Stress is a normal reaction to many situations and demands of life. Stress is not always bad, but chronic stress can cause physical and mental harm. Stress management techniques can help you cope.

Stress Overview

Reviewed: May 22, 2014

Stress is a normal psychological and physical reaction to the demands of life. Surveys show that many Americans experience challenges with stress at some point during each year.

Not all stress is bad. All animals have a stress response, and it can be life-saving. But chronic stress can cause both physical and mental harm.

When your brain perceives a threat, it signals your body to release a burst of hormones to fuel your capacity for a response. This has been labeled the "fight-or-flight" response. Once the threat is gone, your body is meant to return to a normal relaxed state. Unfortunately, the non-stop stress of modern life means that your alarm system rarely shuts off. Over time, high levels of stress lead to serious health problems.

Stress management is important to learn how to handle stress effectively and to prevent the physical and mental harm that can occur.

There are at least three different types of stress:

  • routine stress related to the pressures of work, family, and other daily responsibilities
  • stress brought about by a sudden negative change, such as losing a job, divorce, or illness
  • traumatic stress, which happens when you are in danger of being seriously hurt or killed. Examples include a major accident, war, assault, or a natural disaster. This type of stress can cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Some people cope with stress more effectively than others. It is important to know your limits when it comes to stress and learn effective coping strategies, so you can avoid more serious health effects.

Stress Symptoms

All people feel stress in different ways. Some people experience digestive symptoms, and others may have headaches, sleeplessness, depressed mood, anger, and irritability. People under chronic stress get more frequent and severe viral infections, such as the flu or common cold. Vaccines, such as the flu shot, are less effective for them.

Stress may cause some or all of the following symptoms:

  • anger or irritability
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • tension headache
  • back pain
  • jaw pain
  • muscular tensions
  • heartburn
  • flatulence
  • diarrhea
  • constipation
  • irritable bowel syndrome
  • high blood pressure
  • rapid heartbeat
  • sweaty palms
  • heart palpitations
  • dizziness
  • migraine headaches
  • cold hands or feet
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • insomnia

Stress Causes

Stress is your body's reaction to the demands of the world. Stressors are events or conditions in your surroundings that may trigger stress. Your body responds to stressors differently depending on whether the stressor is new — acute stress — or whether the stressor has been around for a longer time — chronic stress.

Acute stress is also known as the fight-or-flight response and it is your body's immediate reaction to a perceived threat, challenge, or scare. The acute-stress response is immediate and intense, and in certain circumstances it can be thrilling. Examples of acute stressors include having a job interview or getting a speeding ticket. A single episode of acute stress generally does not cause problems for healthy people. However, severe acute stress can cause mental health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, and even physical difficulties such as a heart attack.

Mild acute stress can actually be beneficial — it can spur you into action, motivate, and energize you. Problems occur when stressors are persistent. This chronic stress can lead to health problems, such as headaches and insomnia. The chronic-stress response is more subtle than is the acute-stress response, but the effects may be longer lasting and more problematic.

Stress Diagnosis

There is no specific medical test or diagnostic tool for stress, but your doctor will be able to use your current symptoms, family history, and information about your life to help determine if you are suffering from the effects of untreated stress. Your doctor may also order blood work or other medical tests to rule out any underlying medical conditions that may be causing your symptoms.

Living With Stress

Effective stress management starts with identifying your sources of stress and developing strategies to manage them. One way to do this is to make a list of the situations, concerns, or challenges that trigger your stress response. Take a moment to write down the top 10 issues you are facing right now. You will notice that some of your stressors are events that happen to you while others seem to originate from within. Set priorities and decide what must get done and what can wait, and learn to say no to new tasks if they are putting you into overload.

Many people benefit from regular practice of stress-reduction techniques, such as deep breathing, massage, tai chi, or yoga. Many people manage stress through practicing mindfulness in meditation or being in nature.

It is also important to maintain a healthy lifestyle to help manage stress: eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, and get enough sleep. Having a healthy lifestyle will help you manage periods of high stress.

Stress Treatments

If lifestyle changes and relaxation strategies do not help you manage your stress, seek help from a qualified mental health care provider. He or she can help you if you are overwhelmed, feel you cannot cope, have suicidal thoughts, or are using drugs or alcohol to cope. Get proper health care for existing or new health problems that may be contributing to your stress.

Stress Other Treatments

Stress Prognosis