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Stress Management

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Stress Management

Overview

What happens when you are stressed?

Stress is your body's response to a hard situation. Your body can have a physical, emotional, or mental response. Stress is a fact of life for most people, and it affects everyone differently. What causes stress for you may not be stressful for someone else.

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. This kind of short-term stress is normal and even useful. It can help you if you need to work hard or react quickly. For example, stress can help you finish an important job on time.

Long-term stress is caused by ongoing stressful situations or events. Examples of long-term stress include long-term health problems, ongoing problems at work, or conflicts in your family. Long-term stress can harm your health.

How do you measure your stress level?

What causes stress for you may not cause stress for someone else. Only you can figure out whether you have too much stress in your life.

Answer these questions to learn more about your stress:

What job, family, or personal stress do you have?
Stress can be caused by an ongoing personal situation such as caring for a family member.
Have you had any recent major life changes?
Getting married, moving to a new city, or losing a job can all be stressful.
Do your beliefs cause you stress?
Some people feel stress because their beliefs conflict with the way they live their life.
How do you cope with stress?
The ways that you cope with your stress can help you or make stress worse. For example, sleep helps your body recover from the stresses of the day. Not getting enough sleep means you lose the chance to recover from stress.

How can you relieve stress?

Here are some ways to relieve stress.

  • Be active. Exercise and activity can help reduce stress. Walking is a great way to get started.
  • Do something you enjoy, like a favorite hobby or listening to music.
  • Meditate. This can help you relax by focusing more on the present moment.
  • Do guided imagery. Imagine yourself in any setting that helps you feel calm. You can use online videos, books, or a teacher to guide you.
  • Express your feelings. Talk with supportive friends or family, a counselor, or a faith leader about your feelings. Avoid discussing your feelings with people who make you feel worse. Try writing about how you feel. It may help you to see what's causing stress so you can find ways to cope.

Causes 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.

Personal problems that can cause stress

Your health.
Any type of health problem can cause stress, especially a chronic illness such as heart disease, diabetes, or arthritis.
Emotional problems.
Anger you can't express, depression, grief, guilt, low self-esteem, or other emotional problems or situations can cause stress.
Your relationships.
This may include having problems with your relationships or feeling a lack of friendships or support in your life.
Major life changes.
These changes include the death of a parent or spouse, losing your job, getting married, or moving to a new city.
Stress in your family.
Examples include having a child or teen or other family member who is under stress, or being a caregiver to a family member who is elderly or who has health problems.
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 stress

Your surroundings.
Living in an area where overcrowding, crime, pollution, or noise is a problem can create chronic stress.
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 life.
Your job.
Being unhappy with your work or finding your job too demanding can lead to chronic stress.
Unemployment.
Losing your job or not being able to find work can also add to your stress level.

Stress is a normal part of life, and everyone experiences it. There is a lot you can do to help avoid it and manage it.

A traumatic event

A traumatic event is a very upsetting event that you see or that happens to you or a loved one. It may threaten someone's life or cause serious injury. It can be a one-time event, like a sexual assault or a car crash. Or it may be ongoing, such as abuse or severe illness.

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Effects of Stress

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. Other symptoms include headache, sweating and sweaty palms, an upset stomach, nausea, and diarrhea. If the stress is over quickly, your body goes back to normal, and no harm is done.

But if stress happens too often or lasts too long, it can have bad effects on both your physical and emotional health.

Physical effects

Long-term stress can make you more likely to get sick, and it can make symptoms of some diseases worse. Stress can affect your:

Immune system.
Constant stress can make you more likely to get sick more often. And if you have a long-term illness, such as heart failure, stress can make your symptoms worse.
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 heart failure.
Muscles.
Constant tension from stress can lead to pain in your neck, shoulders, and low back. Stress may make rheumatoid arthritis worse.
Stomach.
If you have stomach problems, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or irritable bowel syndrome, stress can make your symptoms worse.
Reproductive system.
Stress is linked to low fertility, erection problems, problems during pregnancy, and painful menstrual periods.
Lungs.
Stress can make symptoms of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) worse.
Skin.
Skin problems, such as acne and psoriasis, are made worse by stress.

Emotional effects

Stress also harms your emotional health. You might notice signs of stress in the way you think, act, and feel. You may:

  • Feel cranky and unable to deal with even small problems.
  • Feel frustrated, lose your temper more often, and yell at others for no reason.
  • Feel jumpy or tired all the time.
  • 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 are about to happen.
  • Feel depressed.

Your relationships may suffer, and you may not do well at work or school.

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Measuring Stress

Stress is a fact of life for most people. But it affects everyone differently. What causes stress for you may not cause stress 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.

Answer these questions to learn more about 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 relationship.
  • Caring for a family member who is elderly, has chronic health problems, or is disabled. Caregiving is a major source of stress.
  • Your job.
  • Dealing with a family member who is under stress.
Have you had any recent major life changes?
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.
Do your beliefs cause you stress?
Some people feel stress because their beliefs conflict with the way they live 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 do you cope with stress?
Your body feels stress-related wear and tear in two ways: the stress itself and the unhealthy ways you respond to it.
  • Your lifestyle choices can prevent your body from recovering from stress. For example, sleep helps your body recover from the stresses of the day. If you don't get enough sleep or your sleep is often interrupted, you lose the chance to recover from stress.
  • The way you act can 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.

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Ways to Relieve Stress

Relaxing your mind

Here are some things you can do to help relax your mind.

