stressed man

Given time, stress can take a toll on your physical health.

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How Stress Works Overview

Emotional stress can come from a variety of sources -- from too much work at the office to the death of a loved one. Sometimes stress is self-imposed, such as when we put pressure on ourselves to perform perfectly in every situation. Other times, stress comes from the outside, and we have no control over it. Regardless of its origins, however, stress can take a serious toll on body, mind, and soul.

You can't avoid stress -- it's everywhere. However, as this article will show, you can learn how to control your responses to stress and prevent it from controlling your life and damaging your health and well-being. Your emotional and mental health are every bit as important as your physical well-being. Find out how you can take as good care of your mind as you do of your body in the following sections:

The Effect of Stress on Physical Health

Though stress is a purely mental phenomenon, it can have some very serious and real effect on your physical health. In this section, we will examine all of the ways that stress affects your body. For instance, in some cases, the stress can be a positive response. Unfortunately, most of the time stress can be harmful to you.

How to Identify Stress Triggers

The first step in eliminating stress from your life is figuring out what is causing the emotion. This may sound simple, but the causes of stress, or stressors, are so intimately tied to our day-to-day life that we may not perceive how they are aggravating us. On this page, we will show you the various types of stressors and help you identify them in your own life. We will also help you list your stressors and categorize them by severity.

How to Reduce Stress

On this page, we will help you deal with your three types of stress -- those you can eliminate, those you can reduce, and those you can cope with. While the stressors you can eliminate or cope with essentially take care of themselves, it's the stress you need to reduce that causes real problems. We will offer you some tips to organize your life and remove some of the stressors that are adding to your frustration. Finally, we will offer you some suggestions that may help you relax when you are feeling stressed out.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.­

How Stress Works

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. Chronic stress over time can have lasting health effects.

The Effect of Stress on Physical Health

With the fast-paced, high-pressure lives that many of us lead, full of hefty job and family responsibilities, it's no wonder that we sometimes feel stressed to the limit and out of control of our lives. We all have to live with stress, but if not reined in, it can profoundly affect both mind and body. Fortunately, you can gain control of your life, slow things down, and curb stress.

Stress doesn't just arise from unpleasant, aggravating events. Positive happenings like getting married, starting a new job, being pregnant, or winning an election can also tense us up.

Stress isn't all bad, either. In fact, it protects us in many instances by priming the body to react quickly to adverse situations. This fight-or-flight response helped keep human beings alive when their environment demanded quick physical reactions in response to threats.

The problem in modern times is that our body's stress response is regularly triggered even though our lives are not in danger. Chronic exposure to stress hormones can damage the body.

Everything from headaches, upset stomach, skin rashes, hair loss, racing heartbeat, back pain, and muscle aches can be stress related.

The perception of stress is highly individualized. What jangles your friend's nerves may not phase you in the least, and vice versa. In other words, what matters most is not what happens to you, but how you react to what happens to you.

The Health Effects of Stress

It is now considered a well-established fact that psychological stress can be a trigger or important factor in a variety of physical symptoms and diseases processes. There is abundant evidence of this link in the medical literaure as well as in current medical practices. For example:

  • Medical research suggests that up to 90 percent of all illness and disease is stress-related, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Evidence shows chronic stress can lower immunity and make people more susceptible to infections. Conversely, stress-reduction strategies, such as meditation, relaxation, and exercise, have been shown to help reverse this effect (by increasing the number of infection-fighting T cells and feel-good chemicals called endorphins in the body, for example) and prevent disease.
  • Stress has been shown to contribute to the development of heart disease and high blood pressure. As a result of those findings, most heart programs incorporate stress management and exercise, and stress reduction now plays a very prominent role in both the treatment and prevention of cardiovascular diseases.
  • Skin doctors have found that many skin conditions, such as hives and eczema, are related to stress.
  • Stress is thought to be a common cause of everyday aches, pains, and health problems, such as headaches, backaches, stomachaches, diarrhea, sleep loss, and loss of sex drive. Stress also appears to stimulate appetite and contribute to weight gain.

The best way to reduce the amount of stress in your life and avoid these possible health risks is to identify the stress triggers in your life. In the next section, we will explain what a stress trigger is and how you can spot one.

­ This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

How Stress Works

Flying could be an enormous stressor for one individual and actually be a pleasurable experience for the next.

©2006 Publications International, Ltd.

How to Identify Stress Triggers

We all experience stress for different reasons. And a situation that makes one person want to run for the hills may be a minor inconvenience or even an invigorating challenge to another. The first step in conquering your personal stressors, or stress inducers, is to identify them.

