How do you respond to stress?

It’s a matter of science and perception

How do you respond to stress?

The holidays may be the most wonderful time of the year, yet they can also be among the most stressful. So many social and family obligations on top of day-to-day and work demands can make even the merriest moments seem overwhelming.

The impact of stress on people’s health can vary greatly depending on their gender, age, and life stage. What’s more, stress is a matter of science and perception—and then some.

Defining stress

Stress can be defined as a real or perceived threat to a person’s physiological or psychological well-being. Physiological effects include chest pain, exhaustion, jaw clenching, digestive problems, and weakened immune system, while mental symptoms can include anxiety and depression.

What are some of the factors that affect our response to stress?


Women are more likely than men to report having a great deal of stress. Women are more likely to report physical and emotional symptoms of stress than men, such as headache, feeling as though they could cry, or having an upset stomach or indigestion. Women are also more likely to experience depression, insomnia, autoimmune diseases, and chronic pain.

Men experiencing stress have a higher risk of acquiring infectious diseases and hypertension, which is a risk factor for cardiovascular conditions. Men are also more likely to misuse drugs and alcohol.


  • Early-life stress in some infants has been associated with greater susceptibility to the effects of stress later in life and the development of stress-related psychiatric disorders.
  • Puberty plays a role in the stress response. For example, youth aged 15 to 17 have been shown to display higher cortisol levels in response to stress than those aged nine to 13.
  • In adults, chronic stress can lead to structural and functional changes in the brain that can result in impairments in learning, memory, and decision-making.

Life experience

Stress that exists throughout the lifespan, such as sustained economic hardship—and cumulative adverse life events (which include death, divorce, being laid off, and trauma, among many others) can significantly hamper physical and mental health.

Cumulative stress across a lifetime increases the prevalence of hypertension, physical disability, pain, chronic diseases, depression, and alcohol and drug use.

Take action to manage stress

  • One way is with emotional regulation: acknowledging rather than denying negative emotions.
  • Consider an attitude adjustment. Appraisal is the practice of becoming aware of which filters you look through at the world.
  • Finally, there’s acceptance.

Some helpful strategies to break up routine and enhance mental flexibility include

  • mindfulness meditation
  • physical activity
  • social interaction
  • new experiences

Take care of yourself over the holiday season when stressful situations might pop up or you find yourself feeling overwhelmed. Take breaks from group activities—go for a walk by yourself or steal away for some meditation or relaxation breathing. Reach out if you need support. Keep a regular schedule of sleep, meals, and exercise and limit alcohol intake.

Written by Gail Johnson