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What Is Stress?

Reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD

Stress is a normal response to life’s changes, pressures, and challenges. It’s a mind-and-body signal that helps you get ready for what’s ahead.

How Stress Works

If your brain detects a threat to your safety, your body responds with an instant burst of stress hormones. As a result, you become more alert. Your eyes open wider. Your heartbeat and breathing speed up. Your heart pumps more oxygen to muscles for extra strength and speed.

Your body’s stress response is there to protect you. It helps you react quickly, fight hard, or run fast if you need to. That’s why stress is also called the fight-or-flight response.

Everyday Stress

Most of the time, the things that cause stress aren’t dangerous. Often, stress is caused by everyday things, like taking a test, getting called on in class, awkward situations, or having too much to do.

These things cause emotional stress. But your body responds to emotional stress the same way it responds to a safety threat — it makes stress hormones.

That’s why, in a moment of emotional stress, you might feel “butterflies” in your stomach. Your heart might beat faster or your breathing might feel shallow. You might feel shaky or sweaty. You might want to pace around. You might feel restless, tense, edgy, or anxious.

In situations like these, you won’t need to fight or run fast. But your body’s stress response can still help you focus, gather your energy, and face the situation with courage.

When you handle the situation, you start to feel relief from your stress. Your stress hormones ease up. The "butterfly" feelings fade. Your heartbeat slows down to its normal pace. Your whole body starts to go back to its non-stressed state. You can help this process along when you learn and practice ways to manage your stress.

What if Stress Is Too Much to Handle?

Most of the time, everyday stress comes from challenges you can face and deal with. But if your stress feels too strong, happens too often, or feels like more than you can handle, talk to a trusted adult to get help and support.

Reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: August 2022