Stressors usually fall into the following categories:

  • Emotional stressors, which can also be thought of as internal stressors, include fears and anxieties (such as worries about whether you'll be fired or whether you'll make a good impression on a blind date) as well as certain personality traits (such as perfectionism, pessimism, suspiciousness, or a sense of helplessness or lack of control over one's life) that can distort your thinking or your perceptions of others. These stressors are very individual.
  • Family stressors can include changes in your relationship with your significant other, financial problems, coping with an unruly adolescent, or experiencing empty-nest syndrome. 
  • Social stressors arise in our interactions within our personal community. They can include dating,  parties, and public speaking. As with emotional stressors, social stressors are very individualized (you may love speaking in public, while your colleague shakes in his boots at the mere suggestion).
  • Change stressors are feelings of stress related to any important changes in our lives. This may include moving, getting a new job, moving in with a significant other, or having a baby.
  • Chemical stressors are any drugs a person abuses, such as alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, or tranquilizers.
  • Work stressors are caused by the pressures of performing in the workplace (or in the home, if that is where you work). They may include tight deadlines, an unpredictable boss, or endless family demands.
  • Decision stressors involve the stress caused by having to make important decisions, such as the choice of a career or a mate.
  • Phobic stressors are those caused by situations you are extremely afraid of, such as flying in airplanes or being in tight spaces.
  • Physical stressors are situations that overtax your body, such as working long hours without sleep, depriving yourself of healthy food, or standing on your feet all day. They may also include pregnancy, premenstrual syndrome, or too much exercise.
  • Disease stressors are the products of long- or short-term health problems. These may cause stress (say, by preventing you from being able to leave your bed), be triggered by stress (such as herpes flare-ups), or be aggravated by stress (such as migraine headaches).
  • Pain stressors can include acute pain or chronic pain. Like disease stressors, pain stressors can cause stress or be aggravated by stress.
  • Environmental stressors include noise, pollution, a lack of space, too much heat, or too much cold.

Using the above list as a reference, write down and note which category the main stressors in your life fall into. You may even find that some of your stressors fall into more than one of these categories.

There are probably items on your list of stressors you can let go of, however. If having to clean the entire house on your day off every week is preventing you from having any leisure time, perhaps you can fit a cleaning service into your budget. If ironing shirts is keeping you up late at night, send them to the cleaners instead. If these seem like luxuries you can't afford, try to reorganize your budget a bit. Remember, your time is valuable, too.

Reducing the strength of your stressors is usually a more viable option than eliminating them entirely. For example, if you are having trouble concentrating on your work because of loud noise in the office, consider buying a pair of earplugs. If your morning trip to work forces you to drive two hours in heavy traffic every day, try another option such as mass transit or carpooling and bring along the morning paper, a good book, or a CD player or IPOD loaded with favorite music.

Coping is no doubt your only option for the majority of the items on your list of stressors. However, this doesn't have to be as hopeless as it sounds. There are several techniques for learning to stay calm and clearheaded under pressure. As you master them, even your biggest stressors will pose less and less of a threat.

Go back through your list of stressors and mark an E for each item you can eliminate, an R for each stressor you can reduce the strength of, and a C for each item you can learn to cope with. For the items marked with an E or an R, jot down any ideas you have on how to accomplish these goals (for example, sending shirts to the cleaners or buying earplugs).

Now that you've identified and organized your stressors, it's time to start learning how to deal with them. We will show you how to reduce the stress in your life in the next section.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider. ­

How Stress Works

How to Reduce Stress

You will need your list of stress triggers that you made on the last page to take advantage of the advice on this page. In this section, we will show you what to do about the triggers you've categorized.

The E-List

Once you've categorized your list of stressors into Es, Rs, and Cs, you're ready to get busy. Start by separating out your E-list -- the list of stressors you've decided you can eliminate from your life. Take a good look at this new list. As you do, inhale deeply through your nose and exhale slowly through your mouth. If you're like most people, you should already be feeling somewhat better.

If you've got a short E-list, consider the following ways to add items:

  • Is your working environment (or your boss) beyond coping with? If possible, make a note to start preparing your resume and looking for a new job.
  • Is caffeine making you jumpy? Make a commitment to gradually reduce and then eliminate your intake of caffeinated tea, coffee, and soda.
  • Are you losing sleep because you're awakened every morning by the noise of a newly opened airport in your neighbourhood? If you've tried earplugs but don't get relief, consider finding a new place to live.

The goal of this exercise is to be as creative as possible without being extreme. There's no harm in taking a strong stand on issues that have a considerable effect on your sanity. The trick is to measure the impact of your stressors and weigh the costs of eliminating them against the toll they take on your health and well-being.

The R-List

Like the E-list, the R-list is about controlling the external forces that repeatedly get the better of you. Although the E-list offers instant gratification by literally erasing your worries, the R-list requires a bit more creativity. It is about reorganizing and reprioritizing. It is about making some unavoidable stressors seem more tolerable.

