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What is stress? Stress is a feeling of tension or strain that can be caused by many different things. Stress is a normal part of life, and sometimes it can be good for you. For example, the stress of having a deadline at work can encourage you to work hard and succeed. However, too much stress can make you feel bad and increase your chance of getting sick. The amount of stress that is "too much" is different for each person. Learning to control and cope with stress will help you live a happier and healthier life.

What causes stress? You may feel stress because of changes in your life. The loss of a loved one or your job can cause you to feel very stressed. You may have stress because of a happy event, such as having a baby or buying a house. Health problems or having chronic (long-term) pain can also increase your stress. Becoming overloaded with things you have to do every day can cause stress. What causes one person to feel stressed may not cause stress in someone else.

What are some problems caused by having too much stress? Too much stress can cause many physical (body) or emotional (mood) changes. The problems caused by too much stress are different from person to person. It is important to tell your caregiver about any new physical symptoms you have. Your caregiver may need to check you for other health problems that can be mistaken for stress. Some common effects of stress include:

  • Feeling anxious. You may feel "uptight" or tense. You may feel like your mind is always racing with thoughts. You may become more forgetful or have trouble concentrating (staying focused on a task).

  • Mood changes. Your mood may change often and suddenly, for little or no reason. You may be happy one minute, and mad or sad the next. You may get frustrated a lot more than usual. You may feel angry or depressed (very sad) and not know why.

  • Substance abuse. You may find yourself drinking more alcoholic beverages (drinks) to try and decrease your stress. You may be smoking more cigarettes or drugs, or taking other street drugs. You may be taking too many prescription or over-the-counter drugs, or use them too often. You may be drinking alcohol when taking other medicines. Substance abuse is dangerous and leads to even more stress in life. Abusing alcohol or medicines, even over-the-counter medicines, may cause serious health problems. It may even kill you.

  • Physical symptoms. Sometimes stress causes symptoms that can look or feel like a disease or illness. Some physical symptoms of having too much stress may include:

    • Breathing problems. You may breathe too fast, or feel like you are not getting enough air. You may even feel faint or dizzy.

    • Chest pain or heartburn (a burning sensation in your chest).

    • Changes in your ability or desire to have sexual intercourse (sex).

    • Diarrhea (loose BMs) or constipation (hard, small BMs that are difficult to pass or that occur less often).

    • Hand tremors (shaking), or hands that are sweaty or cold.

    • Headaches, backaches, or stiffness in your neck, shoulders, or other muscles.

    • Heart palpitations (feeling like your heart is beating harder or faster than usual).

    • Monthly period changes in women.

    • Sleeping problems, or feeling tired even after a good night's sleep.

    • Unexplained skin rashes or hives.

    • Upset stomach, abdominal (belly) pain, or increased gas.

    • Weight gain, weight loss, or poor appetite (not feeling like eating).

  • Worsening of other health problems. Most diseases and health conditions can become worse if you have too much stress. Stress can cause your blood pressure to increase, which is a risk to your health. If you are diabetic you may have more blood sugar problems during times of stress. If you have heart problems, you may have more chest pain than usual. It is important to call your caregiver if you feel that stress is affecting your health.

How can I deal with the stress in my life?

  • The following are some ways for you to decrease your stress.

    • Learn what causes you stress. Take a close look at what makes you feel stressed. Stay away from stressful things whenever possible. Do not worry about things you cannot control, such as traffic or the weather.

    • Plan quiet time. Take at least 30 minutes a day to be by yourself. Use this time to do something you enjoy. For example, you can wake up before other household members and read the paper. In the evening, you can relax in a warm bath. Even sitting quietly and daydreaming can give you a much-needed break.

    • Share your workload. Insist that household members help with chores. Be realistic about how much you can get done by yourself.

    • Learn to put your needs first sometimes. It is OK to say "no" when people demand your time or attention. Ask yourself, "Do I need to pay attention to this person right now? Can it wait for a time that is better for me?"

    • Manage tasks. Set realistic goals for yourself. You may find it helps to make a list of things you need to get done. Then do the most important things first. Slow down and focus on one task at a time. Having a clean home or work area may help you feel less stress as you do your work.

  • Not all stress can be avoided. The best way to deal with stress that you cannot avoid is to change how you react to it. The following are some things you can do to cope with stress.

    • Live a healthy lifestyle.

      • Change your diet. Eat healthy foods from all of the five food groups: fruits, vegetables, breads, dairy products, meat and fish. Eating healthy foods may help you feel better and have more energy. You may feel better and sleep better if you avoid foods and drinks that have caffeine. Examples of things that have caffeine include coffee, some teas, colas, and chocolate. Ask your caregiver for more information about planning a healthy diet.

      • Take time to exercise. Begin a regular exercise program to decrease tension and feelings of stress. Something as simple as walking 20 minutes a day, three to four days a week can help. Exercising also makes the heart stronger, lowers blood pressure, and keeps you healthy. Talk to your caregiver before you start exercising. Together you can plan the best exercise program for you.

      • Do not drink alcohol or overuse over-the-counter or prescription medicines. Drinking alcohol can cause sleep problems, depressed feelings, and increases stress. Taking too much medicine, even if it is over-the-counter medicine, can cause serious health problems.

    • Have a positive attitude. Try to stop yourself when you think negative, angry, or discouraging thoughts. If you have problems controlling negative thoughts, tell your caregiver. A counselor can teach you ways to think more positively.

    • Learn relaxation techniques. Learn new ways to relax, such as meditation (med-i-TAY-shun), listening to music, or biofeedback. Ask your caregiver for more information about any of these.

    • Pay attention to your breathing. When you are tense, you may take shallow breaths or hold your breath without knowing it. It may help to do deep breathing during times of increased stress. To do this, sit up straight and take a slow, deep breath in through your nose. Then, breathe out slowly through your mouth. Take twice as long to breathe out as you do when you breathe in. Repeat this a few times until you feel calmer or more focused.

    • Relax your muscles. Stress often causes muscle tightness, especially in the shoulders and the neck. Simple exercises can help relieve this tension. Tighten and relax the muscles of one body area at a time. Shrug your shoulders up to your ears. Try to tighten your muscles as much as possible while you do this. Then, completely relax your shoulders. Do this a few times, then move on to another area of the body. Also, stand up and stretch at least once an hour as you do your daily work. Ask your caregiver for more information about muscle relaxation exercises.

    • Talk it out. No one can handle stress by themselves all of the time. Talk to someone about things that upset you. This person can be a trusted friend, a family member, or a caregiver. Tell your caregiver if you are having trouble coping with stress. Join a support group if you have a major health problem that is causing you stress.

    • Above all, listen to your body. If you are feeling the effects of stress, talk to your caregiver. This is especially important if you have other health problems.

For more information: For more information about coping with stress, contact the following organizations:

  • National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Public Information & Communication Branch
    6001 Executive Boulevard, Room 8184, MSC 9663
    Bethesda , MD 20892-9663
    Phone: 1- 301 - 443-4513
    Phone: 1- 866 - 615-6464
    Web Address:
  • American Psychiatric Association
    1000 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 1825
    Arlington , VA 22209
    Phone: 1- 703 - 907-7300
    Phone: 1- 888 - 357-7924
    Web Address:


You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2014 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

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