January 19, 2023

Understanding stress and how to manage it

A Kaiser Permanente psychiatrist shares advice for coping when stress won't go away and becomes problematic.

Meditation and spending time with family and friends can help lower your stress levels.

Stress is a fact of life for many people in our fast-paced, high-pressure world — but it doesn’t have to run our lives. How we manage stress can affect our total health, the well-being of the people we care about, and our work environments, too.

Every day is a great day to be aware of good mental health practices and behaviors. It’s important not to sweep stress under the rug and shrug it off altogether. Paying attention to the symptoms of stress can help us understand the reason for our stress and identify potential treatments so that we can get back to managing our lives healthfully.

According to Ashley Zucker, MD, a psychiatrist with Kaiser Permanente in San Bernardino, California, stress is the feeling of being under too much mental or emotional pressure. “Stress is not a medical or mental health condition, but it can lead to medical and mental health conditions and concerns,” said Dr. Zucker. “Stress can be caused by almost anything that impacts your daily life — including work and relationships. Even positive events like having a baby or getting married can be stressful.”

Signs and symptoms of stress

The signs of stress include headaches, stomach problems, muscle tension, irritability, increased worrying, sleeping problems, and more. “Stress is your body’s reaction to help you deal with pressure,” Dr. Zucker explained. “A small amount of stress can be helpful, and it can improve your performance; too much stress can cause negative effects.”

When we are stressed, we are technically turning on our fight or flight response, and our bodies start to release stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. When the stressor goes away, these hormones drop back to normal levels, Dr. Zucker explained.

Stress can cause people to resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as overeating, drinking alcohol, or abusing drugs, which will negatively affect our health. Stress has been linked to heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome, increased blood sugar levels, and more. Seeking treatment may sometimes be necessary.

Healthy ways to cope

“It’s important to manage your stress when it’s too high or goes on for a long period of time,” Dr. Zucker emphasized. “Things that you can do to help lower your stress levels include exercising, meditating, relaxing, spending time with friends and family, doing hobbies or activities you enjoy, as well as getting plenty of sleep and eating healthfully.”

Practicing good strategies to help reduce stress can improve your mental and physical health and prevent serious health conditions. Simple coping mechanisms can help you gain control and help run your life the way you want. If you are ready to develop a healthier lifestyle, consider programs offered by Kaiser Permanente’s Center for Healthy Living.