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“Stress” is a term used to describe how your body reacts to changing, often unpredictable, conditions. Stress-provoking situations may involve anything from caring for an aging parent to dealing with a chronic illness, or from being stuck in heavy traffic to facing a snarling dog. Chronic, prolonged stress can be damaging to almost every physical process and organ in your body, so learning how to deal with stress is important for your physical as well as your mental health.
Most people can cope effectively with temporary stressors in their lives, but people can become overwhelmed by long-term stress, especially when they don’t have the tools to manage stress symptoms in a healthy way.
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Pros and Cons of Stress
Stress plays an evolutionary protective role in human survival—it signals the presence of some type of real or perceived danger. Your body is equipped to handle certain levels of stress.
When you experience stress, your nervous system releases stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Your heart beats faster, your blood pressure increases, and your senses sharpen. Your body automatically knows how to cope with stress, and these responses help you manage acute episodes of stress.
Chronic and prolonged stress, however, is associated with damaging cardiovascular effects, including an increased risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. Too much stress also can lead to digestive problems, endocrine problems (such as diabetes), weakening of the immune system, worsening skin conditions, memory impairment, and depression.
Stress symptoms include irritability, sleeping difficulties, headaches and other physical discomfort and pain, feeling tense and anxious, and having trouble concentrating.
Strategies for Stress
Fortunately, there are numerous approaches for how to deal with stress—how to “de-stress.” One of the simplest, most effective coping strategies is getting regular exercise. Experts recommend that you engage in some form of aerobic exercise several times a week.
Exercise helps boost your stress resilience in several ways: Physical activity helps increase production of brain neurotransmitters called endorphins, which help reduce your perception of pain and stimulate feelings of euphoria. Activities such as tennis or swimming—even hiking, jogging, or walking—also can help take your mind off stressors and whatever may tend to bother you. Focusing on a single task can clear your mind, while the movement of your muscles can help relieve the tension caused by stress.
Exercise also may help you sleep better, which is critical to relieving stress. If you have difficulty falling or staying asleep, pursue good sleep hygiene practices, such as avoiding caffeine late in the day or alcohol near bedtime and staying away from television, computer, and cell phone screens right before trying to sleep. Keep your bedroom dark and cool for optimal sleeping conditions.
More Stress Reduction Tips
Struggling with stress? See these University Health News posts for more advice on how to get past it.
A mental health professional, such as a psychologist, also can teach you how to cope with stress. An approach called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be very effective in addressing negative and maladaptive thoughts and behaviors.
CBT is usually a short-term, goal-oriented form of therapy that explores the relationships between feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. The idea is that if you can change the way you think or feel, your behavior will change as a result.
Finally, never underestimate the value of friends and family in helping you de-stress your life. Having a social support network is key to helping manage stress.
Originally posted in June 2016 and updated.