What is stress?

What is stress?

Stress is your body's response to a hard situation. Your body can have a physical, emotional, or mental response. Stress is a fact of life for most people, and it affects everyone differently. What causes stress for you may not be stressful for someone else.

A lot of things can cause stress. You may feel stress when you go on a job interview, take a test, or run a race. This kind of short-term stress is normal and even useful. It can help you if you need to work hard or react quickly. For example, stress can help you finish an important job on time.

Long-term stress is caused by ongoing stressful situations or events. Examples of long-term stress include long-term health problems, ongoing problems at work, or conflicts in your family. Long-term stress can harm your health.

Dealing with stress from life changes

Dealing with stress from life changes

Sometimes life feels manageable. And other times, life feels overwhelming—like when you are in the middle of a big change or challenge.

It's not always easy to imagine that things are going to get better. But they will change. And this is just one chapter of your life, a chapter that might help you learn and grow in unexpected ways.

You might feel like you don't have much control right now. But there are some small things you can control that could help your body or mind.

  • Pay attention to sleep and exercise.

    Good sleep and regular exercise can bring big benefits.

  • Practice deep breathing.

    It calms the nervous system and helps bring you back to the present moment.

  • Accept things as they are.

    Instead of asking Why did this happen? try asking What can I learn from this?

  • Practice balanced thinking.

    Instead of thinking My life will never be the way it used to be, try thinking This is going to be a challenge for a while. But I can learn to adapt and still enjoy my life.

  • Do less.

    Try to let go of things that aren't really necessary.

  • Take a few minutes for you.

    For example:

    • Go for a walk.
    • Take a relaxing bath or shower.
    • Step outside and gaze at the sky.
    • Read something funny.
  • Listen to others who've been through something similar.

    This could mean going to a support group. It could also mean reading or sharing stories on a blog or other online resource.

  • Let yourself feel what you're feeling.

    Ask a friend to just listen. As you talk, do your best not to fix, change, or judge your feelings.

  • Talk with a counselor.

    A counselor can be a great resource to help you get through a difficult time.

  • Explore why you want to feel less stress.

    It's important to think about why you want to feel less stressed. If you understand why you want something, it can increase your desire—and ability—to do it. So ask yourself these questions, and write down your ideas.

    • Why do you want to experience less stress in your life?
    • How would that change how you feel or change your day-to-day life?

What are some things you could try to lower stress in your life? What if you picked your favorite idea and committed to it—just for the next 2 weeks? Then you could see if it might be worth continuing, or if you want to try something else.

You probably know what's worked for you in the past. And that may help you know what could work now.

How does stress affect your health?

How does stress affect your health?

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. If the stress is over quickly, your body goes back to normal and no harm is done.

But if stress happens too often or lasts too long, it can have bad effects. Long-term stress can make you more likely to get sick, and it can make symptoms of some diseases worse. If you tense up when you are stressed, you may develop neck, shoulder, or low back pain. Stress is linked to high blood pressure and heart disease.

Stress also harms your emotional health. It can make you moody, tense, or depressed. Your relationships may suffer, and you may not do well at work or school.

How can you assess your stress?

How can you assess your stress?

What causes stress for you may not cause stress for someone else. Only you can figure out whether you have too much stress in your life.

Answer these questions to learn more about your stress:

What job, family, or personal stress do you have?
Stress can be caused by an ongoing personal situation such as caring for a family member.
Have you had any recent major life changes?
Getting married, moving to a new city, or losing a job can all be stressful.
Do your beliefs cause you stress?
Some people feel stress because their beliefs conflict with the way they live their life.
How do you cope with stress?
The ways that you cope with your stress can help you or make stress worse. For example, sleep helps your body recover from the stresses of the day. Not getting enough sleep means you lose the chance to recover from stress.

What can you do to prevent stress?

What can you do to prevent stress?

You might try some of these things to help prevent stress:

  • Manage your time. This helps you find time to do the things you want and need to do.
  • Get enough sleep. Your body recovers from the stresses of the day while you are sleeping.
  • Get support. Your family, friends, and community can make a difference in how you experience stress.
  • Limit your news feed. Avoid or limit time on social media or news that may make you feel stressed.
  • Do something active. Exercise or activity can help reduce stress. Walking is a great way to get started.

How can deep breathing help with stress?

How can deep breathing help with stress?

Breathing exercises are a good way to relax, reduce tension, and relieve stress.

Deep breathing is one way to lower stress in the body. This is because when you breathe deeply, it sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax. The brain then sends this message to your body. Those things that happen when you are stressed, such as an increased heart rate, fast breathing, and high blood pressure, all decrease as you breathe deeply to relax.

Breathing exercises are easy to learn. You can do them whenever you want. You don't need any special tools or equipment to do them. And you can try different exercises to see which work best for you.

Find a provider today!

Harvard Pilgrim has a large and growing network of behavioral health providers who offer expertise across dozens of behavioral health care specialties. Search our online directory to find a provider near you. 

Online therapy for life’s challenges

AbleTo offers an eight-week online therapy program to help you manage stress, anxiety and depression. Connect with skilled and compassionate counselors by phone or video chat from the privacy of your home. 


© 2016- Healthwise, Incorporated. This information does not replace the advice of a doctor.