Stress is tension that can cause physical, emotional or psychological symptoms
Not all stress is bad, but long-term stress may cause chronic health problems
Small everyday actions, such as getting regular exercise, making time to relax, eating well and talking to someone, may help you reduce stress
If you’re on edge, you’re not alone. More than a quarter of adults in the United States reported they’re too stressed out to function, according to a 2022 survey by The Harris Poll for the American Psychological Association (APA).
What’s so stressful? The list is a lengthy one. Adults in the APA survey cited inflation, violence and crime, the current political climate, and the racial climate in the country as significant sources of stress. These are on top of other ubiquitous stressors we’re all familiar with: relationships, family dynamics and responsibilities, and work and school conflicts.
So, what is stress exactly — and how can we help tame it?
Stress is an umbrella term for tension that causes physical, emotional or psychological symptoms, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
This tension may come from a physical source (like you’re being chased by a saber-toothed tiger), emotional strain (like relationship drama) or stressors (which can be real or imaginary).
Stress can be short-term and in the moment, like when you slam on the brakes to avoid hitting another car on the freeway. It can also be chronic, lasting for weeks or months. Chronic stress may be tied to more ongoing issues, such as financial woes, marital problems or unhappiness at work.
Not all stress is harmful. Sometimes your body’s reaction to stress can literally save your life by activating your “fight-or-flight” response. This is a survival mechanism that evolved to help people react quickly to life-or-death situations.
Here’s what happens when you find yourself in a high-stress situation, according to Harvard Health Publishing:
Your brain’s command center, the hypothalamus, releases stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline. These rev your body up for action to help you either escape danger (flight) or stand up to it (fight).
This reaction can be beneficial if, say, you’re being chased in a dark alley or need to be alert and on point for a big presentation, but it’s not quite so helpful if you’re stuck in a traffic jam or under pressure to finish a project at work or school.
According to Harvard Health Publishing, when stress strikes, your hypothalamus and adrenal glands shoot out stress hormones that speed up your pulse and increase blood pressure. You may breathe faster so your lungs can take in as much oxygen as possible. The added oxygen is sent to your brain to help improve your alertness. Your body also releases stored blood sugar and fats to burn for extra energy.
Some other things that may happen under stress include:
This is one thing when the stress is momentary and followed by relief. In these cases, your parasympathetic nervous system calms your body down once the danger has subsided.
However, if you have chronic stress, your body remains in this hypervigilant state, increasing your risk for chronic health problems. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, this can include health issues such as:
Chronic stress can also manifest as physical health problems, including:
You may get sick more often than usual because stress weakens your immune system. Chronic stress may also set the stage for anxiety and depression and worsen any underlying medical conditions.
Making matters worse, some people cope with chronic stress by turning to high-fat comfort foods, smoking tobacco, or consuming more alcohol or drugs, all of which add to the negative health consequences of stress.
There are many healthy ways to put the brakes on stress and its health consequences:
Regular physical activity is a powerful antidote to stress. Aim for 150 minutes a week of exercise, such as walking, said Thea Gallagher, PsyD, a clinical assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at NYU Langone Health in New York City.
Exercise spurs the release of your body’s “feel-good” chemicals, which combat stress. It also helps you maintain a normal weight, which is important if your stress has you making unhealthy food choices and packing on pounds.
Take a hard look at what you do when you feel stressed out or anxious. “If you identify any habits that may make you feel better in the moment, but have negative long-term effects, take steps to change these coping mechanisms,” Gallagher said.
Try to replace negative coping skills. Meditation, mindfulness, yoga or even just taking deep breaths and listening to relaxing music are powerful stress relievers. Choose something that works for you and make sure to do it every single day, Gallagher said. “Set it up so it’s easy, like a 15-minute walk that you can build into your schedule and life,” she said. “Prioritize it and make it nonnegotiable.”
Aim for 6 to 8 hours of sleep per night. The best way to achieve good-quality sleep is to keep your bedroom cool and dark and only use it for sleeping — no Netflix from bed.
You’ll also want to make sure to avoid caffeine in the afternoon and evening and forgo big meals before bed, as they could keep you awake.
Try to eat three meals a day, with an emphasis on healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins, Gallagher said. Taking better care of yourself by eating right will leave you better equipped to handle stress.
Connecting with loved ones can help buffer stress and anxiety, Gallagher said. If you can’t get together in person, take advantage of technology to stay in touch. Pick up the phone, write an email, send a text message or even schedule a Zoom coffee catch-up with a friend or family member.
Stress — especially long-term stress — can morph into anxiety or depression. “If your stress seems to be lily padding from one thing to the next, see your doctor, as medication or therapy may be helpful,” Gallagher said.
A rough week or day isn’t a rough life, Gallagher said. “All problems are perishable and don’t last forever,” she said. Instead of dwelling on what’s wrong, focus on what’s right in your life.
Interview with Thea Gallagher, PsyD, a clinical assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at NYU Langone Health in New York City.
American Psychological Association: Stress in America 2022.
World Health Organization: Stress.
National Library of Medicine: Stress and your health.
Harvard Medical School: Understanding the stress response.
American Heart Association: Working out to relieve stress.
Stress is unavoidable, but there are actionable ways to help manage your stress levels