  • Take slow, deep breaths.
  • Practice mindful meditation. The goal is to focus your attention on what's happening in the present moment.
  • Use guided imagery. With this technique, you imagine yourself in a certain setting that helps you feel calm and relaxed.
  • Do something you enjoy. For example:
    • Listen to music.
    • Spend time with a friend.
    • Find a hobby you enjoy.
    • Do a creative activity, such as writing, crafts, or art.
    • Laugh. Watch a funny video, or borrow a funny book from the library.

Relaxing your body

Here are some things you can do to help relax your body.

  • Get regular exercise. Walk, dance to music, or do house or yard work to help release stress.
  • Do some stretches or use massage to release muscle tension.
  • Use a relaxation technique, such as belly breathing or progressive muscle relaxation.
  • Try an activity that combines exercise and meditation, such as yoga or tai chi.
  • Have a warm drink that doesn't have alcohol or caffeine. Try herbal tea or warm milk, for example.

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Ways to Avoid Stress

You might try some of these things to help prevent stress:

  • Manage your time. This helps you find time to do the things you want and need to do.
  • Get enough sleep. Your body recovers from the stresses of the day while you are sleeping.
  • Get support. Your family, friends, and community can make a difference in how you experience stress.
  • Limit your news feed. Avoid or limit time on social media or news that may make you feel stressed.
  • Do something active. Exercise or activity can help reduce stress. Walking is a great way to get started.

Respond to stress in a healthy way

Stress is a part of life. But it doesn't have to control your life. Even if sometimes you can't avoid stress, you can build skills to respond to it in a healthy way. Here are a few ideas.

  • Find healthy ways to cope.

    Try activities that reduce stress, like meditation, deep breathing, physical activity, and making art. New behaviors take time to develop. Try doing one thing at a time.

  • Make time for joy.

    Take some time to think about the things that are important to you and things you enjoy. These might be safe things that make you feel happy, excited, or energized. Some examples are reading a book, playing with your dog, or seeing friends. You might schedule this ahead of time by putting it on your to-do list or calendar.

  • Unplug from devices.

    Think about taking time to do this each day. Try setting limits on when you use devices. For example, try avoiding social media and email before 7:00 a.m. and after 8:00 p.m. Setting your phone to "do not disturb" or using apps that track or block your screen time can help. Make rules that feel right to you.

  • Write it out.

    Try writing down thoughts and feelings about a stressful experience. Set aside time each day to write about it. Write nonstop and don't screen your thoughts—give yourself permission to write what comes to mind.

  • Get support.

    Everyone needs help sometimes. Ask others how they find support. You might also want to see a counselor who is trained in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The counselor can help you create and use skills to cope with stress.

Change your thinking

Changing how you think about and respond to stress can help you feel happier and healthier. So be kind to yourself. Try to see both sides of a situation. Be thankful for people you care about, and accept what isn't perfect in yourself and others.

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Staying on Track to Manage Stress

Coping well with stress is something we all want. When we're able to manage stress, we perform better at work, have stronger relationships, experience more joy, and are more resilient and flexible.

When you've tried to do something about the stress in your life in the past, did you start out strong and then lose a little steam? If so, that's okay. Many people struggle with sticking to a new change. It's part of being human.

You probably learned something about yourself from times in the past when you took a little time for yourself to manage stress. And you can use that knowledge to help strengthen or change your approach for where you are in your life right now.

Finding your motivation

Before you think about what you might do now, it can help to think of your past. Ask yourself: In the past, when I was doing something that was good for my stress level, what did I like about that?

When you have that answer, ask yourself "why?" And then ask "why?" again—and maybe even again. Here's an example of what that could look like:

  • What did I like about practicing deep breathing? Answer: I felt calmer.
  • Why do I want to feel calmer? Answer: I want to be a better parent.
  • Why do I want to be a better parent? Answer: Parenting is my most important job.

Getting back on track

Reminding yourself why you want to do something (not why you should do something), can help you stick with it. We're much more likely to do things we feel we want, rather than things that feel like a to-do item.

Take a minute to think about what you've tried in the past. Was it something you really enjoyed? Was it too hard to follow through? Remember: Something as small as taking five deep breaths or taking a walk around the block can change your whole mind-set.

Here are some ideas to help you get back on track:

  • Turn off your phone a few hours before bed.
  • Sing and dance with your kids every day for just 5 minutes.
  • Once a day, think of something you're grateful for.
  • Meet a friend for coffee or tea once a week.

Exploring ways to move forward

Try thinking about these questions, and write down your thoughts.

  • When you think about what you did in the past to cope with stress, what worked or didn't work?
  • Do you want to keep trying that strategy? Or is it time to change it a little or try something new?
  • What could you try if you only have a minute? What about 30 minutes?
  • Based on past experience, what might make it hard to take this time for yourself?
  • If you were to cope better with stress, how might your life be different a year from now?

Getting Support

Support in your life from family, friends, and your community has a big impact on how you deal with 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 we all need support at times, and there are people who want to help. If you feel stressed, you can look for support from:

  • A professional counselor.
  • Family and friends.
  • Coworkers, or people you know through hobbies or other interests.
  • People you know from church, or a member of the clergy.
  • Employee assistance programs at work, or stress management classes.
  • Support groups. These can be very helpful if your stress is caused by a special situation. Maybe you are a caregiver for someone who is elderly or has a chronic illness.

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Credits

Current as of: June 25, 2023

Author: Healthwise Staff
Clinical Review Board
All Healthwise education is reviewed by a team that includes physicians, nurses, advanced practitioners, registered dieticians, and other healthcare professionals.

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