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What is Stress?
Signs of Stress
Causes of Stress
How Stress affects the body
Managing Stress
Test yourself

What Is Stress?

Stress is the emotional and physical strain caused by our response to pressure from the outside world. It's almost impossible to live without some stress. And most of us wouldn't want to, because it gives life some spice and excitement. But if stress gets out of control, it may harm your health, your relationships, and your enjoyment of life.

Examples of "overload" situations are common in today's world:

  • You and your spouse both work full time while you are raising your family. At the same time, your parents are retired, in ill health, and are dependent on your help with shopping and running errands.
  • You are a single person living alone, and your salary isn't rising as fast as the rate of inflation. It's getting harder each month to pay the bills.
  • You are a divorced parent and share the custody of your children with your former spouse. But the friction between the two of you on matters concerning the children is becoming more bitter and more frequent.
  • The expectations and competition at your workplace is becoming fierce. You find yourself coming in early, staying late, and taking on more work than you can handle.
Nice To Know:

Many addictions are linked to a stressful lifestyle, such as overeating, smoking, drinking, and drug abuse. These are used as an escape or a temporary way of "switching off" - but they do not address the underlying problem.


Facts about stress
  • According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, two-thirds of office visits to family doctors are for stress-related symptoms.
  • Almost everyone experiences events that they find difficult to cope with. In a recent poll, 89 percent of people said they had experienced serious stress in their lives.
  • According to one study, middle-aged men under severe stress who lacked emotional support were five times more likely to die within seven years than those who had the same amount of stress but had close personal ties.
  • A recent study indicated that stress-management programs may reduce the risk of heart problems, including heart attack, by up to 75 percent in people with heart disease.
  • Stress-related mental disorders have been called the fastest-growing occupational (work-related) disease in the U.S.

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Signs Of Stress

Stress can cause both mental and physical symptoms. The effects of stress are different for different people.

The mental symptoms of stress include:

  • Tension
  • Irritability
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Feeling excessively tired
  • Trouble sleeping

The physical symptoms of stress include:

  • Dry mouth
  • A pounding heart
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Stomach upset
  • Frequent urination
  • Sweating palms
  • Tight muscles that may cause pain and trembling

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What Causes Stress?

We may think of stressful events as unpleasant ones, such as losing a job or having difficulties at home or at school. But changes for the better can also cause stress, like a new baby, a wedding, and a new house.

In an ideal world, maybe we could get away from stressful situations, or change them. Too often we can't do that - but we can learn to control our response to those situations. And we can develop techniques that will reduce the effects of stress on our mental and physical health.

Here are some different life events that are identified as stressful. They are rated on the "Holmes-Raye" scale, which scores them according to the stress they cause (the higher the number, the greater the stress).

  • Death of a spouse - 100 points
  • Divorce - 73 points
  • Marriage - 50 points
  • Pregnancy - 40 points
  • Buying a house - 31 points
  • Christmas - 12 points
Nice To Know:

Job-related stress is extremely common. According to the Jobs Rated Almanac, the five most stressful jobs are:

  1. President of the United States
  2. Firefighter
  3. Senior corporate executive
  4. Race car driver
  5. Taxi driver

The five least stressful jobs, according to the Jobs Rated Almanac, are:

  1. Medical records technician
  2. Janitor
  3. Forklift operator
  4. Musical instrument repairer
  5. Florist


What's Stressful For You?

What's stressful for you may be quite different from what's stressful to your best friend, your spouse, or the person next door. For example:

  • Some people enjoy speaking in public; others are terrified.
  • Some people are more productive under deadline pressure; others are miserably tense.
  • Some people are eager to help family and friends through difficult times; others find it very stressful.
  • Some people feel comfortable complaining about bad service in a restaurant; others find it so difficult to complain that they prefer to suffer in silence.
  • Some people may feel that changes at work represent a welcome opportunity; others worry about whether they'll be able to cope.
Nice To Know:

Q: Are some people more vulnerable to stress than others?

A: Yes. Personality type plays a role in reaction to stress. For example, people who drive themselves hard and are impatient (sometimes called Type A personalities) may be more at risk for stress-related physical problems. Certain occupations, such as law enforcement or air traffic control, are clearly more stressful than others. In addition, people with a personal or family history of mental illness may be affected more by stress.

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How Does Stress Affect The Body?

To understand what stress does to us, imagine you lived tens of thousands of years ago, at a time when humans were threatened by hungry animals such as saber-toothed tigers and wolves. Our caveman ancestors had to be able to react instantly, either by fighting the beasts or running away.

So humans evolved the ability to respond to a stressful situation instantly, by preparing the body for "fight or flight." Under sudden stress, you will get a burst of exceptional strength and endurance, as your body pumps out stress hormones:

  • Your heart speeds up
  • Blood flow to your brain and muscles increases up to 400 percent
  • Your digestion stops (so it doesn't use up energy that's needed elsewhere)
  • Your muscle tension increases
  • You breathe faster, to bring more oxygen to your muscles

Sometimes we can still benefit from this "fight or flight" response - like the case of a mother whose child was pinned under a concrete slab during a tornado. Under stress, she found the strength to lift the huge slab with her bare hands, even though it later took three men to move it.

But much of the time in modern life, the "fight or flight" response won't help. Yet those stress hormones still flood your system, preparing you for physical action. And if you are under stress frequently, it can harm your physical health.

How Stress Can Hurt Us

It has been estimated that two-thirds of all visits to physicians are for stress-related problems. Recent evidence indicates that the physical changes associated with stress may contribute to the leading causes of death - heart disease and cancer.