Here are some tried-and-true R-list techniques:

Invest in an appointment organizer.

When you have so much to do and so little time to do it, it's easy to feel overwhelmed. It can't clear your schedule for you, but an appointment diary, an electronic organizer, or a simple pocket-size date book can help ease the stress of having to remember what you're supposed to be doing within the next 15 minutes. And for some people, being able to glance quickly at the day's priorities can offer reassurance and a sense of direction and control.

Discover the underrated art of making lists. In addition to keeping a daily, weekly, and monthly schedule, list-making can help clear an overly cluttered mind. While some people find lists a bit compulsive, others find that they help ease the strain of trying to remember everything or the stress that can come with forgetting things.

The idea is to take worries off your mind and put them on a list. There's no need to worry about forgetting something when you know it's safely noted either electronically or on paper.

Once you've created your list, prioritize the tasks on it. If any of the tasks seems too overwge Shelming or too time-consuming for you to ever get through, try breaking it into smaller, discrete, "doable" stages or steps that you can accomplish in the time periods you have available.

If you find making daily or weekly lists helpful, consider trying what the master list-makers do: Maintain two lists--one for short-term tasks you need to do today or this week and a long-term list of goals you need to get done within the month or the year. Call the latter your "in time" list. It can include house- or car-maintenance needs, purchases you need to make, or tasks you need to get done (such as cleaning out the garage). It doesn't matter what you put down, only that you let yourself believe that if it is on the list, you'll take care of it at some point.

Seek gentle compromise. Many stressful situations -- even those that can't be entirely eliminated -- can be eased through negotiation. For example, if you are suffering because your boss is keeping you at work until all hours of the night, try to work out a plan that suits both your needs. Suggest that you are happy to work late one or two nights a week, as long as you can go home on time the rest of the days. If a neighbour's stereo wakes you up at six o'clock every morning, negotiate a time for quiet and a time for noise. You're not getting rid of these stressors, but you are reducing their strength.

Reorganize your life. Once you have started making a schedule and keeping lists, consult them each morning before you start your day. Try to figure out where you can combine tasks in order to reduce the amount of energy it takes to get them done. See if you can put some items off until the weekend, when you'll have larger blocks of time available for running errands. Coordinate tasks, so you can accomplish more at once (such as dropping the dry cleaning off on your way to work and paying the bills while the casserole is in the oven).

Think of every hour that you organize away as an hour that you will be able to spend relaxing. If you organize well enough, you may stop feeling as though you are drowning under the weight of your many responsibilities.

Change your priorities. Whenever you find yourself becoming truly overwhelmed, take five minutes and rank the items on your to-do list in order of importance. Then, proceed from top to bottom. Even if you can't get everything done, at least you can be secure in the fact that you've dealt with the most important ones.

If your list of daily tasks starts to spill over onto the next page and beyond, perform the ranking exercise described above, then draw a cutoff line. Move everything below the line to the next day. And don't panic: Your world will not fall apart if something has to be moved to the following day.

Let Go of the Reins

Trying to be perfect can add greatly to your stress level. If you feel that you have to accomplish everything perfectly, you're sure to feel a lot of pressure. These tips can help you tone down your perfectionism:

Try the "how-important-is-it?" technique. When you find yourself stressed over your house being a bit untidy or because you're running late for an appointment, ask yourself how important it is if you put the cleaning off or show up 10 minutes late. Play out the worst-case scenario in your head (your mother-in-law dropping by and thinking you are a bad housekeeper, your lunch date leaving the restaurant before you arrive).

Sometimes, it really may be important that you perform perfectly. Many times, however, you'll be able to convince yourself the world will understand if you are human. The latter, more forgiving attitude can help reduce your stress level significantly.

Delegate tasks. Many people live by the motto "If you want it done right, do it yourself." This attitude can keep you overwhelmed by leaving you with an overly large volume of work.

How Stress Works

Using the how-important-is-it technique described above, ask yourself what the worst-case situation would be if you delegated a task to someone who performed it poorly or, worse, didn't perform it at all. Then try playing out a more realistic scenario where, perhaps, the person gets the task done, although less perfectly than you would have done.

When you do delegate a task, take steps to reduce possible error by clearly stating your expectations and finding sources of help you trust to carry out your instructions well.

Practice imperfection. This is not to suggest you purposely mess up important projects, but simply that you give yourself a break once in a while. For example, when you're exhausted, save the dishes for tomorrow and go to bed. When you're really overwhelmed, reschedule an appointment or try to rework a deadline. The reduction in your stress level will make you even more productive when you do get a chance to take care of what you've put off.

