Information to the Public
Stress: How to Cope Better With Life's Challenges

What causes stress?

Feelings of stress are caused by the body's instinct to defend itself. This instinct is good in emergencies, such as getting out of the way of a speeding car. But stress can cause physical symptoms if it goes on for too long, such as in response to life's daily challenges and changes.

When this happens, it's as though your body gets ready to jump out of the way of the car, but you're sitting still. Your body is working overtime, with no place to put all the extra energy. This can make you feel anxious, afraid, worried and uptight.

What changes may be stressful?

Any sort of change can make you feel stressed, even good change. It's not just the change or event itself, but also how you react to it that matters. What's stressful is different for each person. For example, one person may feel stressed by retiring from work, while someone else may not.

Other things that may be stressful include being laid off from your job, your child leaving or returning home, the death of your spouse, divorce or marriage, an illness, an injury, a job promotion, money problems, moving, or having a baby.

Can stress hurt my health?

Stress can cause health problems or make problems worse if you don't learn ways to deal with it. Talk to your family doctor if you think some of your symptoms are caused by stress. It's important to make sure that your symptoms aren't caused by other health problems.

Possible signs of stress

  • Anxiety
  • Back pain
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • High blood pressure
  • Insomnia
  • Problems with relationships
  • Shortness of breath
  • Stiff neck
  • Upset stomach
  • Weight gain or loss

What can I do to manage my stress?

The first step is to learn to recognize when you're feeling stressed. Early warning signs of stress include tension in your shoulders and neck, or clenching your hands into fists.

The next step is to choose a way to deal with your stress. One way is to avoid the event or thing that leads to your stress--but often this is not possible. A second way is to change how you react to stress. This is often the best way.

Tips for dealing with stress

  • Don't worry about things you can't control, such as the weather.
  • Prepare to the best of your ability for events you know may be stressful, such as a job interview.
  • Try to look at change as a positive challenge, not as a threat.
  • Work to resolve conflicts with other people.
  • Talk with a trusted friend, family member or counselor.
  • Set realistic goals at home and at work.
  • Exercise on a regular basis.
  • Eat well-balanced meals and get enough sleep.
  • Meditate.
  • Participate in something you don't find stressful, such as sports, social events or hobbies.

 

Why is exercise useful?

Exercise is a good way to deal with stress because it's a healthy way to relieve your pent-up energy and tension. It also helps you get in better shape, which makes you feel better overall.

What is meditation?

Steps to deep breathing

  • Lie down on a flat surface.
  • Place a hand on your stomach, just above your navel. Place the other hand on your chest.
  • Breathe in slowly and try to make your stomach rise a little.
  • Hold your breath for a second.
  • Breathe out slowly and let your stomach go back down.

Meditation is a form of guided thought. It can take many forms. You may do it with exercise that uses the same motions over and over, like walking or swimming. You may meditate by practicing relaxation training, by stretching or by breathing deeply.

Relaxation training is easy. Start with one muscle. Hold it tight for a few seconds then relax the muscle. Do this with each of your muscles.

Stretching can also help relieve tension. Roll your head in a gentle circle. Reach toward the ceiling and bend side to side slowly. Roll your shoulders.

Deep, relaxed breathing (see the box to the right) by itself may help relieve stress. This helps you get plenty of oxygen.

If you want more help treating stress symptoms, ask your family doctor for advice.

 

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 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.
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 life.
• Look for ways to reduce the amount of stress in your life.
• Learn healthy ways to relieve stress or reduce its harmful effects.

How do you measure your stress level?

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. Keeping a stress journal 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. Keeping a stress journal 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?

How can you avoid stress?

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. 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.
• Ask for help. People who have a strong network of family and friends manage stress better.
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 counselor.
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.