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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 Does Stress Work?

Sometimes when you’re really stressed, it can cause your body to react. 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.

What's Everyday Stress?

Most of the time, the things that cause stress aren’t dangerous. They’re the usual pressures of everyday life, like:

  • A busy schedule. You might feel stressed if you have to study for a test, finish a paper, do your regular homework, and go to after-school activities.
  • An important event. Things like giving a presentation, doing a musical solo in a concert, or taking your driver's test can make you nervous.
  • Communication. You may feel lingering stress over what to say. Maybe it's a misunderstanding with a good friend or wondering whether to ask your crush to a party.

How Does the Body React to Everyday Stress?

Everyday stress is a kind of emotional stress. But your body responds to emotional stress the same way it responds to a safety threat — it makes stress hormones.

When you have more of this stress than usual, sometimes your body reacts as it would to a threat. It does this by making stress hormones like cortisol. 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 could feel shaky or sweaty, or 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. You can tackle everyday stressors by studying for exams, practicing a class presentation, or thinking about how to work it out with a friend.

When you work on finding a way to solve the problem, you feel relief. Your stress hormones ease up and the "butterfly" feelings fade. Your heartbeat slows down to its normal pace and 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 Are Other Types of Stress?

Beyond everyday stress, there's the stress that can come from difficult life situations — the ones that are pretty challenging but don't happen every day. Moving, parents’ divorce, a painful break-up, tough emotions, and family conflict can all create stress that takes more time to ease than everyday stress.

There’s also stress that happens after a trauma, which is any event that’s deeply upsetting, scary, or harmful. It can cause you to fear for your life or safety. Things like abuse, violence, accidents, or natural disasters can be traumas. So can becoming homeless, losing a parent, or having a serious illness.

For these situations, your fight-or-flight response still happens, but you may also feel pain or panic, or not be able to move the way you normally would.

What if Stress Is Too Much to Handle?

Most of the time, stress comes from challenges you can face and deal with. Things like getting enough sleep, exercising, eating healthy, and breathing deeply can help ease everyday stress.

But if your stress feels too strong, happens too often, or feels like more than you can handle, talk with a trusted adult to get help and support. Your doctor may recommend a mental health professional like a therapist to help you deal with your stress.

Medically reviewed by: Amanda S. Lochrie, PhD
Date reviewed: May 2023