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Stress is the brain’s response to demands for change. Not only is stress unavoidable, it can also lead to life-saving actions (such as running away from dangerous situations). Chronic stress (stress that doesn’t go away), however, could seriously affect your physical and mental health.

Physical changes caused by stress

When you experience stress, it triggers the release of nerve chemicals and hormones. This leads to physical changes, including the following:

  • Quickened pulse
  • Faster breathing
  • Tenser muscles
  • An immune system boost

Stress-related health problems

Problems arise when your body keeps pumping out these stress chemicals and hormones. This can affect your immune system, digestive system, and reproductive system and can lead to the following:

  • Recurring or resistant viral infections, such as the flu and common cold
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Depression
  • Diabetes
  • Painful sex
  • Stress can exacerbate other conditions such as chronic pain and migraines.

Types of stress

There are different kinds of stress, which can pose threats to your physical and mental health:

  • Everyday stress related to the pressures of work, family and other daily responsibilities
  • Stress caused by sudden negative change, such as divorce or losing a job
  • Traumatic stress, which can be brought about by an event such as war, a major accident or natural disaster

Stress symptoms

Stress symptoms include the following:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Increased alcohol and other substance use
  • Easily angered
  • Feeling depressed
  • Low energy

How can I get help for stress?

How you get help depends on your level of stress. If you are experiencing the following, talk to your primary care doctor or seek help from a mental health professional immediately:

  • Feeling overwhelmed or unable to cope
  • Using alcohol or drugs to decompress
  • Having suicidal thoughts

These doctors can help you address other symptoms of stress as well (e.g., difficulty sleeping, low energy). If you seek help from your primary doctor first, he or she may refer you to other specialists depending on your symptoms.