The first step in dealing with stress: Knowing the signs

Taking action now can prevent future health problems

Illustration of woman meditating while work items are being thrust at her


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April is National Stress Awareness Month—a perfect time to take stock of how the common condition may be affecting your life.

Not all stress is bad. But chronic stress can lead to health problems, including serious conditions such as heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, and depression. Preventing and managing ongoing stress can lower your risk.

You can prevent or reduce stress by planning ahead, deciding which tasks need to be done first, and preparing for stressful events.

Some stress is hard to avoid. You can find ways to manage stress by noticing when you feel stressed, taking time to relax, getting active and eating healthy, and talking to friends and family.

The basics: Signs and health effects

Stress is different for everyone. When you're under stress, you may feel worried, angry, irritable, depressed, or unable to focus. You may have headaches, back pain, problems sleeping, upset stomach, weight gain or loss, tense muscles, frequent or more-serious colds.

The basics: Causes of stress

What causes stress? Change is often a trigger, even if it's positive, such as having a baby or getting a job promotion. Stress can be short- or long-term.

Some common causes are needing to do a lot in a short amount of time; experiencing many small problems in the same day, such as a traffic jam or running late; getting lost; or having an argument.

Among common causes of long-term stress are problems at work or at home, money problems, caring for someone with a serious illness, chronic illness, or death of a loved one.

The basics: Benefits of lower stress

Over time, chronic stress can lead to health problems. Managing stress can help you sleep better, control your weight, get sick less often, feel better faster when you do get sick, have less neck and back pain, be in a better mood, and get along better with family and friends

Take action: Plan and prepare

Being prepared and feeling in control of your situation might help lower your stress. Follow these nine tips for preventing and managing stress: Plan your time. Think ahead about how you are going to use your time. Write a to-do list and figure out what's most important—then do that thing first. Be realistic about how long each task will take. Prepare yourself. Prepare ahead of time for stressful events such as a job interview or a hard conversation with a loved one. Picture what the situation will look like and what you will say. Stay positive. Have a backup plan.

Take action: Relax

Deep breathing and meditation are two ways to relax your muscles and clear your mind. Find out how easy it is to use deep breathing to relax. Try meditating for a few minutes today. Relax your muscles to lesson tension. Try stretching or taking a hot shower.

Take action: Get active

Regular physical activity can help prevent and manage stress. It also can help relax your muscles and improve your mood. Aim for two hours and 30 minutes a week of physical activity, exercising for at least 10 minutes at a time. Try going for a bike ride or taking a walk. Do strengthening activities—like crunches or lifting weights—at least two days a week.

Take action: Food and alcohol

Give your body plenty of energy by eating healthy foods, including vegetables, fruits, and lean sources of protein. Avoid using alcohol or other drugs to manage stress. If you choose to drink, drink only in moderation: no more than one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men.

Take action: Get support

Stress is a normal part of life, but if it doesn't go away or gets worse, you may need help, whether it's by telling friends and family or seeking professional help.

Over time, stress can lead to serious problems. If you are feeling down or hopeless, talk to a doctor about depression. If you are feeling anxious, find out how to get help for anxiety. If you have lived through an unsafe event, find out about treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

A mental health professional, such as a psychologist or social worker, can help treat these conditions with talk therapy (called psychotherapy) or medicine.

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