Stress is the body's natural response to threatening situations, and it affects everyone. Stress can be good, like buying a new home, or bad, like mounting debt. Either way, your body and mind react to such situations with a heightened state of readiness, which is called the "fight or flight" response. This reaction causes your brain to make hormones including adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline gives you more energy by increasing your heart rate and blood pressure. Cortisol increases the amount of glucose in your blood and tamps down body functions that might be harmful in a fight or flight situation, such as digestion and reproduction. This can help you perform well on a test or at a sporting event; but it can also:
Your body and mind's response to a stressful event is designed to end when the event is over. But many of the things that cause stress, such as work, family, and relationships, go on for a long time, increasing the risk of chronic stress. Stress becomes chronic when your body does not shut off its stress response, so you are always in a heightened state of readiness. This affects your immune system and can lead to mental and physical health problems.
Stress disorders are severe reactions to stress that can happen as a result of trauma, such as witnessing a death, or experiencing serious injury. People with stress disorders feel intense:
Acute stress disorder happens soon after the traumatic event and lasts for a month or less. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) lasts for more than 3 months and may begin within a few days of an event, or may happen later, sometimes as long as 30 to 40 years after an event.
Signs and Symptoms
Stress can cause many symptoms, both physical and mental:
Someone with a stress disorder may have the following signs and symptoms:
What Causes It?
Short-term stress can come from exciting life experiences, such as:
Chronic stress can be triggered by:
Traumas such as war, rape, inappropriate sexual experience, illness, bereavement, or natural disaster may lead to severe stress disorders, such as PTSD.
Who is Most At Risk?
People with the following conditions or characteristics are at a higher than average risk for developing a stress disorder:
What to Expect at Your Provider's Office
If stress interferes with your daily life, talk to your doctor. If you have symptoms associated with a stress disorder, you should see your doctor right away. Your doctor can make a diagnosis and help guide you toward an appropriate treatment.
Your health care provider will do a physical examination, noting if you appear pale, tired, or disoriented. Diagnostic procedures may include:
Using relaxation techniques and maintaining a positive attitude can help you manage stress and prevent it from becoming chronic. Sometimes simply remembering to take deep breaths can help you cope with stressful situations. If you are dealing with ongoing stressful situations, it is important to take care of your health by:
In the case of stress disorders, crisis intervention can help prevent PTSD from developing. Learning to be more assertive and delegating responsibilities may also help.
While symptoms of acute stress usually decrease with time, long-term stress requires a longer and more complex treatment plan. Crisis intervention may provide support, acceptance, and education. Psychotherapy can help people master their fears and overcome negative behaviors, and a type of therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy can help reframe negative thoughts about stressful situations.
Research supports the management of the hormone cortisol, which is released from the adrenal glands when people are under long-term stress. Numerous studies show that regular exercise helps your body and your mind cope with stress. Yoga, in particular, seems to reduce the impact of stress on the body. Meditation has similar affects.
Your health care provider may prescribe the following medications for symptom relief, although none has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for this use:
Benzodiazepines: a group of drugs used to help reduce anxiety that have sedating effects. They take effect quickly, but they can be habit forming and are usually prescribed for short-term use. They may cause drowsiness, constipation, or nausea. DO NOT take these drugs if you have narrow angle glaucoma, a psychosis, or are pregnant. Benzodiazepines include:
Buspirone (BuSpar): an anti-anxiety drug that does not appear to cause drowsiness or dependence. However, you must take it for 2 weeks before feeling any effect. Side effects may include:
Antidepressants: a group of drugs that act on neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) that may be involved in the stress response. Antidepressants sometimes used to treat anxiety and stress include:
Complementary and Alternative Therapies
A comprehensive treatment plan for managing stress may include a range of complementary and alternative therapies. If you take prescription medications or have pre-existing medical conditions, talk to your provider before using complementary and alternative therapies.
Nutrition and Supplements
Although no diet can relieve stress, eating healthy meals helps keep your body well nourished and strong. Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine. Eat more fresh vegetables, whole grains, and fruits. Eat small meals often that contain protein, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats to avoid high and low blood sugar.
These tips can help you maintain a proper diet and stay healthy:
The following nutrients may help specifically with stress, although scientific evidence is lacking:
The use of herbs is a time honored approach to strengthening the body and treating disease. Herbs, however, can trigger side effects and can interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, you should take herbs only under the supervision of a qualified provider.
Herbs are generally available as standardized dried extracts (pills, capsules, or tablets), teas, tinctures, or liquid extracts (alcohol extraction, unless otherwise noted). Mix liquid extracts with your favorite beverage. Dose for teas is 1 to 2 heaping teaspoonfuls per cup water, steeped for 10 to 15 minutes (roots need longer).
The following herbal remedies may provide relief from symptoms:
Few clinical trials have examined the effect of acupuncture on stress. One small study found that acupuncture helped reduce blood pressure levels in people under mental stress. Another study found that auricular (ear) acupuncture successfully reduced anxiety in some people. Because stress can affect a variety of meridians, treatment is based on an individual assessment. Qualified acupuncturists may also recommend lifestyle and dietary counseling and herbal treatment.
No well designed studies have looked at the effect of chiropractic on people with stress, but chiropractors report that spinal manipulation may reduce stress in some people. Spinal manipulation may have a relaxing effect on the body. There is no evidence, however, that spinal manipulation has any greater impact on stress than other physical relaxation techniques, including massage.
An experienced homeopath can prescribe a regimen designed especially for you for treating stress disorder. The following are some of the most common acute remedies:
Acute dose is 3 to 5 pellets of 12X to 30C every 1 to 4 hours until symptoms are relieved.
People with chronic stress or stress disorder are at greater risk of developing other mood or anxiety disorders, or experiencing substance abuse. They are also at higher risk of developing conditions such as:
Suicide is more common among people with a stress disorder.
With lifestyle changes, you can learn to manage chronic stress successfully. People with stress disorders may be treated on an outpatient basis until symptoms get better. In severe cases where there is a concern about self abuse or suicide, the person may be referred for treatment on an inpatient basis.
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Review Date: 12/9/2014
Reviewed By: Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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