What is stress?
Stress is how your brain and body respond to a challenge or demand. When you are stressed, your body releases chemicals called hormones. The hormones make you alert and ready to act. They can raise your blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar levels. This response is sometimes called a "fight or flight" response.
Everyone gets stressed from time to time. There are different types of stress. It can be short-term or long-term. It can be caused by something that happens once or something that keeps happening.
Not all stress is bad. In fact, it can help you survive in a dangerous situation. For example, one kind of stress is the jolt you may feel when a car pulls out in front of you. This jolt of hormones helps you quickly hit the brakes to avoid an accident. A little short-term stress can sometimes be helpful. For example, the stress of having a deadline for school or your job may push you to get your work done on time. Once you finish it, that stress goes away.
But stress that lasts a long time can harm your health.
What causes long-term stress?
Long-term stress, or chronic stress, lasts for weeks, months, or longer. As you go about your life, your body is acting as if you're being threatened.
Causes of long-term stress include:
- Routine stress from the demands of work, school, family needs, money problems, and other daily pressures that don't stop.
- Stress from sudden, difficult changes in your life, such as divorce, illness, losing your job, or other unhappy life events that often have a long impact.
- Traumatic stress, which may happen when you're in danger of serious harm or death. Examples include being in a bad accident, a war, a flood, earthquake, or other frightening event. This type of stress can cause a long-lasting problem called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
How can long term-stress harm my health?
People respond to stress in different ways. If you're stressed for a long time you may notice that you are:
- Getting sick more often than usual because stress weakens your body's ability to fight germs
- Having stomach problems or trouble digesting food
- Having trouble sleeping
- Having headaches
- Feeling sad, angry, or easily upset
When stress keeps going, your body acts as if you're always in danger. That's a lot of strain that may play a part in developing serious health problems, including:
It's possible to get used to the symptoms of stress and not even realize there's a problem. So when there's a lot of stress in your life, it's important to pay attention to how it affects you so you can do something about it.
How can I manage long-term stress?
Simple things that improve your mental health may be helpful in managing long-term stress, such as:
- Get regular exercise. A 30-minute daily walk can help you feel better and help keep your immune system strong, so you don't get sick.
- Try relaxing activities. You could look for an app or wellness program that uses breathing, meditation, or muscle relaxation exercises.
- Get enough sleep every night.
- Avoid too much caffeine.
- Decide what you need to do now and what can wait. And focus on what you got done each day, not on what you weren't able to do.
- Ask your family or friends for support.
When should I ask my health care provider for help with stress?
Get help if you're having severe symptoms for 2 weeks or more, including:
- Trouble sleeping
- Changes in your eating that cause unwanted changes in your weight
- Troubles getting out of bed because of your mood
- Difficulty focusing your thoughts
- Losing interest in things you usually enjoy
- Not being able to do your usual daily activities
Always get help right away if stress is causing you to:
- Have thoughts of harming yourself
- Feel you can't cope
- Use drugs or alcohol more often than usual
Your health care provider may refer you to a mental health professional such as a psychologist or social worker.
NIH: National Institute of Mental Health
- I'm So Stressed Out! Facts about Stress and Anxiety (National Institute of Mental Health) Also in Spanish
- Manage Stress (Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion)
- Managing Daily Stress (American Academy of Family Physicians) Also in Spanish
- Stress Management: Chronic Stress Puts Your Health at Risk (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research)
- Stress Symptoms: Effects on Your Body and Behavior (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research) Also in Spanish
Treatments and Therapies
- 5 Things To Know About Relaxation Techniques for Stress (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
- Dr. Richard Davidson on Reducing Stress (National Institutes of Health)
- Meditation (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research) Also in Spanish
- Relaxation Techniques: What You Need to Know (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
- Stress Management: Yoga (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research) Also in Spanish
- Building Your Resilience (American Psychological Association) Also in Spanish
- Feeling Stressed? Ways to Improve Your Well-Being (National Institutes of Health) Also in Spanish
- Live Your Life Well (Mental Health America)
- Managing Your Stress in Tough Economic Times (American Psychological Association)
- Stress Management: Being Assertive (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research) Also in Spanish
- Stress Management: Job Stress (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research) Also in Spanish
- Stress Management: Positive Thinking (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research) Also in Spanish
- Stress Management: Prevent Setbacks (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research)
- Stress Management: Stress Basics (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research)
- Stress Management: Stress Relief (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research)
- Adult Health: Discover if You're at Risk of Job Burnout (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research) Also in Spanish
- Coping with Stress at Work (American Psychological Association) Also in Spanish
- COVID-19: Coping with Stress (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) Also in Spanish
- Psychological Stress and Cancer (National Cancer Institute) Also in Spanish
- Stress and High Blood Pressure: What's the Connection? (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research) Also in Spanish
- Stress and Migraine (American Migraine Foundation)
- ClinicalTrials.gov: Stress, Psychological (National Institutes of Health)
Journal Articles References and abstracts from MEDLINE/PubMed (National Library of Medicine)
- Article: "At Least Somebody Sees You as a Hero": Fatherhood Stress and...
- Article: Mediation Effect of Maladaptive Coping between Work-to-Family Conflict and Cardiovascular Health...
- Article: Longitudinal Association of Physical Activity, Mastery and Psychological Distress in Mid-Aged...
- Stress -- see more articles
Find an Expert
- Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration)
- Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist Finder (American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry)
- National Institute of Mental Health Also in Spanish
- Psychologist Locator (American Psychological Association)
- 5 Ways to Beat Pre-Performance Nerves (Nemours Foundation) Also in Spanish
- About Stressful Situations (Nemours Foundation) Also in Spanish
- Feeling Stressed (Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women's Health)
- Getting to Know Your Brain: Dealing with Stress (National Institute of Mental Health)
- Teens and Stress: Who Has Time for It? (American Academy of Family Physicians) Also in Spanish
- Adjustment disorder (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- Help your teen cope with stress (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- Learn to manage stress (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- Overcoming job stress (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- Relaxation techniques for stress (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- Stress and your health (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- Stress and your heart (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish