These days, it can sometimes seem as if "stress" is a synonym for "life." (Can you say international pandemic?!) From worrying about whether your kids are safe or whether you can travel (or eat out), to a boss piling on yet another deadline, to a suddenly sick family member, it’s all too easy to shift from chilled out to stressed out — that overwhelmed, slightly sweaty, breathless feeling that makes it hard to think and function effectively (and that ups the chances you’ll snap at whomever happens to be in your vicinity).
“Stress is becoming more and more a part of everyday life,” says Alka Gupta, MD, the codirector of the Integrative Health and Wellbeing program at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City. It’s likely that just checking the news on your phone can be enough to get your heart pounding — and not in a good way.
Why We Feel Stressed All the Time
How Much Stress Is Unhealthy?
A little bit of stress can actually be a good thing. Indeed, the body and brain's normal reaction to everyday stress is what allows us to handle daily challenges, such as waking up to an alarm clock in the morning, getting stuck in traffic, or coming home to a birthday surprise.
How Stress Helps Us Survive
Stress can also give you an appropriate awareness of when you’re in danger. "It’s essential to your survival as a human being,” says Jennifer Haythe, MD, a cardiologist and the codirector of the Center for Women’s Cardiovascular Health at NewYork-Presbyterian Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City.
That healthy vigilance relies in part on the body’s fight-or-flight response: When something stressful happens, stress hormones like cortisol course through your body, says Dr. Haythe, amping up your energy and enabling you to, say, get a loved one out of a burning car before you've noticed that you’re injured yourself.
When Stress Turns Unhealthy
But when stress becomes chronic, or when you find that you’re constantly having an outsize reaction to small stressors, that’s when stress can be less than beneficial, and can impact your emotions, cognition, and physical health in a negative way, says Gupta. Stress may even contribute to serious illness down the line, be it heart disease, lowered immunity, or changes in the brain.
But while it’s impossible to banish stress entirely, every one of us can learn coping strategies that help manage its effects. Whether it’s listening to soothing music, dabbing your favorite calming essential oils on your pulse points before bed, or closing your eyes, getting out of your head and having a sensory experience, it’s possible to put stress aside when you need to. Here’s what you need to know to calm your nervous system, keep stressful events in perspective, and continue to feel good, whatever life throws your way.
What Is Stress?
Defining stress is tougher than you may think. While some events are universally considered stressful (a potentially serious illness like COVID-19, a divorce, or a natural disaster, for example), experts say that most stress is actually in the eye of the beholder: What stresses out one person may go unnoticed by another.
“It’s more about your resilience and ability to cope than it is about a particular stressful event,” says Michelle Dossett, MD, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a staff physician at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
What Is the Difference Between Stress and Anxiety?
The words "stress" and "anxiety" are often used interchangeably. Though the symptoms can feel similar, medically they are different. “Sometimes anxiety is triggered by a stressful situation; the two often go hand in hand,” says Dr. Dossett. “But it’s also possible to feel stressed without feeling anxious.”
So what’s the distinction? “Anxiety is more closely associated with consistently worrying or ruminating about things, even when nothing much is going on,” she explains. Sometimes, anxiety can be part of a syndrome known as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), a constellation of symptoms that jangle your nervous system and a condition you may experience even when the outside world is at its calmest. Stress, on the other hand, tends to be a person’s response to a situation or event, like giving a presentation in front of a crowd, says Gupta.
The Most Common Causes of Stress
Certain events are natural stressors (think: the pandemic, a traumatic accident, a cancer diagnosis, a big move, or an unexpected tax payment that’s due). As for the rest of life’s stress-inducers, “it’s really all about interpretation,” says Gupta. “What we see with patients is that some event happens, and based on what the patient has experienced in the past, they’ll react with a certain level of stress and discomfort, or be calm.”
The causes of stress can also feel more amorphous. You may experience stress when you feel that you’ve lost your purpose in life or that you’re not relating to friends or a spouse. “The triggers really vary widely,” she says.
