Stress, a natural human response: psychologist explains how anxiety can be helpful and when it becomes harmful

  • Understanding different aspects of this emotion can help us identify when it is a helpful normal response and when it crosses into dangerous territory
  • Every week, Talking Points gives you a worksheet to practise your reading comprehension with exercises about the story we’ve written
Doris Wai |

Latest Articles

Mechanical flowers project gives students a chance to bloom

Psychologist’s advice on coping with grief after losing someone to suicide

What do you do when you feel stressed? Illustration: Shutterstock

Most people think of anxiety as a negative emotion to be avoided at all costs. But San Hung, a registered counselling psychologist with the Hong Kong Psychological Society, tells Young Post the roots of this emotion and why teenagers can benefit from healthy doses of this natural human response.

Hung said: “Just like stress and fear, anxiety is one of humans’ natural responses. And to a certain extent, it is probably what helped our ancestors survive in the wild.”

She explained that stress is our body’s natural response to a perceived threat or danger. When we face a stressful situation, our bodies go into “fight-or-flight” mode. This response is triggered by the release of hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol.

Hong Kong students’ happiness is dropping, and Covid rules and study stress are to blame

“When we feel anxious, we naturally become more alert and aware of our surroundings,” Hung noted.

“We also notice more warning signs or things that seem out of place, which allows us to react and plan accordingly.”

Understanding different aspects of stress can help us identify when it is a helpful normal response and when it crosses into dangerous territory.

What is a healthy amount of anxiety?

We often feel stress when we are under pressure, such as preparing for an important exam or doing anything that forces us to step out of our comfort zone.

Hung said: “For example, if a student is feeling anxious about an upcoming exam, they might start studying earlier and harder than they would otherwise.”

“This anxiety-driven motivation can help them to do well in the exam. When they feel anxious the next time, they know that preparing in advance helps to reduce the anxiety.”

Why your mental health will thank you for saying ‘no’ to people-pleasing

Here is another aspect of stress to consider: according to Hung, people who are more prone to anxiety tend to be more sensitive to others’ feelings.

“But again, we are talking about healthy doses of anxiety,” she emphasised.

On the flip side, being overly sensitive to others’ emotions can also lead to pleasing them at the expense of ourselves.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your schoolwork, you should consider talking to someone about it. Illustration: Shutterstock

Stress management is key

Without the necessary coping skills, anxiety can be overwhelming and unhealthy for our mental and physical health. Some people lose their appetite or are unable to sleep soundly even though they feel exhausted.

When we are stressed, we should acknowledge the feelings and try to point out what is making us feel this way.

Hung said: “If you are feeling overwhelmed by a particular school assignment, you can start by breaking it down into smaller manageable tasks and ask someone for help to tackle them.”

“When we are clear about what we can and need to do, the anxiety will reduce and turn into motivation.”

Explainer: How to recognise anxiety and get it under control

The psychologist also recommended keeping healthy habits such as doing sports to help release the tension, sleeping early, eating nutritious food and talking to close friends about our challenges.

“These are all little habits that add up,” she said. And if you feel your muscles becoming tense or your heartbeat increasing due to anxiety, try calming down with some simple breathing exercises.

Hung noted that although stress is a normal part of life, you might need professional help if you lose your appetite, have trouble sleeping over a prolonged period, or feel so unwell that you cannot take care of yourself.

“The good news is that you can learn to manage stress and anxiety ... You’ll be better equipped to cope with difficult situations,” she said.

To test your understanding of this story, download our printable worksheet or answer the questions in the quiz below.

Sign up for the YP Teachers Newsletter
Get updates for teachers sent directly to your inbox
By registering, you agree to our T&C and Privacy Policy