Stress is what you feel when you have to handle more than you are used to. When you are stressed, your body responds as though you are in danger. It makes hormones that speed up your heart, make you breathe faster, and give you a burst of energy. This is called the fight-or-flight stress response.
Some stress is normal and even useful. Stress can help if you need to work hard or react quickly. For example, it can help you win a race or finish an important job on time.
But if stress happens too often or lasts too long, it can have bad effects. It can be linked to headaches, an upset stomach, back pain, and trouble sleeping. It can weaken your immune system, making it harder to fight off disease. If you already have a health problem, stress may make it worse. It can make you moody, tense, or depressed. Your relationships may suffer, and you may not do well at work or school.
The good news is that you can learn ways to manage stress. To get stress under control:
Sometimes it is clear where stress is coming from. You can count on stress during a major life change such as the death of a loved one, getting married, or having a baby. But other times it may not be so clear why you feel stressed.
It's important to figure out what causes stress for you. Everyone feels and responds to stress differently. Tracking your stress may help. Get a notebook, and write down when something makes you feel stressed. Then write how you reacted and what you did to deal with the stress. Tracking your stress can help you find out what is causing your stress and how much stress you feel. Then you can take steps to reduce the stress or handle it better.
To find out how stressed you are right now, use this Interactive Tool: What Is Your Stress Level?
Stress is a fact of life for most people. You may not be able to get rid of stress, but you can look for ways to lower it.
You might try some of these ideas:
Sometimes stress is just too much to handle alone. Talking to a friend or family member may help, but you may also want to see a counsellor.
You will feel better if you can find ways to get stress out of your system. The best ways to relieve stress are different for each person. Try some of these ideas to see which ones work for you:
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
Learning about stress:
Effects of stress:
A lot of things can cause stress. You may feel stress when you go on a job interview, take a test, or run a race. These kinds of short-term stress are normal. Long-term (chronic) stress is caused by stressful situations or events that last over a long period of time, like problems at work or conflicts in your family. Over time, chronic stress can lead to severe health problems.
You may need help dealing with stress if you have faced a life-threatening or traumatic event such as rape, a natural disaster, or war. These events can cause acute stress disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For more information, see the topic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Stress causes changes in your body. It also affects your emotions.
Common symptoms of stress include:
Over time, stress can affect your:
An extreme reaction to stress is a panic attack. A panic attack is a sudden, intense fear or anxiety that may make you feel short of breath, dizzy, or make your heart pound. People who have panic attacks may feel out of control, like they are having a heart attack, or are about to die. Panic attacks may happen with no clear cause, but they can be brought on by living with high levels of stress for a long time. For more information on panic attacks, see the topic Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder.
You might notice signs of stress in the way you think, act, and feel. You may:
How stress affects you depends on many things, such as:
Stress can affect you both instantly (acute stress) and over time (chronic stress).
Acute (short-term) stress is the body's instant response to any situation that seems demanding or dangerous. Your stress level depends on how intense the stress is, how long it lasts, and how you cope with the situation.
Most of the time, your body recovers quickly from acute stress. But stress can cause problems if it happens too often or if your body doesn't have a chance to recover. In people with heart problems, acute stress can trigger an abnormal heartbeat (arrhythmia) or even a heart attack.
Chronic (long-term) stress is caused by stressful situations or events that last over a long period of time. This could include having a difficult job or dealing with a chronic disease. If you already have a health problem, stress can make it worse.
Feeling stress is a fact of life for most people. But it affects everyone differently. What causes stress for you may not be stressful for someone else. That's because how you view a situation affects how much stress it causes you. Only you can figure out whether you have too much stress in your life.
Ask yourself these questions to find out what is causing your stress:
Stress can be caused by an ongoing personal situation such as:
Life changes such as getting married, moving to a new city, or losing a job can all be stressful. You can't always control these things, but you can control how you respond to them.
To find out your current stress level based on recent changes in your life, try this Interactive Tool: What Is Your Stress Level?
Some people feel stress because their beliefs conflict with the way they are living their life. Examine your beliefs, such as your values and life goals, to find out if you have this kind of conflict in your life.
