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Patient education: Stress (The Basics)

Patient education: Stress (The Basics)

What is stress? — Stress is how your body and mind respond to the environment around you. It is a normal part of life. A person might feel stress when they have to face a challenge or demand. For example, having a work deadline and not feeling like you will be able to meet it might cause stress. Other things that can cause stress include issues with health, money, or relationships.

Stress can be short-term or long-term:

Short-term stress or "acute" stress lasts for a short time and then quickly goes away. This kind of stress is helpful when a person must react quickly. After the event passes, the body returns to normal. Short-term stress can give you raised energy and help you in times when your body feels in danger. Short-term stress can make you feel excited, inspire you, or help you focus your energy. Some people call this "good stress." This type of stress can even come from positive things in your life like a new job or a first date.

Long-term stress or "chronic" stress can go on for weeks or months. You might not even notice that you are stressed because it becomes a part of your life. Other times, a difficult change in your life or traumatic event can cause long-term stress. This kind of stress is more likely to lead to physical or emotional problems.

If the stress is very serious, it can lead to a condition called post-traumatic stress disorder, or "PTSD."

What causes stress? — Stress can come from mental, emotional, financial, or physical pressure. Both positive and negative things can lead to stress. Common causes of stress include:

Starting, losing, or changing jobs

Changes in routine like going on vacation

Illness

Life changes like a wedding, new baby, divorce, moving into a new home, or death of a loved one

Traumatic events like an accident, act of violence, or natural disaster

New situations like speaking in public or going someplace unfamiliar

Money issues

Family issues or conflict

Everyone reacts to stress differently. What causes 1 person stress might not cause someone else stress.

How can stress affect me? — Stress is not an illness. But it can make existing health problems worse or lead to new health problems. If stress is not managed in a healthy way, it can lead to:

Mental health problems like depression, worry, anger, or low self-esteem

Physical health problems like high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes, headaches, or trouble with blood sugar

Other problems like pain, poor sleep, or having trouble fighting infection

What happens to my body when I am stressed? — Your body releases hormones to help it cope with stress. The hormones make your heart beat faster and make you breathe faster. Your muscles tense, and your body is ready to react. These changes can be good in times of short-term stress. But if the stress continues, you might notice other symptoms.

Each person experiences stress differently. Some of the symptoms of stress are listed below. Not everyone will have the same symptoms.

Physical symptoms:

Headache

Back, jaw, or other pain

Tense muscles

Faster heartbeat or breathing

High blood pressure

Nausea or diarrhea

Trouble sleeping

Sweating

Problems with sex

Emotional symptoms:

Feeling restless or nervous

Trouble paying attention

Depression

Feeling irritable or overwhelmed

Mood swings

Stress can also lead people to do things that are unhealthy, such as:

Drinking too much alcohol

Eating too much or too little

Using drugs

Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much

Working too much or too little

Gambling

Smoking

Nail biting

Is there anything I can do on my own to feel better? — Yes. It might help to:

Limit or avoid caffeine – Cut down on or stop drinking coffee and other sources of caffeine. Caffeine can make stress worse.

Try to get enough sleep – If you have trouble sleeping, talk to your doctor or nurse about possible solutions.

Learn ways to relax – Relaxation techniques can help lower your stress and might help you feel calmer. They can also help you deal with strong emotions or tough situations.

Manage your time – List the things that you need to do and decide what is most important. Break down big projects into small steps. Then, make a plan to address the things on your list.

Practice positive thinking – People often have conversations with themselves in their head. These conversations can be positive or negative. If you are feeling overwhelmed, you might think, "I'll never be able to get everything done." A positive thought in this situation might be, "I have a lot to do. I can get started today and finish what is left tomorrow."

Move your body – Exercise can help many people feel less anxious. Even gentle forms of exercise, like walking, are good for your health. Try to find physical activities that you enjoy.

Take a break – If possible, move away from the situation for a little while. Take a short walk. Distract yourself by talking with a friend, reading a book, or listening to music. Help someone else. If you cannot leave where you are, try closing your eyes and breathing deeply for 10 seconds.

Talk with your doctor or nurse – Sometimes, stress can cause problems in your daily life. Your doctor or nurse might recommend taking medicines or working with a mental health professional.

More on this topic

Patient education: Coping with stress (The Basics)
Patient education: Post-traumatic stress disorder (The Basics)
Patient education: Coping in times of crisis (The Basics)
Patient education: Generalized anxiety disorder (The Basics)
Patient education: Depression in adults (The Basics)
Patient education: Depression in children and teens (The Basics)

Patient education: Depression in adults (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Depression in children and adolescents (Beyond the Basics)

This topic retrieved from UpToDate on: Jun 02, 2024.
Disclaimer: This generalized information is a limited summary of diagnosis, treatment, and/or medication information. It is not meant to be comprehensive and should be used as a tool to help the user understand and/or assess potential diagnostic and treatment options. It does NOT include all information about conditions, treatments, medications, side effects, or risks that may apply to a specific patient. It is not intended to be medical advice or a substitute for the medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment of a health care provider based on the health care provider's examination and assessment of a patient's specific and unique circumstances. Patients must speak with a health care provider for complete information about their health, medical questions, and treatment options, including any risks or benefits regarding use of medications. This information does not endorse any treatments or medications as safe, effective, or approved for treating a specific patient. UpToDate, Inc. and its affiliates disclaim any warranty or liability relating to this information or the use thereof. The use of this information is governed by the Terms of Use, available at https://www.wolterskluwer.com/en/know/clinical-effectiveness-terms. 2024© UpToDate, Inc. and its affiliates and/or licensors. All rights reserved.
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