What Is Stress? 5 Tips to Manage Stress Symptoms

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What Is Stress?

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines stress as a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation. The National Cancer Institute says that from a medical or biological perspective, stress is the body’s response to physical, mental or emotional pressure. Stress is a natural human response, and everyone experiences stress in varying degrees at various times and circumstances in life. 

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According to a March 2024 report from CNBC, Tennessee is ranked number one for states with the most stressed residents in America. The physical effects of stress and reported levels of depression are higher than among other those in other areas of the country. All the more reason to watch out for the signs and practice better coping mechanisms when life gets stressful!

What Causes Stress

Stress is how the body reacts to a challenge or demand. Many people face difficult challenges and responsibilities that may overlap or conflict. These cause stress that can affect both emotional and physical health. Stress can come from troubles at home, in relationships, and in the workplace.

Stress can be short-term or long-term. It can come from physical causes like not getting enough sleep or having an illness. Other causes can be emotional, like worrying about not having enough money or the death of a loved one. Stress can also come from less dramatic causes, like everyday obligations and pressures that make you feel that you’re not in control.

Change is often a cause of stress. Even positive changes, like welcoming a new baby or getting a job promotion, can be stressful.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, causes of short-term stress can include:

  • Needing to do a lot in a short amount of time
  • Facing many small pressures or problems in the same day
  • Getting ready to make a presentation
  • Having an argument

Common causes of long-term stress may include:

  • Problems at work or at home
  • Ongoing financial problems
  • A lengthy illness
  • Taking care of someone with an illness
  • Death of a loved one

Stress Symptoms

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says that signs of stress include:

  • Feeling worried or depressed
  • Feeling angry or easily irritable
  • An inability to focus
  • Headaches, tense muscles
  • Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Rapid weight gain or loss
  • Upset stomach
  • Weakened immune system (making it easier to get sick)

How Does Stress Affect the Body?

In addition to the symptoms listed above, stress causes chemical changes in the body that can raise blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar levels. It can also lead to feelings of frustration, anxiety, anger or depression.

Because stress often raises adrenaline levels, some people may develop rashes, hives or other allergic-type responses. Some may even experience “telogen effluvium,” which is hair loss that occurs several weeks or months after a particularly stressful event. This condition is usually temporary, and hair regrows over time.

Can Stress Make You Sick?

The hormone cortisol is released in response to stress, and studies suggest that long-term stress can contribute to conditions such as obesity, diabetes, changes in gut health, and may influence the development of thyroid-related conditions and autoimmune diseases.

High levels of cortisol from long-term stress can increase blood cholesterol, triglycerides, blood sugar and blood pressure, all common risk factors for heart disease. This stress can also cause changes that promote the buildup of plaque in the arteries.

Even minor stress can trigger heart problems like poor blood flow to the heart muscle, causing the heart to not get enough blood or oxygen. Long-term stress can also affect how the blood clots, making blood stickier and increasing the risk of stroke.

Stress vs. Anxiety  

Healthline defines stress as a demand placed on your brain or physical body. Any event or scenario that makes you feel frustrated or nervous can trigger it. Anxiety, on the other hand, is when the brain “goes into overdrive” with feelings of fear, worry, or unease. While anxiety can occur as a reaction to stress, it can also happen without any obvious trigger.

In the short term, anxiety can help you focus and cope during a stressful situation. But if feelings of fear or dread, anxious thoughts, avoiding certain situations, or physical reactions such as a racing heart, dizziness or nausea interfere with daily life, these might indicate an anxiety disorder. Screening and treatment by a physician or mental health provider can help.

How to Manage Stress 

patrick jensen MD
Patrick Jensen, MD, psychiatrist

Avoid using alcohol or other substances to try to manage stress. Instead, the National Alliance on Mental Illness recommends working on a  personalized approach to improve your mental health and quality of life. NAMI suggests identifying your “stress triggers” and experimenting with coping strategies to find the tools that work best for you.

Patrick Jensen, MD, board-certified psychiatrist at Covenant Health, lists five ways to practice self-care and minimize the effects of stress:

  1. Get 30 minutes of exercise. “Exercise is one of the most beneficial forms of self-care for most people,” Dr. Jensen says. “It acts as a natural antidepressant and mental health booster. Even small acts of self-care every day can make a big impact. I recommend 30 minutes per day of an activity you enjoy, like walking outside.”

Dr. Jensen says that exercise helps you by:

  • Boosting your mood
  • Reducing anxiety
  • Improving your resilience
  • Lowering your risk for diseases, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some common cancers
  • Making everyday activities easier to do

  1. Pay attention to your sleep routine. Insomnia is often associated with depression, says Dr. Jensen, so adequate sleep is important for coping with stress and for overall health. “Put away blue-light devices like cell phones and computers at least 30 minutes prior to sleep onset. They often stimulate the waking centers of our brain,” he explains. “Read a book, talk to a loved one, listen to relaxing music and ‘wind down’ for sleep.”
  1. Evaluate your food and drinks. Are you drinking caffeine or sugar before bed? Do you often consume foods that are high in sugar or saturated fat? Dr. Jensen recommends drinking plenty of water and aiming for a balanced diet. “Stay hydrated and limit caffeine in later parts of the day to help you feel better,” he says.
  1. Take a break. “Go for a walk, close your eyes and sit quietly for 10 minutes, or go outside for some fresh air. You can also find many relaxation apps for your smartphone. Use relaxation methods like meditation to calm you mind and body,” Dr. Jensen says. It’s also helpful to spend time talking with someone you trust.
  1. Practice an “attitude of gratitude.” This perspective is always going to boost your mental health, Dr. Jensen says. “When setting goals or just planning your next day, focus on what you have already accomplished or habits you have adopted, instead of focusing what you haven’t accomplished.” He adds, “A positive mindset and optimism inspires motivation to keep going. I think it’s important to practice extending grace to ourselves and others.” One way to practice gratitude is to write down three things you are thankful for at the beginning or end of each day.

Dr. Jensen notes that the American Psychological Association has a helpful list of healthy ways to manage stress. The list includes additional details for the topics above, along with other stress-management strategies such as mindfulness meditation. “There is established literature that mindfulness-based exercises can assist in reducing stress,” he says.

When to Seek Professional Help 

Remember, no one can “do it all” alone. If stress or anxiety is interfering with your daily life or affecting your health, speak to your primary care physician or a mental health provider about your options.

Peninsula is a behavioral health service that can help you manage stress. For help, visit PeninsulaBehavioralHealth.org or call 865-970-9800. If you are in crisis, contact Mobile Crisis Services at 1-855-CRISIS-1.

Additional resources:

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About the Author

Covenant Health

Headquartered in Knoxville, Tennessee, Covenant Health is a community-owned, healthcare enterprise committed to providing the right care at the right time and place. Covenant Health is the area’s largest employer and has more than 11,000 compassionate caregivers, expert clinicians, and dedicated employees and volunteers.

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