We all experiences stress. It’s a natural way for the brain and body to react to challenges or demands, and it’s not always a bad thing. Sometimes stress can help us focus and complete a task or take a step to protect ourselves or others. It’s when stress is frequent and intense that it can cause trouble, by straining the body and making it impossible to function. Finding effective ways to manage stress is crucial to living well and maintaining good mental and physical health.

Stress Vs. Anxiety

Stress is the response—physical or mental—to an external cause, which can be a one-time, short-term, or long-term occurrence. Anxiety is the body’s reaction to stress, which occurs whether or not there is a current threat.

Image: National Institute of Mental Health

When you feel enduring stress that feels unmanageable and disrupts you in your everyday life, you could be at risk for an anxiety disorder. More on anxiety disorders here.

How Stress Affects Us

Stress affects your entire body, mentally as well as physically. Some common signs include:

  • Headaches, body pains, stomach problems, and skin rashes
  • Difficulty sleeping or nightmares
  • Jaw pain
  • Changes in appetite, energy, desires, and interests
  • Frequent mood swings
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Feeling fear, anger, sad, worried, numb, overwhelmed or frustrated
  • Worsening of chronic health problems
  • Worsening of mental health conditions
  • Increased use of tobaccoalcohol, and other substances

When experiencing long-term stress, your brain is exposed to increased levels of a hormone called cortisol. This exposure weakens your immune system, making it easier for you to get sick. Stress can contribute to worsening symptoms of mental health conditions. For example: in schizophrenia, it can encourage hallucinations and delusions; in bipolar disorder, it can trigger episodes of both mania and depression. Knowing what situations cause stress is the first step in coping with this very common experience.

When We Are Most Vulnerable to Stress

People are most susceptible to stress when they are:

  • Not getting enough sleep
  • Not having a network of support
  • Experiencing a major life change such as moving, the death of a loved one, starting a new job, having a child or getting married
  • Experiencing poor physical health
  • Not eating well

We all have our own threshold. Certain things that may upset you might not even make one of your friends raise an eyebrow. Some people are affected when they experience large crowds and noisy environments, while others react to silence and free time.

Ways to Reduce and Manage Stress

Developing a personalized approach to reducing stress can help you manage your mental health condition and improve your quality of life. Once you’ve learned what activates your stress response, you can experiment with coping strategies. To begin, learn what causes you to feel stressed and how you are affected by it. What situations make you feel physically and mentally agitated? How does it make your mind and body feel when you’re stressed. Once you know more about what stresses you and how you react, you can take steps to avoid stressful situations when that’s a reasonable option, and to cope when you need to face it head-on.

Next, take care of your physical and mental health and practice self-care. Some suggestions:

Manage your time. Prioritizing your activities can help you use your time well. Making a day-to-day schedule helps ensure you don’t feel overwhelmed by everyday tasks and deadlines.

Practice relaxation. Deep breathing, meditation and progressive muscle relaxation are good ways to calm yourself. Taking a break to refocus can have benefits beyond the immediate moment.

Exercise daily. Schedule time to walk outside, bike or join a dance class. Whatever you do, make sure it’s fun. Daily exercise naturally produces stress-relieving hormones in your body and improves your overall physical health.

Set aside time for yourself. Schedule something that makes you feel good. It might be reading a book, go to the movies, get a massage or take your dog for a walk. Find out more in our self-care guide.

Eat well. Eating unprocessed foods, like whole grains, vegetables, and fresh fruit is the foundation for a healthy body and mind. Eating well can also help stabilize your mood.

Get enough sleep. Symptoms of some mental health conditions, like mania in bipolar disorder, can be triggered by getting too little sleep.

Avoid alcohol and drugs. Consuming alcohol and drugs won’t reduce stress: in fact, you might feel worse. If you’re struggling with substance abuse, educate yourself and get help.

Capture your thoughts and feeling in a journal. Recognize negative thoughts and label them. Later, you can  look back at times you were stressed and recognize how much you have overcome. 

Be kind to yourself. Remind yourself that we all experience stress and stressful circumstances. Try to treat yourself as you would a friend telling you what they were experiencing.  

Stay connected and talk to someone. Whether it’s talking to friends, family, a counselor or others in a support group, we can benefit from sharing what we’re feeling and experiencing. Consider attending one of our support groups .

Getting Help

If the steps you’ve taken aren’t helping you manage your stress, it may be time to share what you’re experiencing and feeling with your mental health professional. They can help you pinpoint specific events that activate you and help you create an action plan to change them. Here are tips to finding a mental health professional. If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, call 988.

Stress Survey

Share your voice! What are your biggest stressors? What do you do to manage stress? Answer here.   

More on the Subject

5 Things to Know About Stress (National Institute of Mental Health)

Stress vs. Anxiety Fact Sheet (National Institute of Mental Health)