What is stress?

Stress is the body's reaction to a variety of internal and external stimuli. Things that trigger a reaction may include: marriage, divorce, death of a loved one, illness in the family, moving to a new place or city, or changing jobs. Note that happy as well as sad events may trigger stress. It is when your body reacts that you notice the symptoms of stress. Stress can trigger negative and positive reactions. In a situation where you strive for perfection, constantly putting pressure on yourself to achieve you may suffer a negative stress reaction. On the brighter side, you may be motivated or become highly productive and achieve more than you otherwise would.

Why is stress harmful?

Stress becomes harmful when it produces physical reactions. Your body will release hormones and chemicals that accelerate your heart, lungs, muscles, or other organs. This response may be protective such as an adrenaline rush helping you get through a time of danger. This reaction subsides after a short period of time. If you are stressed for long periods of time and chemicals/hormones are continually released into your bloodstream, it creates wear and tear on the mind-body connection.

What events might trigger a stress reaction?

The following examples of life changing events were taken from a stress assessment called the "Holmes and Rahe Scale." The most stressful events are highest on the list.

  • Death of a close family member or friend
  • Unfaithful spouse
  • Major financial difficulties
  • Loss of employment
  • Marital separation or divorce
  • Pregnancy
  • Lawsuit
  • Serious illness in the family
  • Major personal illness
  • Important exam
  • Change in working conditions
  • Moving to another city

Other traumatizing events include such natural disasters as floods, fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, terrorism, or a homicide in your community.

How does my body react to stress?

See the lists at Stress: Signs and Symptoms.

How do I assess my stress level?

The following self quiz may help you to identify some of the signs of stress in your life or those around you.

  • Do you find it hard to relax and have fun?
  • Are you easily irritated?
  • Do you find it hard to sleep at night?
  • Do you feel overburdened by responsibility?
  • Do you experience physical signs of stress (nervous stomach)?
  • Have you lost interest in relationships or sex?
  • Are you able to perform your job adequately?
  • Have you noticed that you want to smoke or drink alcohol more frequently?

If you answered yes to four of the eight questions, you may want to use some of the following strategies to help you deal with the extra stress in your life.

Common Coping Strategies

This exercise is simple and provides relief from stress. You should do it twice a day preferably before breakfast and after dinner. Take a "breath."

  1. Sit in a comfortable position.
  2. Close your eyes.
  3. Breathe through your nose, becoming aware of your breathing, and as you breathe out, repeat a word or phrase silently to yourself. Keep distracting thoughts from distracting you by concentrating on this one word.
  4. Continue breathing deeply relaxing all your muscles and keep them relaxed.
  5. Continue for 10 to 20 minutes
  6. When you are done, sit with your eyes open for a short period of time before you get up.

Other coping strategies include:

  • active physical exercise
  • get a massage
  • spend time with family, friends, and others who form a supportive group for you
  • take a vacation or find a break from activity
  • find time for spiritual reflection or meditation
  • talk with a counselor