common response to stress. Often, people who have been locked into a stress cycle feel helpless and overwhelmed. Once this happens, they can get angry much more quickly and they lash out at anyone that gets in their way. In fact, everyone at one point or another gets angry because they are stressed out.

There are things that you can do to make stress easier to handle. Check here for more ideas on how to take control of your stress level.

For more information about how long-term stress affects the body, click here.

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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1600 Clifton Rd, Atlanta, GA 30333, U.S.A
Tel: (404) 639-3311 / Public Inquiries: (404) 639-3534 / (800) 311-3435