Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit, the AAFP patient education website.

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Am Fam Physician. 2000;62(10):2351-2352

What causes stress?

Stress is caused by the body's instinct to defend itself. This instinct is good in emergencies, such as getting out of the way of a speeding car, but it can cause physical symptoms if it goes on for too long, such as in response to life's daily challenges and changes.

When this happens, it's as though your body gets ready to jump out of the way of the car, but you're sitting still. Your body is working overtime, with no place to put all the extra energy. This can make you feel anxious, afraid, worried and uptight.

Possible Signs of Stress

  • Anxiety

  • Back pain

  • Constipation or diarrhea

  • Depression

  • Fatigue

  • Headaches

  • High blood pressure

  • Insomnia

  • Problems with relationships

  • Shortness of breath

  • Stiff neck

  • Upset stomach

  • Weight gain or loss

What changes may be stressful to me and my family?

Any sort of change can make you or your family members feel stressed, even good change. It's not just the change or event itself, but also the reaction to it that matters. What may be stressful is different for each person, so look for signs of stress in all members of your family.

For example, one person may not feel stressed by retiring from work, while another may have trouble adjusting. Other things that may be stressful include losing a job, a child leaving or returning home, the death of a spouse, divorce or marriage, an illness, an injury, a job promotion, money problems, moving or having a baby.

Can stress hurt my family's health?

Stress can cause health problems or make problems worse if you don't learn ways to deal with it. Talk to your family doctor if you think someone you love is suffering from stress. It's important to make sure that any symptoms are caused by stress and not by other health problems.

Tips for Dealing with Stress

  • Don't worry about things you can't control, such as the weather.

  • Do something about the things you can control.

  • Prepare to the best of your ability for events you know may be stressful.

  • Work to resolve conflicts with other people.

  • Ask for help from friends, family or professionals.

  • Set realistic goals at home and at work.

  • Exercise.

  • Meditate.

  • Get away from your daily stresses with group sports, social events and hobbies.

  • Try to look at change as a positive challenge.

What can I do to reduce my own stress?

The first step is to learn to recognize when you're feeling stressed. Early warning signs of stress include tension in your shoulders and neck, or clenching your hands into fists.

The next step is to choose a way to deal with your stress. One way is to avoid the event or thing that leads to your stress—but this is often not possible. A second way is to change how you react to stress. This is often the best way.

Why is exercise useful?

Exercise is a good way to deal with stress because it's a healthy way to relieve the built-up energy and tension. It also helps you get in better shape, which makes you feel better overall. Exercising as a family is a great way to spend quality time together, and it can help you learn how to work as a team.

What is meditation?

Meditation is a form of guided thought. It can take many forms. You may do it with exercise that uses the same motions over and over, like walking or swimming. You may do it by practicing relaxation training, by stretching or by breathing deeply.

Relaxation training is easy. Start with one muscle. Hold it tight for a few seconds and then relax the muscle. Do this with all of your muscles.

Stretching can also help relieve tension. Roll your head in a gentle circle. Reach toward the ceiling. Bend side to side slowly. Roll your shoulders.

Deep, relaxed breathing by itself may help relieve stress.

If you want more help treating stress symptoms, ask your family doctor for advice.

Steps to Deep Breathing

  • Lie down on a flat surface.

  • Place a hand on your stomach, just above your navel. Place the other hand on your chest.

  • Breathe in slowly and try to make your stomach rise a little.

  • Hold your breath for a second.

  • Breathe out slowly and let your stomach go back down.

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