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Stressed out?

Too much stress can affect health and behavior.

When someone says "I'm stressed," they generally don't mean it in a good way. But by strict medical definition, stress is neither good nor bad. And it isn't always caused by unpleasant things. In fact, some of our happiest moments—getting married, buying a house, getting a promotion or having a baby—can create stress too.

Stress only becomes a problem when it overwhelms the body's systems for handling it. This can happen because of very high amounts of stress, poor stress management or both.

You can reduce the risk of stress becoming a problem for you by taking good care of your body and mind, and by developing healthy ways to deal with stress.

The culprit

Stress is the body's response to a demand. Whether this demand is physical or mental, positive or negative, the body responds by increasing production of hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline). This in turn increases heart and breathing rates, blood pressure, metabolism, and blood flow to the muscles.

In the case of a life-threatening situation, these changes would allow your body to react quickly and effectively. If you needed to jump out of the way of a car, for instance, these changes could be literal lifesavers.

But the effects of stress on the body aren't always helpful. In fact, severe or ongoing stress can harm your health and happiness if it isn't counteracted with effective coping strategies.

Signs of too much stress

A variety of physical and mental symptoms can signal that your stress level is getting dangerously high. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, signs of excessive stress can include:

  • Anxiety.
  • Back pain.
  • Constipation or diarrhea.
  • Feeling depressed.
  • Fatigue.
  • Headaches.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Difficulty sleeping.
  • Relationship problems.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Upset stomach.
  • Weight gain or loss.
  • Neck or jaw stiffness.

Over time, excessive stress can contribute to long-term health problems, such as heart disease and depression.

Asking for help

If you think stress may be causing physical or mental problems for you, talk to your doctor. He or she can rule out other causes for your symptoms and help you find ways to handle stress more effectively. This can improve your quality of life and help you avoid future, serious stress-related health problems.

If you find your feelings interfering with your everyday life, the American Psychological Association recommends talking to a mental health professional.

Mental healthcare, such as counseling, can help you understand the source of your stress, how you're reacting to it and ways to resolve the problem. It can also help uncover emotional conflicts produced by stressful events or situations.

Find what works

People define and react to stress in different ways. To handle stress effectively, try to recognize what stresses you and what helps you cope. Also, get a feel for your own stress tolerance. Everyone has limits, and knowing your own can help you avoid going beyond them.

Reviewed 10/3/2022

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This information is provided for educational purposes only. Individuals should always consult with their healthcare providers regarding medical care or treatment, as recommendations, services or resources are not a substitute for the advice or recommendation of an individual's physician or healthcare provider. Services or treatment options may not be covered under an individual's particular health plan.