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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.
The good news is
that you can learn ways to manage stress. To get stress under control:
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
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.
changes in your body. It also affects your emotions.
Common symptoms of
Over time, stress can affect your:1
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
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:
Stress can be caused by an ongoing personal situation such as:
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.
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.
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
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:
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:
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.
A counselor or health professional is useful for:
You may need
treatment for other emotional problems related to stress, such as
insomnia. Treatment may include medicines or
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.
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.
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.
Motzer SA, Hertig V (2004). Stress, stress response
and health. Nursing Clinics of North America, 39: 1–17.
Murray MT (2013). Stress management. In JE Pizzorno, MT Murray, eds., Textbook of Natural Medicine, 4th ed., pp. 547–554. St. Louis: Mosby.
Current as of:
May 3, 2013
Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine & Steven Locke, MD - Psychiatry
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