Covers what happens when you are stressed and what you can do about stress. Guides you through how to figure out your stress level. Looks at ways you can reduce stress. Includes ways to relieve stress, such as exercising, writing, and expressing feelings.
What happens when you are stressed?
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
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.
What can you do about stress?
The good news is
that you can learn ways to manage stress. To get stress under control:
Find out what is causing stress in your
Look for ways to reduce the amount of stress in your
Learn healthy ways to relieve stress and reduce its harmful
How do you measure your stress level?
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.
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:
Learn better ways to manage your time. You
may get more done with less stress if you make a schedule. Think about which
things are most important, and do those first.
Find better ways to
cope. Look at how you have been dealing with stress. Be honest about what works
and what does not. Think about other things that might work better.
Take good care of yourself. Get plenty of rest. Eat well. Don't
smoke. Limit how much alcohol you drink.
Try out new ways of
thinking. When you find yourself starting to worry, try to stop the thoughts.
Or write down your worries and work on letting go of things you cannot change. Learn to say "no."
Speak up. Not being able to talk about your needs and concerns
creates stress and can make negative feelings worse. Assertive communication
can help you express how you feel in a thoughtful, tactful way.
for help. People who have a strong network of family and friends manage stress
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
How can you relieve stress?
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:
Exercise. Regular exercise is one of the best
ways to manage stress. Walking is a great way to get started.
Write. It can help to write about the things that are bothering you.
Let your feelings out. Talk, laugh, cry, and express anger when
you need to with someone you trust.
Do something you enjoy. A
hobby can help you relax. Volunteer work or work that helps others can be a
great stress reliever.
Learn ways to relax your body. This can
include breathing exercises, muscle relaxation exercises, massage,
aromatherapy, yoga, or relaxing exercises like tai chi and qi gong.
Focus on the present. Try meditation, imagery exercises, or
self-hypnosis. Listen to relaxing music. Try to look for the humor in life.
Laughter really can be the best medicine.
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
Actionsets are designed to help people take an active role in managing a health condition.
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.
Personal problems that can cause stress
Your health, especially
if you have a chronic illness such as heart disease,
Emotional problems, such as anger you can't express, depression, grief, guilt, or
Your relationships, such as
having problems with your relationships or feeling a lack of friendships or
support in your life
Major life changes, such as dealing with
the death of a parent or spouse, losing your job, getting married, or moving to
a new city
Stress in your family, such as
child, teen, or other family member who is under
stress, or being a caregiver to a family member who is elderly or who has
Conflicts with your beliefs and values.
For example, you may value family life, but you may not be able to spend as
much time with your family as you want.
Social and job issues that can cause
Your surroundings. Living in an area where
overcrowding, crime, pollution, or noise is a problem can create chronic
Your social situation. Not having enough money to cover your expenses, feeling lonely, or facing discrimination
based on your race, gender, age, or sexual orientation can add stress to your
Your job. Being unhappy with your
work or finding your job too demanding can lead to chronic stress. Learn how to
manage job stress.
Unemployment. Losing your job or not being able to find work can also add to your stress level.
Immune system. Constant stress can make
you more likely to get sick more often. And if you have a chronic illness such
AIDS, stress can make your symptoms
Heart. Stress is linked to
high blood pressure, abnormal heartbeat (arrhythmia), blood clots, and hardening of the
arteries (atherosclerosis). It's also linked to
coronary artery disease,
heart attack, and
Muscles. Constant tension from stress can lead to neck,
shoulder, and low back pain. Stress may make rheumatoid arthritis worse.
Stomach. If you have stomach problems,
gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD),
peptic ulcer disease,
or irritable bowel syndrome, stress can make your symptoms
Reproductive organs. Stress is linked to
erection problems, problems during pregnancy, and
painful menstrual periods.
Lungs. Stress can make symptoms of
chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) worse.
Skin. Skin problems such as
psoriasis are made worse by stress.
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.
How stress affects your thoughts and emotions
You might notice signs of stress in the way you
think, act, and feel. You may:
Feel cranky and unable to deal with even
Feel frustrated, lose your temper more often, and
yell at others for no reason.
Feel jumpy or tired all the
Find it hard to focus on tasks.
Worry too much
about small things.
Feel that you are missing out on things because
you can't act quickly.
Imagine that bad things are happening or
about to happen.
How stress affects you depends on many things, such
What you have learned from your family about responding to
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
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
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.
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:
What job, family, or personal stress do you have?
Stress can be caused by an ongoing personal situation such as:
Problems in your family or with a
Caring for a family member who is elderly, has
chronic health problems, or is disabled. Caregiving is a major source of
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.
How are you coping with stress?
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
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.
Ways to relax your mind
Write. It may help to
write about things that are bothering you. Write for 10 to 15 minutes a day
about stressful events and how they made you feel. Or think about tracking your
stress. This helps you find out what is
causing your stress and how much stress you feel. After you know, you can find
better ways to cope.
Let your feelings out.
Talk, laugh, cry, and express anger when you need to. Talking with friends,
family, a counselor, or a member of the clergy about your feelings is a healthy
way to relieve stress.
Do something you enjoy. You may feel that you're too busy to do these things. But
making time to do something you enjoy can help you relax. It might also help
you get more done in other areas of your life. Try:
A hobby, such as gardening.
A creative activity,
such as writing, crafts, or art.
Playing with and caring for pets.
Focus on the present. Meditation and guided imagery are two
ways to focus and relax your mind.
