Stress & Health


What Is Stress?

Stress is your body's way of responding to any kind of demand. It can be caused by both good and bad experiences. When people feel stressed by something going on around them, their bodies react by releasing chemicals into the blood. These chemicals give people more energy and strength, which can be a good thing if their stress is caused by physical danger. But this can also be a bad thing, if their stress is in response to something emotional and there is no outlet for this extra energy and strength.

What Causes Stress?

Many different things can cause stress -- from physical (such as fear of something dangerous) to emotional (such as worry over your family or job.) Identifying what may be causing you stress is often the first step in learning how to better deal with your stress. Some of the most common sources of stress are:

Survival Stress

You may have heard the phrase "fight or flight" before. This is a common response to danger in all people and animals. When you are afraid that someone or something may physically hurt you, your body naturally responds with a burst of energy so that you will be better able to survive the dangerous situation (fight) or escape it all together (flight). This is survival stress.

Internal Stress

Have you ever caught yourself worrying about things you can do nothing about or worrying for no reason at all? This is internal stress and it is one of the most important kinds of stress to understand and manage. Internal stress is when people make themselves stressed. This often happens when we worry about things we can't control or put ourselves in situations we know will cause us stress. Some people become addicted to the kind of hurried, tense, lifestyle that results from being under stress. They even look for stressful situations and feel stress about things that aren't stressful.

Environmental Stress

This is a response to things around you that cause stress, such as noise, crowding, and pressure from work or family. Identifying these environmental stresses and learning to avoid them or deal with them will help lower your stress level.

Fatigue and Overwork

This kind of stress builds up over a long time and can take a hard toil on your body. It can be caused by working too much or too hard at your job(s), school, or home. It can also be caused by not knowing how to manage your time well or how to take time out for rest and relaxation. This can be one of the hardest kinds of stress to avoid because many people feel this is out of their control.

How Does Stress Affect You?

Stress can affect both your body and your mind. People under large amounts of stress can become tired, sick, and unable to concentrate or think clearly. Sometimes, they even suffer mental breakdowns.

Bad stress - "good" or "positive" stress?

Understanding your stress level is important. If nothing in your life causes you any stress or excitement, you may become bored or may not be living up to your potential. If everything in your life, or large portions of your life, cause you stress, you may experience health or mental problems that will make your behavior worse.

Recognizing when you are stressed and managing your stress can greatly improve your life. Some short-term stress - for example what you feel before an important job presentation, test, interview, or sporting event - may give you the extra energy you need to perform at your best. But long-term stress - for example constant worry over your job, school, or family - may actually drain your energy and your ability to perform well.

Common Facts About Stress

  • Millions of people suffer from stress each year.
  • In fact, 3 out of 4 people say they experience stress at least twice a month.
  • Over half of those people say they suffer from 'high' levels of stress at least twice a month.
  • Stress can contribute to heart disease, high blood pressure, strokes, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, gastrointestinal problems and asthma. You also more likely to catch less serious illnesses like colds. It can also contribute to alcoholism, obesity, drug addiction, cigarette use, depression, and other harmful behaviors.
  • In the last 20 years, the number of people reporting that stress affects their work has gone up more than four folds. (Whereas the number of people reporting that other illnesses affect their work have gone down.)

Fight Back Against Stress - and Improve Your Health

  1. Breathe deeply. Just a few minutes of deep breathing can calm you and tame the physiologic stress response. While building in a specific time to relax each day is a good idea, one advantage to deep breathing for stress relief is that you can do it anywhere - at your desk or in your (parked) car, for instance.
    You breathe out; you relax a specific muscle group. Start with the muscles in your jaw. On the next breath out, relax your shoulders. Move through the different areas of your body until you're feeling calm.
  2. Focus on the moment. When you're stressed, you're probably living in the future or the past. You're worried about what to do next or regretful about something you've already done. To get some stress relief, instead try focusing on what you're doing right now. You can calm yourself by bringing yourself back to the present moment. If you're walking, feel the sensation of your legs moving. If you're eating, focus on the taste and the sensation of the food.
  3. Reframe the situation. So you're already running late and then find yourself stuck in terrible traffic. Getting worked up is a natural reaction, but it won't help you at all. Rather than swearing and pounding the steering wheel, get a different perspective. Look at that time as an opportunity - a few minutes to yourself where you don't have any other obligations.
  4. Keep your problems in perspective. It might seem Pollyannaish, but the next time you're feeling stressed out, think about the things for which you're grateful.
    We get stressed when we focus so much on a specific problem that we lose perspective. You need to remind yourself of the basic ways in which you're lucky - that you have family and friends, that you can see, that you can walk. It can be a surprisingly effective method for stress relief.

While these stress management techniques can help in the moment, you can also make a few larger changes to your way of life. Regular exercise is key to long-term stress management. People who exercise tend to have better moods and more energy than people who don't. What's more, regular exercise will independently lower your risks for many health problems.

Learning some relaxation techniques, meditation, or yoga will help with stress management, too. Getting good at any of these approaches will take a little time and practice, but the payoff - for your short-term mood and long-term health - could be substantial.