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What's stress and what causes it?

When you feel stressed, your body sends out signals that prepare it for danger. This is called the fight-or-flight response. Your heart beats faster, you breathe faster, your muscles tense, and your mind focuses on what's happening. You may feel as if you have butterflies in your stomach. You're ready to act fast physically, mentally, and emotionally in response to a threat.


But you may feel stress when you're not really in danger. Changes in your life that make you feel out of control or unsure about the future can cause stress, too. These changes can be bad or good and include marriage or divorce, a baby's birth or a loved one's death, injury or illness, job loss, money problems, vacations and holidays, getting a promotion, or moving to a new home.


Is stress always bad?

No. Sometimes, stress can help protect you from danger or meet a challenge by making you aware of a problem. But if stress continues, it can lead to high blood pressure, stomach problems, headaches, problems sleeping, irritability, anxiety, depression, relationship problems, and drug and alcohol abuse.


When should I see my healthcare provider?

You should call your healthcare provider if you feel angry all the time, feel helpless or hopeless, or are hiding your feelings and actions from your family and friends. Also call your healthcare provider if you start hurting other people (for example, hitting, slapping, or verbally abusing your family or friends), drinking more than usual to make yourself feel better, having anxiety attacks (your heart rate goes up, you have trouble breathing, and you feel dizzy), or avoiding spending time with family and friends. A child under stress may keep getting into trouble, hit friends or pets, or have falling grades.


How can my stress be treated?

Your healthcare provider will determine the best treatment for you based on your symptoms and what's causing your stress. Counseling can help you recognize when you're under stress, learn how to talk about your problems, and decide what you can do to change the situation. Your healthcare provider may prescribe medications to treat problems related to stress, such as high blood pressure and depression.


What can I do to manage stress?

Have regular checkups and take care of yourself. Eat regular meals and cut back on fat and sugar. Exercise regularly and get enough sleep. Take only drugs that have been prescribed for you; don't use other drugs or alcohol to make yourself feel better. Practice deep-breathing exercises to help you relax.


To take care of your mind, set realistic goals and don't take on more than you can handle. Take time out to relax and look for ways to reduce clutter in your life, whether it's from activities or material things. Buy only what you can afford. And when you get sick, slow down. Don't ignore your body's need for rest.


Take care of your emotions, too. Talk about your feelings with people you can trust and spend time with family and friends. Check out stress management classes that may be offered by your employer or in your community.


You'll always have some stress in your life. You can't get rid of it all and you wouldn't want to. Remember that nobody's perfect. Be nice to yourself and ask for help when you need it.