Stress 101
Woman with a surfboard looking at the ocean

Fight or flight. It’s a biological response hard-wired into humans to help deal with a threat or challenge. When you encounter stress, hormones race through your body to help you either confront the threat (fight) or avoid it (flight).

You are probably familiar with ways your body reacts under stress — a quicker pulse, faster breath, tensed muscles, and sweaty palms. These are all responses aimed at helping you respond to a perceived "threat" — even if it's just your cat jumping on you in the middle of the night to say hello. When the threat is over, the hormones subside, and the body relaxes.

Sometimes, stress helps. It can push you to meet an important work deadline or complete a road race. But stress over longer periods of time can be harmful to your physical and mental health.

Who experiences stress?

You can’t avoid stress completely — everyone experiences it sometimes. There are common sources of stress, like the normal demands of work, family, school or other responsibilities. Then there are more stressful life events like losing a job, breaking up with a partner, or having a serious illness. Trauma can also cause stress, like a natural disaster or a serious accident.

When is stress harmful?

When you are stressed for long periods of time, it can be harmful. With chronic stress, you might experience:

  • Physical symptoms including stomach aches, headaches, or body aches.

  • Emotional symptoms including feeling anxious, irritable or having difficulty concentrating.

Stress can really take a toll on you. It can make your shoulders tense and your head ache. You might toss and turn at night, even when you feel exhausted. You might skip working out, or reach for unhealthy coping mechanisms like junk food or alcohol.

Over time, chronic stress can contribute to serious health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and mental disorders.

Are you reading these symptoms and nodding? Can you relate to some of these signs of stress? Well, there's good news: recognizing that you are stressed is the first step to being able to manage it better. Next, adding activities to your day such as exercise, mindfulness and even getting better sleep can help you address the harmful effects of stress.

Address your stress in the moment

There are things you can do to tackle stress in the moment:

  • Take a few deep breaths. It sounds silly, but deep breathing really can help reduce in-the-moment stress. Want to give it a go? One simple strategy is doubling the length of your exhale. For example, count out a two-second inhale, and a four-second exhale. Focus on your breathing, and take it slow and steady. You will quickly see your mind and body respond.

  • Practice some kind self-talk. When you’re stressed, it seems like even the thoughts inside your head get loud. If your inner voice is screaming, “I can’t do this!” try to think positive, calming thoughts: “It's OK to be nervous. Let me give this a go.

  • Call someone. You probably have family, friends or colleagues who you trust with your emotions. Venting to someone can help you plan how to act or gain a new perspective, or just get something off your chest.

Add a stress-busting activity to your routine

You can also do activities that will help build up resiliency to stress over time.

Regular exercise can boost your mood and reduce stress. It doesn’t have to be a grueling sweat session — just leash up the dog, put the baby in the stroller, or simply lace your shoes up and take a short walk.

Relaxation methods such as mindfulness, meditation, breathing exercises or yoga can help boost your mood.

Positive thinking can help you when the chips are down. Mistakes happen and everyone has bad days. Practicing positive self-talk can help you develop more compassion for yourself and put things in perspective.



Reviewed by Kaiser Permanente Clinical Ambassadors, including Mark Dreskin, MD, Sharon Smith, LPC, and/or David Kane, LCSW. September 2018. 

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. 

Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage, Summary Plan Description or other coverage documents. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.