Stress and COVID-19
Stress and Politics, Health, and Violence
The Role of Stress Hormones
“Stress can come from any number of sources, whether relationship issues, actual trauma, or a dialogue in your own head,” says Dossett. “Whatever the cause, your brain has a specific pathway by which stressors get processed, which involves the activation of the hypothalamic, pituitary, and adrenal axis, followed by the release of cortisol, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and other hormones that affect every single organ in your body.” That’s why it’s so important to be able to manage stress effectively, so you can save that all-hands-on-deck response for the situations that really count.
What It Feels Like to Be Stressed, Emotionally and Physically
Why Stress Makes You Tired — and Makes You Drink More
How Stress Affects the Body
Beyond the damage you might do by engaging in unhealthy behaviors, over the long term, stress can have more insidious effects on the body and nervous system. “People who are chronically stressed tend to have an elevated level of the stress hormone cortisol, which causes inflammation,” says Haythe.
“It’s hard to say with absolute certainty that stress directly causes these diseases,” says Dossett. “Usually, there are a number of factors at play. But I do know that people can get high blood pressure in response to stress, or heart arrhythmias; others will have problems in the gastrointestinal tract, like acid reflux or inflammatory bowel disease. I have patients with multiple sclerosis who say that their symptoms started after a particular stressful event,” she says. “Stress may not be the precipitating factor for these illnesses, but it can tip people over the edge.”
Stress and Eating
Healthy Foods for Stress
Instead of reaching for these quick and less-healthy options, consider adding fresh whole foods such as fiber-rich fruits and veggies, fish, nuts, and even dark chocolate to your stress management arsenal. It might also help to put away your phone and focus on eating as a sensory experience. Turn on some soft, soothing music, close your eyes between bites, and savor the textures and flavors to reduce anxiety.
How to Manage Stress and Soothe Your Nervous System
Fortunately, there are many ways to prevent stress from pushing you over that proverbial edge and jangling your nervous system. While it’s important to focus on the basics of good health — getting seven to nine hours of sleep a night, sticking to a healthy, Mediterranean-style diet (fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein), and getting about 150 minutes of cardiovascular exercise every week, Gupta recommends using any technique that “feels natural and enjoyable, and makes sense in your life.”
At the Benson-Henry Institute, Dossett teaches her patients evidenced-based mind-body skills to reduce anxiety, ranging from mindfulness meditation (apps like Headspace and Calm make it easy to learn), yoga, and breathing. Getting social support is also crucial; there’s nothing like calling a sympathetic friend who can talk you down off the ledge, Dosset says.
Even squeezing a stress ball or playing with your child’s fidget spinner can make you feel good, reduce anxiety, or at least momentarily distract you from what stresses you.
“When we’re feeling stressed out, it’s natural to want to withdraw from life, but a more beneficial way of dealing with it is to use coping skills and tools that work for you,” says Gupta, “whether that's problem-solving or focusing on your breathing. Once you have these skills under your belt, you’ll be able to pull through the next stressful situation more easily.”
Resources We Love
These sources and sites offer information that can help you lower stress in your life or deal with unavoidable stressors in a healthier way.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- 5 Things You Should Know About Stress. National Institute of Mental Health.
- Stress. Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder: When Worry Gets Out of Control. National Institute of Mental Health.
- How Stress Affects Your Health. American Psychological Association.
- Stress in America: The State of Our Nation. American Psychological Association.
- Stress and Current Events. American Psychological Association. 2019.
- Stress Tip Sheet. American Psychological Association.
- The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use. Kaiser Family Foundation. August 21, 2020.
- Stress Symptoms: Effects on Your Body and Behavior. Mayo Clinic. April 4, 2019.
- Chronic Inflammation in the Etiology of Disease Across the Lifespan. Nature Medicine. December 5, 2019.
- Why Stress Causes People to Overeat. Harvard Health Publishing. October 13, 2020.
- Stress Management and Emotional Health. Cleveland Clinic. October 24, 2016.