The effects of stress include the following:

  • Stress can cause chronic fatigue, digestive upsets, headaches, and back pain.
  • Stress can affect the blood cells that help you fight off infection, so you are more likely to get colds and other diseases.
  • Constant stress can increase blood pressure and can increase the risk for stroke.
  • Stress can increase the danger of heart attacks, particularly if you are often angry and mistrustful.
  • Stress can make an asthma attack worse.
  • Stress triggers behaviors that contribute to death and disability, such as smoking, alcoholism, drug abuse, and overeating.
  • Stress can lead to diminished sexual desire and an inability to achieve orgasm.
  • Stress makes it harder to take other steps to improve health, such as giving up smoking or making changes in diet.

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Managing Stress


Many stress-management experts recommend keeping a sense of humor during difficult situations. Laughing releases muscle tension and helps a person maintain perspective.

Activities as simple as watching a funny movie, listening to a tape of a comedian's routine, or sharing time with a humorous friend can provide a psychological lift and relieve stress.


Regular leisure activities are important in reducing stress. Many people benefit from making time for positive leisure pursuits rather than, for example, spending time watching television in the evening (although that, too, can be relaxing to some degree).

Relaxing hobbies include gardening, painting, bicycling, photography, carpentry, collecting, and many others. In order to obtain the most relaxation and enjoyment, the satisfaction should come in doing the hobby, not in the results. An individual who pursues gardening for relaxation may not grow prize-winning vegetables, but they can be eaten. An amateur photographer may not sell photographs, but they can be admired by friends and family.


Used for many years in Eastern cultures, meditation is becoming more widely accepted in the U.S. as a relaxation technique. Meditation reduces heart rate, blood pressure, adrenalineEpinephrine, the hormone that serves as a stimulant in the body, increasing blood pressure and heart rate, among other roles. levels, and skin temperature.

There are a variety of meditation techniques that share a common goal: to achieve relaxation by clearing the mind of stressful outside interferences. Meditation involves achieving a state of consciousness in which the individual focuses on a single thing, such as a key word, sound, or image.

Meditation techniques rely on quiet surroundings, sitting still, and a repetitive mental pattern. Various techniques are taught in instruction books and through religious and nonreligious organizations.


Biofeedback provides a way for people to learn to control activities over which they normally have no awareness, such as heart rate and muscle tension. It is considered by many health professionals to be a valuable therapeutic tool for reducing stress. Biofeedback involves no discomfort and no risk.

Biofeedback relies on sensitive electronic equipment. Sensors are placed on the body at various locations to measure skin temperature and muscle activity. The sensors are attached to a monitor that detects fluctuations when a person is anxious and displays signals in the form of beeps or light flashes. By watching the monitor, a person learns to control these stressful responses.

Massage Therapy

Massage is the gentle practice of manipulating the body's tissues in order to soothe and heal. It is one of the most ancient of the healing arts, and more people today are relying on it for natural, drug-free relief from the effects of busy, overstressed lives. Massage can relax the entire body and provide new energy that lingers long after the massage is over.

A number of research studies have shown that massage reduces heart rate, lowers blood pressure, increases blood circulation and lymph flow, relaxes muscles, improves range of motion, and increases the production of endorphins, which are the body's own natural painkillers. There are a number of massage therapy techniques, including Swedish massage and Shiatsu.

Massages can be for the full body or particular areas of the body, such as the back and shoulders. Some people choose to wear some clothing during a massage; others prefer to undress or use a dressing gown. During a massage, the person is warmly covered, and only the part of the body on which the therapist is working is uncovered.

Need To Know:

A word about medication

Medication can be useful for dealing with short periods of acute stress, where the anxiety is severe and disabling, to help people regain control and begin coping. It can relieve symptoms temporarily, but it does not address the underlying problem


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What Are Your Personal Signs Of Stress?

People react to stress in different ways. Once you identify your own signs of stress, they can serve as your personal early warning system.

Think of yourself as a car that's equipped with lights and gauges to warn you if any problems are developing. If you keep an eye on the gauges and catch the trouble early, the problem may be easy to fix. If you ignore the warning signs, you may be in for a major repair job.

You should assess yourself for four types of stress signs:

  • Changes in body functions and physical health
  • Changes in emotions and feelings
  • Changes in behavior
  • Changes in thoughts

Use these checklists to identify your own signs of stress. There is space on the checklists for a second opinion, because people close to us may notice changes that we are not aware of.

Changes in body functions and physical health

Do you get more:

Are you having this sign of stress? Has some one else noticed you have this sign?



Muscle tension



Nervous stomach



Breathing problems



Frequent urination










Changes in emotions and feelings

Do you feel more:

Are you having this sign of stress? Has some one else noticed you have this sign?
















Changes in behavior

Are there changes in how much you:

Are you having this sign of stress? Has some one else noticed you have this sign?



Eat (too much or too little)



Want sex (less or more than before)



Drink alcohol



Use drugs




Changes in how you think

Are you finding it harder to:

Are you having this sign of stress? Has some one else noticed you have this sign?
Remember things






Look on the bright side



Do you find yourself feeling:






Now go over the lists, and pick out the signs of stress that you consider the most important - the ones that are really interfering with the way you function and enjoy life. Then mark on the next chart whether they are related to your body, your feelings, your behavior, or your thoughts.

Your main signs of stress:

Sign Body Feelings Behavior Thoughts






























What you've recorded on these charts are your personal early warning signs of stress. When they occur, it's a sign that you should practice relaxation techniques to help keep stress from overwhelming you physically and emotionally.

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