Your lifestyle choices can prevent your body from recovering from stress. For example, as you sleep, your body recovers from the stresses of the day. If you're not getting enough sleep or your sleep is often interrupted, you lose the chance to recover from stress.
The way you act and behave can also be a sign of stress. Some people who face a lot of stress react by smoking, drinking too much alcohol, eating poorly, or not exercising. The health risks posed by these habits are made even worse by stress.
Your body feels stress-related wear and tear in two ways: the stress itself and the unhealthy ways you respond to it.
The best way to manage your stress is to learn healthy coping strategies. You can start practicing these tips right away. Try one or two until you find a few that work for you. Practice these techniques until they become habits you turn to when you feel stress. You can also use this coping strategies form(What is a PDF document?) to see how you respond to stress.
Stress-relief techniques focus on relaxing your mind and your body.
You might like to try a combination of these techniques.
In addition to practicing these skills, you might also try some other techniques to reduce stress, such as massage or music therapy.
Stress is a part of life, and you can't always avoid it. But you can try to avoid situations that can cause it, and you can control how you respond to it. The first step is knowing your own coping strategies. Try tracking your stress to record stressful events, your response to them, and how you coped.
After you know what is causing your stress, try making some changes in your life that will help you avoid stressful situations. Here are a few ideas:
Time management is a way to find the time for more of the things you want and need to do. It helps you decide which things are urgent and which can wait. Managing your time can make your life easier, less stressful, and more meaningful.
The choices you make about the way you live affect your stress level. Your lifestyle may not cause stress on its own, but it can prevent your body from recovering from it. Try to:
Support in your life from family, friends, and your community has a big impact on how you experience stress. Having support in your life can help you stay healthy.
Support means having the love, trust, and advice of others. But support can also be something more concrete, like time or money. It can be hard to ask for help. But doing so doesn't mean you're weak. If you're feeling stressed, you can look for support from:
Stressful events can make you feel bad about yourself. You might start focusing on only the bad and not the good in a situation. That's called negative thinking. It can make you feel afraid, insecure, depressed, or anxious. It's also common to feel a lack of control or self-worth.
Negative thinking can trigger your body's stress response, just as a real threat does. Dealing with these negative thoughts and the way you see things can help reduce stress. You can learn these techniques on your own, or you can get help from a counsellor. Here are some ideas:
If you're ready to reduce stress in your life, setting a goal may help. Try following these three steps:
Stress can be hard to deal with on your own. It's okay to seek help if you need it. Talk with your doctor about the stress you're feeling and how it affects you. A professional counsellor or other health professional can help you find ways to reduce stress symptoms. He or she can also help you think about ways to reduce stress in your life.
A counsellor or health professional is useful for:
You may need treatment for other emotional problems related to stress, such as anxiety, depression, or insomnia. Treatment may include medicines or professional counselling.
Other Works Consulted
Anspaugh DJ, et al. (2011). Coping with and managing stress. In Wellness: Concepts and Applications, 8th ed., pp. 307-340. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Axelrad AD, et al. (2009). Hypnosis. In BJ Sadock et al., eds., Kaplan and Sadock's Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 9th ed., vol. 2, pp. 2804-2832. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
Dimsdale JE, et al. (2009). Stress and psychiatry. In BJ Sadock et al., eds., Kaplan and Sadock's Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 9th ed., vol. 2, pp. 2407-2423. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
Murray MT (2013). Stress management. In JE Pizzorno, MT Murray, eds., Textbook of Natural Medicine, 4th ed., pp. 547-554. St. Louis: Mosby.
ByHealthwise StaffPrimary Medical ReviewerKathleen Romito, MD - Family MedicineDonald Sproule, MDCM, CCFP - Family MedicineChristine R. Maldonado, PhD - Behavioral HealthAdam Husney, MD - Family MedicineSpecialist Medical ReviewerSteven Locke, MD - Psychiatry
Current as ofJuly 26, 2016
Current as of: July 26, 2016
Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
& Donald Sproule, MDCM, CCFP - Family Medicine & Christine R. Maldonado, PhD - Behavioral Health & Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine & Steven Locke, MD - Psychiatry
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2017 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.