Stress is a feeling of emotional or physical tension. It can come from any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or nervous.
Stress is your body's reaction to a challenge or demand. In short bursts, stress can be positive, such as when it helps you avoid danger or meet a deadline. But when stress lasts for a long time, it may harm your health.
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Stress is a normal feeling. There are two main types of stress:
Acute stress. This is short-term stress that goes away quickly. You feel it when you slam on the brakes, have a fight with your partner, or ski down a steep slope. It helps you manage dangerous situations. It also occurs when you do something new or exciting. All people have acute stress at one time or another.
Chronic stress. This is stress that lasts for a longer period of time. You may have chronic stress if you have money problems, an unhappy marriage, or trouble at work. Any type of stress that goes on for weeks or months is chronic stress. You can become so used to chronic stress that you don't realize it is a problem. If you don't find ways to manage stress, it may lead to health problems.
STRESS AND YOUR BODY
Your body reacts to stress by releasing hormones. These hormones make your brain more alert, cause your muscles to tense, and increase your pulse. In the short term, these reactions are good because they can help you handle the situation causing stress. This is your body's way of protecting itself.
When you have chronic stress, your body stays alert, even though there is no danger. Over time, this puts you at risk for health problems, including:
If you already have a health condition, chronic stress can make it worse.
SIGNS OF TOO MUCH STRESS
Stress can cause many types of physical and emotional symptoms. Sometimes, you may not realize these symptoms are caused by stress. Here are some signs that stress may be affecting you:
Diarrhea or constipation
Frequent aches and pains
Lack of energy or focus
Stiff jaw or neck
Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
Use of alcohol or drugs to relax
Weight loss or gain
The causes of stress are different for each person. You can have stress from good challenges and as well as bad ones. Some common sources of stress include:
Getting married or divorced
Starting a new job
The death of a spouse or close family member
Getting laid off
Having a baby
Having a serious illness
Problems at work
Problems at home
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call a suicide hotline if you have thoughts of suicide.
Call your health care provider if you feel overwhelmed by stress, or if it is affecting your health. Also call your provider if you notice new or unusual symptoms.
Reasons you may want to seek help are:
You have feelings of panic, such as dizziness, rapid breathing, or a racing heartbeat.
You are unable to work or function at home or at your job.
You have fears that you cannot control.
You are having memories of a traumatic event.
Your provider may refer you to a mental health care provider. You can talk to this professional about your feelings, what seems to make your stress better or worse, and why you think you are having this problem. You may also work on developing ways to reduce stress in your life.
Fred K. Berger, MD, addiction and forensic psychiatrist, Scripps Memorial Hospital, La Jolla, CA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.