What is stress?
Stress is a normal human reaction that happens to everyone. In fact, the human body is designed to experience stress and react to it. When you experience changes or challenges (stressors), your body produces physical and mental responses. That’s stress.
Stress responses help your body adjust to new situations. Stress can be positive, keeping us alert, motivated and ready to avoid danger. For example, if you have an important test coming up, a stress response might help your body work harder and stay awake longer. But stress becomes a problem when stressors continue without relief or periods of relaxation.
What happens to the body during stress?
The body’s autonomic nervous system controls your heart rate, breathing, vision changes and more. Its built-in stress response, the “fight-or-flight response,” helps the body face stressful situations.
When a person has long-term (chronic) stress, continued activation of the stress response causes wear and tear on the body. Physical, emotional and behavioral symptoms develop.
- Physical symptoms of stress include:
- Aches and pains.
- Chest pain or a feeling like your heart is racing.
- Exhaustion or trouble sleeping.
- Headaches, dizziness or shaking.
- High blood pressure.
- Muscle tension or jaw clenching.
- Stomach or digestive problems.
- Trouble having sex.
- Weak immune system.
Stress can lead to emotional and mental symptoms like:
- Anxiety or irritability.
- Panic attacks.
Often, people with chronic stress try to manage it with unhealthy behaviors, including:
- Drinking too much or too often.
- Overeating or developing an eating disorder.
- Participating compulsively in sex, shopping or internet browsing.
- Using drugs.
How is stress diagnosed?
Stress is subjective — not measurable with tests. Only the person experiencing it can determine whether is it present and how severe it feels. A healthcare provider may use questionnaires to understand your stress and how it affects your life.
If you have chronic stress, your healthcare provider can evaluate symptoms that result from stress. For example, high blood pressure can be diagnosed and treated.
What are some strategies for stress relief?
You can’t avoid stress, but you can stop it from becoming overwhelming by practicing some daily strategies:
- Exercise when you feel symptoms of stress coming on. Even a short walk can boost your mood.
- At the end of each day, take a moment to think about what you’ve accomplished — not what you didn’t get done.
- Set goals for your day, week and month. Narrowing your view will help you feel more in control of the moment and long-term tasks.
- Consider talking to a therapist or a member of the clergy about your worries.
What are some ways to prevent stress?
Many daily strategies can help you keep stress at bay:
- Try relaxation activities, such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, breathing exercises and muscle relaxation. Programs are available online, in smartphone apps, and at many gyms and community centers.
- Take good care of your body each day. Eating right, exercising and getting enough sleep help your body handle stress much better.
- Stay positive and practice gratitude, acknowledging the good parts of your day or life.
- Accept that you can’t control everything. Find ways to let go of worry about situations you cannot change.
- Learn to say “no” to additional responsibilities when you are too busy or stressed.
- Stay connected with people who keep you calm, make you happy, provide emotional support and help you with practical things. A friend, family member, neighbor or member of your church can become a good listener or share responsibilities so that stress doesn’t become overwhelming.
How long does stress last?
Stress can be a short-term issue or a long-term problem, depending on what changes in your life. Regularly using stress management techniques can help you avoid most physical, emotional and behavioral symptoms of stress.
When should I talk to a doctor about stress?
You should seek medical attention if you feel overwhelmed, if you are using drugs or alcohol to cope, or if you have thoughts about hurting yourself. Your primary care provider can help by offering advice, prescribing medicine or referring you to a therapist.