Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date.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 familydoctor.org, the AAFP patient education website.

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Am Fam Physician. 2006;74(8):1385-1386

What causes stress?

Stress is caused by the body’s instinct to defend itself. This instinct is good to have in emergencies, such as getting out of the way of a speeding car. But it can cause physical problems if it goes on for too long. When you have stress caused by life’s daily challenges, your body has to work overtime, with no place to put all the extra energy. This can make you feel anxious, afraid, worried, and uptight.

What things may be stressful?

Any sort of change can make you feel stressed, even good change. It’s not just the change itself, but also how you react to it that matters. What may be stressful is different for each person. One person may not feel stressed by retiring from work, while another might. Other things that may be stressful include being laid off from your job, your child leaving home, the death of your spouse, divorce or marriage, an illness or injury, a job promotion, money problems, moving, or having a baby.

Possible Signs of Stress

  • Anxiety

  • Back pain

  • Constipation or diarrhea

  • Depression

  • Feeling tired

  • Headaches

  • High blood pressure

  • Relationship problems

  • Shortness of breath

  • Stiff neck

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Upset stomach

  • Weight gain or loss

Can stress hurt my health?

Stress can cause health problems or make problems worse if you don’t learn how to cope with the stress. Talk with your doctor if you think some of your problems are from stress. It’s important to make sure that your symptoms aren’t caused by other health problems.

What can I do to lower my stress?

The first step is to be able to tell when you’re feeling stressed. Some warning signs are tension in your shoulders and neck, or clenching your hands into fists. The next step is to find a way to cope with your stress. Sometimes you can stay away from the things that make you feel stress, but this is not always possible. Another way is to change how you react to stress. This is often the best way.

Tips for Dealing with Stress

  • Don’t worry about things you can’t control.

  • Prepare as best you can for events you know may be stressful, like a job interview.

  • Try to think of change as a positive challenge, not a threat.

  • Work to resolve conflicts with other people.

  • Ask for help when you need it.

  • Set realistic goals at home and at work.

  • Exercise regularly.

  • Eat well-balanced meals and get enough sleep.

  • Use deep breathing, meditation, and other relaxation techniques.

  • Set aside time to do things you enjoy.

Why is exercise helpful?

Exercise is a good way to cope with stress because it is a healthy way to relieve pent-up energy and tension. It also helps you get in better shape, which makes you feel better overall.

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