Meditate. When you
meditate, you focus your attention on things that are happening right now.
Paying attention to your breathing is one way to focus. Mindfulness-based stress reduction is one form of meditation that is very helpful with managing stress and learning how to better cope with it.
Exercise. Regular exercise is one of the
best ways to manage stress. Walking is a great way to get started. Even
everyday activities such as housecleaning or yard work can reduce stress.
Stretching can also relieve muscle tension. For more information about becoming
more active, see the topic
Try techniques to relax. Breathing
exercises, muscle relaxation, and yoga can help relieve stress.
Breathing exercises. These include
roll breathing, a type of deep breathing.
tai chi, and qi gong. These techniques combine exercise and meditation. You
may need some training at first to learn them. Books and videos are also
helpful. You can do all of these techniques at home.
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:
Manage your time
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
Find a balance
between personal, work, and family needs. This isn't easy. Start by looking at
how you spend your time. Maybe there are things that you don't need to do at
all. Finding a balance can be especially hard during the holidays.
Have a sense of purpose in life. Many people find meaning through connections with family or friends,
jobs, their spirituality, or volunteer work.
Get enough sleep. Your body recovers
from the stresses of the day while you are sleeping. If your worries keep you from sleeping, keep a notepad or your cell phone by your bed to record what you are worried about—to help you let it go while you sleep. For example, if you are worried you might forget to run an errand the next day, make a note so that you can stop worrying about forgetting.
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.
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:
Family and friends.
or people you know through hobbies or other interests.
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
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
counselor. Here are some ideas:
If you're ready to
stress in your life, setting a goal may help. Try
following these three steps:
Find out what creates stress for you. Try tracking your stress to record stressful events, your
response to them, and the coping strategies you used. If you have a smartphone, you can download a free stress-tracking app to help you monitor your stress. If you don't have a smartphone, you can use a spreadsheet on your computer. Or pencil and paper work, too. The important thing is to keep track of your stress so that you can both learn what is causing it and work toward managing it.
Think about why you want to reduce stress. You might want to protect your heart and
your health by reducing stress. Or maybe you simply want to enjoy your life
more and not let stress control how you feel. Your reason for wanting to change
is important. If your reason comes from you—and not someone else—it will be
easier for you to make a healthy change for good.
Set a goal. Think about a long-term and a short-term goal to
reduce stress in your life.
Examples of how to set goals
Sheila is a customer service manager for a
computer company. She's also the mother of two young kids. Between her job and
chores at home, she feels overwhelmed by all the demands on her. She can't
remember the last time she took a lunch break at work or took a class at the
gym. While she's lying awake at night, she is worrying about getting everything
done. Sheila's long-term goal: Find a better balance between personal, home,
and family needs. Short-term goal: Take a 15-minute walk each night.
Ray is a pretty easygoing guy most of the time.
But he gets stressed over small things. If a problem comes up at work, he
spends the whole night thinking about it over and over. He feels anxious
wondering how he could have handled things better. Ray knows he needs to let go
of these events and move on. Ray's long-term goal: Practice positive thinking
when stressful events come up. Short-term goal: Try breathing and relaxation
exercises when he feels stressed.
Marta is a full-time caregiver for her elderly
mother, who has
Alzheimer's disease. Marta can't remember the last
time she took a vacation or even met a friend for coffee. Her sister helps with
care sometimes but is often too busy. Marta finds herself getting frustrated
easily. She needs a break. Marta's long-term goal: Involve her sister more in
caregiving. She also plans to find respite care so she isn't providing all the
caregiving on her own. Short-term goal: Attend a caregiver support group every
Plan for setbacks. Make
a personal action plan(What is a PDF document?) by writing down your goals, any
possible barriers, and your ideas for getting past them. By thinking about
these barriers now, you can plan ahead for how to deal with them if they
Get support. Tell family and friends
your reasons for wanting to change. Tell them that their encouragement makes a
big difference to you in your goal to reduce stress. Your doctor or a
professional counselor can also provide support. A counselor can help you set
goals and provide support in dealing with setbacks. (See
tips for finding a counselor or therapist.)
Pat yourself on the back. Don't forget to give yourself some positive
feedback. If you slip up, don't waste energy feeling bad about yourself.
Instead, think about all the times you've avoided getting stressed by making
If You Need More Help
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 licensed counselor 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.
Biofeedback. This technique teaches you how to use
your mind to control skin temperature, muscle tension, heart rate, or blood
pressure. All of these things can be affected by stress. Learning biofeedback
requires training in a special lab or a doctor's office.
hypnosis, you take suggestions that may help you change the way you act. It's
important to find a health professional with a lot of training and experience.
Some psychologists, counselors, doctors, and dentists know how to use
Treatment for other health problems
You may need
treatment for other emotional problems related to stress, such as
insomnia. Treatment may include medicines or
Other Places To Get Help
American Academy of Family
P.O. Box 11210
Shawnee Mission, KS 66207-1210
The website FamilyDoctor.org is sponsored by the American Academy of Family Physicians. It offers information on adult and child health conditions and healthy living. There are topics on medicines, doctor visits, physical and mental health issues, parenting, and more.
American Institute of Stress
American Psychological Association
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health(NIOSH)
Sadock BJ, Sadock VA (2007). Psychosomatic medicine. In
Kaplan and Sadock's Synopsis of Psychiatry, 10th ed.,
pp. 813–838. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
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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.
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How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.