Set Aside "Me" Time

Feeling stre­ssed is a strong signal from your subconscious mind that something is wrong in your life. Somehow, you are not getting your needs met. More than likely, you're devoting more time to work, meeting other people's needs, or de­aling with a troubling situation (such as the loss of your job or the breakup of your marriage) than you are taking good care of yourself. Even if you must continue to overextend yourself for a certain length of time, it's important to make space for yourself in your busy schedule.

Here are some tips for getting enough "me" time:

Take a lunch break.­ Even if you have a very demanding job, make an effort to schedule a midday break, even if just for 20 minutes or so. Use the time to walk around the block, collect yourself, breathe deeply, and relax. You'll be amazed at how much good a short break can do.

­Don't fill your day. Leave one hour of time unscheduled every weekday and two (or more) hours a day on weeke­nds. Make it a rule and live by it. Everyone needs a little time off.

During your hour, don't pay bills, clean dishes, or sort mail. Take the phone off the hook. Use this time to do relaxing activities: Take a bath, lie down, meditate, read a book, or watch television. Or, if your body needs it, use the time for a healthful activity, such as a brisk walk or some gardening.

Go to bed early. If at the end of the day you feel as if there's still so much left to do, pretend that your day has ended and go to bed early. Once alone, grab a good book or listen to relaxing music with headphones. And don't feel guilty. This is perfectly healthy behaviour.

Vent feelings on paper.­ Keeping a diary of your feelings can be a healthy way to blow off steam. It can also serve as an effective stress "barometer," allowing you to gauge how much pressure you are under and what effect it's having on you. Here are some guidelines for keeping a stress journal:

  • Choose blank pages. Don't buy one of those books that post the date on top of every page. Instead, invest in a free-form notebook of some sort. This way, if you miss writing for many days, you won't feel guilty. Your notebook doesn't need to be anything fancy. Even a spiral bound school notebook works.
  • Take a breath before you plunge in. Before you start to write, spend a few minutes with your eyes closed, trying to get in touch with all the feelings you have at the moment. Are you angry? Tired? Overwhelmed? Relaxed? Sad? Happy? Open your eyes and write down all the feelings that come to mind.
  • Describe the day's events. Write about what led you to have the feelings you have now. This might clue you in to some of the reasons you feel stressed.
  • List any worries you have in the back of your mind. We are not always consciously aware of what is bothering us. Getting it down on paper may give you some insight.
  • Try writing a note of encouragement to yourself. Writing to yourself as though you were writing to a dear friend who needs cheering up can be an effective way to give yourself the support and caring you may be lacking.
  • Draw pictures. Sometimes words may not be adequate to express what you feel inside. At these times, illustrating your feelings may be easier and more helpful.
  • Let it flow. When you feel mentally blocked, try an exercise used in psychology: Simply write whatever comes to mind, even if it seems to start from nowhere or makes little sense. Omit punctuation entirely, if it improves your flow of thought. Don't stop to correct yourself. Just allow one thought to flow freely from another. When you run out of steam, go back and read what you've written. You may be surprised to discover previously hidden clues to your emotional state.
  • Rewrite reality. If a situation left you feeling frustrated or angry during the day, write it down the way it happened. Then try rewriting it with a new ending, the way you would have liked the situation to unfold.
  • Don't allow your journal writing to become yet another chore. If you feel as though writing in your journal is just one more task you have to do before you can go to bed, try another approach. Try to see your journal-writing time as a positive way to let go of the day's stress.


How Stress Works

Picturing a beautiful or peaceful setting may help you relax when you are in a stressful situation.

2006 Publications International, Ltd.

Learn to Relax

One way to lessen the damaging effects of stress is to learn ways to relax, whether through picturing a calming scene in your head, engaging in a favourite hobby, or performing a relaxation exercise. Once you learn a technique that works for you, you can use it before a stressful event. For the most benefit, however, you should set aside at least a few minutes each day to allow your mind and body to unwind.

­Relaxation exercises that release muscle tension can help a lot in coping with stress. To do them, you need to sit or lie down in a quiet, comfortable place where you will not be disturbed. Loosen any tight clothing and remove any jewellery that is uncomfortable.

Your aim is to tighten, th­en relax, muscle groups in sequence, from head to toe. Tightening the muscles increases your awareness of what stored tension feels like. Relaxing the muscles, in turn, lets you feel the difference between being tense and being loose.

Begin with the muscles in your forehead. Tense them by crinkling your forehead; hold this tension for about five seconds; then release the tension. Imagine a wave of relaxation washing through the muscles. Inhale deeply, then exhale, allowing the muscles to relax even further.

Continue the process with your eye muscles by closing your eyes tightly. Work your way down through various muscle groups including your toes. After you are finished, lie still for a minute or two to enjoy that relaxed feeling.

While everyone has to deal with stress to some degree, prolonged stress can have negative health effects. However, if you follow our simple steps, you should be able to make your life more tranquil.  See the next page to learn more about stress and related health topics.