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Stress is the body’s natural biochemical reaction to potentially dangerous or undesirable changes in the surrounding environment. For a long time, doctors and mental health researchers have known that highly traumatic stressful events can act as triggers for the onset of medically serious forms of psychiatric disorders such as anxiety and depression. According to the results of a study published in 2013 in the journal Psychological Science, common sources of stress in everyday life can also act as long-term triggers for mental illness. Apparently, the most important factor in this process is the individual’s emotional reaction to more or less routine stressful events.

Stress Basics

For all its unpleasantness, stress is a natural part of the human emotional and physical repertoire. Its main function is to prepare your body for a rapid reaction to various potential threats in your local environment and put you in a position to “fight or flee” as circumstances dictate. Part of the natural stress response comes from a network of involuntary nerves in the body called the sympathetic nervous system, which connects to a range of essential organs, including your heart, lungs and blood vessels. In threatening or dangerous moments, activity in this system increases and you experience a faster heart and breathing rate and a spike in your normal blood pressure. Another part of the inborn stress response comes from a chemical chain reaction in your endocrine (hormone) system, which leads to the release of a substance called cortisol. When your cortisol levels rise, you experience stress-related emotions such as fear, worry, and anxiousness.

All people are exposed to varying types of stress throughout their lifetimes. Some stresses occur on essentially a daily basis, perhaps especially in the modern societies of the early 21st century, which commonly require their members to participate in a seemingly never-ending series of complex social and personal interactions. Other stresses occur much less frequently, but produce such an impact that they can potentially overwhelm the individual and create lasting mental/emotional trauma. Specific forms of illness related to exposure to extraordinary stress included the anxiety-related condition post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and major depression.

Stress Resilience

Not all people react to stressful events in the same way. In a given set of circumstances, one person may successfully adapt to the source of stress and retain a sense of general well-being, while another person may not adapt successfully, and will therefore experience a diminished sense of well-being. People who adapt well to stress have a relatively high degree of what’s called stress resilience, while people who don’t adapt well to stress have a relatively low degree of stress resilience. Factors that contribute to an increased level of resilience include full maturation of the portion of the brain responsible for higher-level mental functions, a corresponding ability to exercise such higher-level functions as impulse control and rational problem-solving, maintenance of strong family and social ties, adoption of healthy stress coping strategies and a self-image of oneself as a resilient person.

Everyday Stress and Negative Emotions

In the study published in Psychological Science, a multi-university research team used the data compiled from two different large-scale, multi-year surveys to examine the connections between everyday stress, stress resilience and long-term risks for serious mental illness. After reviewing the information from these surveys, they concluded that people who frequently experience “negative” emotional states have a marked tendency to respond to stressful events with feelings such as nervousness, hopelessness, restlessness and worthlessness. In turn, the ongoing presence of these stress reactions significantly increases the chances that any given individual will develop major depression, an anxiety disorder, or some other form of emotion-related mental illness within a 10-year period of time.

Critically, the authors of the study in Psychological Science concluded that even minor negative stress reactions can contribute to a person’s long-term risks for mental illness. In essence, these reactions take a cumulative toll over time and effectively mimic the impact of isolated, more clearly traumatically stressful events and situations.


Stress resilience is not a fixed or predetermined value. Instead, it represents a flexible capacity that can be consciously increased over time. In practical terms, this means that any given individual can improve his or her responses to both everyday and extraordinary stress, and thereby decrease the long-term risks for mental illness. Methods used to increase stress resilience include taking stress management courses, improving family relationships, improving social relationships, and improving the ability to communicate effectively with others.

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