Stress and your health

  • Definition
    • Stress is a feeling of emotional or physical tension. It can come from any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or nervous.

      Stress is your body's reaction to a challenge or demand. In short bursts, stress can be positive, such as when it helps you avoid danger or meet a deadline. But when stress lasts for a long time, it may harm your health.

      Stress and anxiety
  • Alternative Names
    • Anxiety; Feeling uptight; Stress; Tension; Jitters; Apprehension

  • Considerations
    • Stress is a normal feeling. There are two main types of stress:

      • Acute stress. This is short-term stress that goes away quickly. You feel it when you slam on the brakes, have a fight with your partner, or ski down a steep slope. It helps you manage dangerous situations. It also occurs when you do something new or exciting. All people have acute stress at one time or another.
      • Chronic stress. This is stress that lasts for a longer period of time. You may have chronic stress if you have money problems, an unhappy marriage, or trouble at work. Any type of stress that goes on for weeks or months is chronic stress. You can become so used to chronic stress that you don't realize it is a problem. If you don't find ways to manage stress, it may lead to health problems.


      Your body reacts to stress by releasing hormones. These hormones make your brain more alert, cause your muscles to tense, and increase your pulse. In the short term, these reactions are good because they can help you handle the situation causing stress. This is your body's way of protecting itself.

      When you have chronic stress, your body stays alert, even though there is no danger. Over time, this puts you at risk for health problems, including:

      If you already have a health condition, chronic stress can make it worse.


      Stress can cause many types of physical and emotional symptoms. Sometimes, you may not realize these symptoms are caused by stress. Here are some signs that stress may be affecting you:

      • Diarrhea or constipation
      • Forgetfulness
      • Frequent aches and pains
      • Headaches
      • Lack of energy or focus
      • Sexual problems
      • Stiff jaw or neck
      • Tiredness
      • Trouble sleeping or sleeping to much
      • Upset stomach
      • Use of alcohol or drugs to relax
      • Weight loss or gain

      How Well Are You Managing Stress?

      1. Which of the following situations cause stress?

        1. A. Getting married
        2. B. Death of a spouse or loved one
        3. C. Money problems
        4. D. Getting fired
        5. E. Getting injured
        6. F. All of the above

        The correct answer is all of the above. Any major change can cause stress, even good change. Changing how you react to stress and doing relaxation exercises can help.

      2. Stress produces the following changes in the body:

        1. A. Increased heart rate
        2. B. Increased blood pressure
        3. C. Immune system changes
        4. D. All of the above

        The correct answer is all of the above. Stress causes changes in the body that can make it harder for your body to fight disease. Talk to your doctor about how you can better control your body’s natural response to stress.

      3. Ongoing stress can increase your risk for heart disease, stroke, and other health problems.

        1. A. True
        2. B. False

        The correct answer is true. Some stress is healthy, but excessive stress can cause health problems, or make them worse. Talk to your doctor if you think some of your symptoms are related to stress.

      4. Which of the following are symptoms of stress?

        1. A. Back pain
        2. B. Constipation or diarrhea
        3. C. Headache
        4. D. High blood pressure
        5. E. Insomnia
        6. F. Weight gain
        7. G. All of the above

        The correct answer is all of the above. Stress doesn’t always produce clear symptoms. Even minor symptoms, such as upset stomach, stiff neck, or hiccups can be related to stress. If you notice symptoms of stress, take time to relax every day.

      5. Children rarely feel stress.

        1. A. True
        2. B. False

        The correct answer is false. Children often feel stress because they can't communicate their feelings. Physical symptoms, such as stomachaches, can be a sign of stress in a child. If you are a parent, try to lower your own stress level. When you are stressed, it can cause stress in your child.

      6. Some studies show that job stress may be as bad for your health as smoking or not exercising.

        1. A. True
        2. B. False

        The correct answer is true. Stress makes it hard to concentrate, causes sleeplessness, and increases the risk for illness, back problems, accidents, and lost time from work. Think about ways to take stress out of your work life. Take time to go for a walk during lunch, or find other ways to relax during the work day.

      7. Which of the following activities can help you feel less stress?

        1. A. Owning a pet
        2. B. Exercising
        3. C. Spending time with friends
        4. D. Deep breathing
        5. E. All of the above

        The correct answer is all of the above. Spending time with friends, going for a run, playing with your dog, or doing deep breathing can lower your stress level. Try different ways to relieve stress and see what works best for you.

      8. Over-the-counter medicines can relieve stress.

        1. A. True
        2. B. False

        The correct answer is false. Medicine can’t make stress go away, but it can help you manage stress symptoms. Pain relievers can help ease tension headaches, and antacids and laxatives help an upset stomach. A better idea is to learn healthy ways to deal with stress. If you can't manage stress on your own, talk with a therapist.

      9. Which of the following activities can help you ward off the effects of stress?

        1. A. Eating a healthy diet
        2. B. Exercising
        3. C. Avoiding alcohol and caffeine
        4. D. Discussing your feelings
        5. E. All of the above

        The correct answer is all of the above. All of these activities improve your health and help you deal with stress. To make stress easier to handle, eat a balanced healthy diet, exercise daily, and express your feelings to friends, loved ones, a therapist, or in a journal.

      10. Which of the following help you learn to relax?

        1. A. Deep breathing exercises
        2. B. Muscle relaxation
        3. C. Meditation
        4. D. Biofeedback
        5. E. Massage
        6. F. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
        7. G. All of the above

        The correct answer is all of the above. There are many different relaxation techniques that can help you deal with stress. Talk to your doctor about what type of relaxation therapy is right for you.

      11. Living a stressful life is unavoidable.

        1. A. True
        2. B. False

        The correct answer is false. Most people feel stress, but you can learn to manage it and even avoid it. Making healthy changes in your habits, learning to say no, setting priorities, and leading a healthful lifestyle are just a few ways you can combat stress. Talk with your health care provider about how to manage the stress in your life.

  • Causes
    • The causes of stress are different for each person. You can have stress from good challenges and as well as bad ones. Some common sources of stress include:

      • Getting married or divorced
      • Starting a new job
      • The death of a spouse or close family member
      • Getting laid off
      • Retiring
      • Having a baby
      • Money problems
      • Moving
      • Having a serious illness
      • Problems at work
      • Problems at home
      Generalized anxiety disorder
  • When to Contact a Medical Professional
    • Call a suicide hotline if you have thoughts of suicide.

      Call your health care provider if you feel overwhelmed by stress, or if it is affecting your health. Also call your provider if you notice new or unusual symptoms.

      Reasons you may want to seek help are:

      • You have feelings of panic, such as dizziness, rapid breathing, or a racing heartbeat.
      • You are unable to work or function at home or at your job.
      • You have fears that you cannot control.
      • You are having memories of a traumatic event.

      Your provider may refer you to a mental health care provider. You can talk to this professional about your feelings, what seems to make your stress better or worse, and why you think you are having this problem.

  • References
    • Ahmed SM, Hershberger PJ, Lemkau JP. Psychosocial influences on health. In: Rakel RE, Rakel DP. eds. Textbook of Family Medicine. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 3.

      National Institute of Mental Health. Fact sheet on stress. Accessed November 3, 2016.

      Vaccarino V, Bremner JD. Psychiatric and behavioral aspects of cardiovascular disease. In: Mann DL, Zipes DP, Libby P, Bonow RO, Braunwald E, eds. Braunwald's Heart Disease: A Textbook of Cardiovascular Medicine. 10th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 86.