Helping your body beat stress

Stress can result from major events, both negative and positive: marriage, divorce, the birth of a child, a death in the family, or job changes or pressures. Your body is naturally equipped to deal with a certain amount of stress. But if stress increases and your reserves are low, stress can have a bigger impact.

There are 3 main stages your body undergoes when dealing with a stressful event. Your body will initially mobilize energy by releasing adrenaline and increase your heart and breathing rate. If you remain in the first stage for a while, your body will begin to consume energy stores by releasing sugars and fats. While you may feel more driven, you will also begin to feel pressured, tired, and anxious, and can get sick much more easily. If the stress is still not resolved, then eventually your body will require more energy than it can naturally provide. This can lead to trouble sleeping, mood changes, psychiatric disorders, or heart disease.

Building up your defences is a "long-term" plan for reducing stress. It will also improve your overall health and give you more energy.

To help prepare your body to deal with stress:

  • Make sure you are getting enough sleep. Most people need 7 to 8 hours per night. If possible, get extra sleep before and during periods of increased stress.
  • Eat a balanced, nutritious diet. Good nutrition can improve your ability to handle stress by keeping your immune system strong.
  • Avoid using caffeine, cigarettes, or alcohol as a way of dealing with stress.

It's easy to relax when you're not feeling stressed. It takes a special effort to learn how to relax in a stressful situation. There is no "right way" to relax that works for everyone. Most people use a combination of methods, and find that different situations call for different ways of relaxing. You may need to try several techniques before finding the one that works best for you.

Here are a few things that can help reduce stress:

  • relaxation exercises like deep breathing, meditation, stretching, tai chi, or yoga
  • regular physical activity: try to exercise for at least 150 minutes each week with moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical aerobic activity (e.g., brisk walking, jogging, tennis, bicycling, or swimming); each session should be at least 10 minutes long – the more active you are, the more health benefits you'll see. It is also beneficial to add muscle and bone strengthening activities, in bouts of at least 10 minutes, using major muscle groups, at least 2 days per week.
  • taking part in a favourite hobby, such as gardening, dancing, reading, or listening to music

More than just stress

There are many things you can do on your own to reduce stress and improve your overall health. However, some of the symptoms of stress are very similar to those of depression. Depression is a common disorder that is related to a chemical imbalance in the brain. Fortunately, depression can be treated safely and effectively. It's important to recognize the signs so that you can get treatment.

Signs of depression:

  • feeling "sad" or "blue"
  • losing interest or pleasure in things you used to enjoy
  • sleeping too much or too little
  • having less energy
  • "slowing down" of mental or physical activity
  • gaining or losing weight
  • experiencing changes in your appetite
  • feeling anxious or agitated
  • having trouble concentrating, being indecisive, or having memory loss
  • feeling guilty or worthless
  • having thoughts of death or suicide

Because some signs of depression are similar to those that occur with stress, having some of these signs does not necessarily mean that you have depression. Still, if you have had some of these symptoms, speak to your health care professional. Depression can be effectively treated, and this can go a long way toward helping you reduce stress and feel better.

Stress and illness

Stress is a health problem in itself, but it can also lead to other physical and emotional complications. Stress can indirectly cause other health problems by affecting your behaviour.

Signs that you're under stress may include:

  • unhealthy nutrition – you may skip meals, or overeat, or eat too much of the wrong foods – for instance, sugary and fatty foods
  • dependence on other substances – you may drink too much, smoke, or use medications or street drugs to deal with the stress
  • moody behaviour – you may feel irritable, sad, or guilty, and behave in ways that endanger your physical well-being, from getting into arguments to ignoring traffic lights
  • sleep disturbances – you may not get enough sleep, and lack of sleep reduces the effectiveness of your immune system and further affects your judgment
  • physical inactivity – you may not be motivated to get enough exercise

Stress also acts directly on your emotional health. Chronic stress can lead to anxiety or mood disorders. These can be disabling, can further affect your health, and can even lead to more serious problems that need hospitalization. And the awareness of being anxious or "feeling down" can cause further stress.

And stress directly affects your physical health. The natural stress response is a "fight or flight" situation. As the adrenaline starts pumping, your heart beats faster, your blood flow and blood pressure go up, and you breathe faster. But when you're sitting at your desk or stuck in traffic, all this does is increase the wear and tear on your system. You may get headaches and other aches and pains, nausea, and heart palpitations. Stress may also contribute to conditions such as heart disease, bowel disease, mental illness, and herpes, among others.

So if you're experiencing stress, it's not just a small problem affecting your nerves or your behaviour. It can have very important effects on your health. Be aware of what causes stress for you and watch for the physical signs of stress, and learn how to deal with it. See "Stress-busting tips" and "Helping your body beat stress" in this feature.

Stress-busting tips


Take control of stress with the following tips:



  • Set priorities for yourself. Organize your time so that you do the things that are most important to you first. Let less important things go.
  • Make decisions right away instead of putting them off. Worrying about what decision you have to make can cause unnecessary stress.
  • Identify things that cause you the most stress. Then, look for ways to get around them. For example, if you find traveling stressful, see if you can make a phone call instead.
  • Concentrate on doing one thing at a time. Once you have finished a task, take a moment to let yourself feel good about getting it done. Take a rest if you need it, and then move on.
  • If you are running late, or if you feel overwhelmed, cancel or reschedule your appointments.
  • Learn to say "No." Save your energy for the things that are most important to you.

Get support

  • Don't try to do everything yourself. Ask your friends and family members to help with some of your responsibilities.
  • Talk about your feelings with family and friends. Make sure you take time for social activities and exercise. You'll be more prepared to deal with situations that cause you stress if you've taken time for fun!

Plan ahead

  • Think about which situations cause you stress. Then, plan ahead to minimize or avoid these predictable sources of stress. For example, if waiting in line is stressful for you, bring a book to help pass the time. If you find the morning rush stressful, get up 15 minutes earlier so that you don't feel so rushed.
  • Schedule breaks for yourself throughout the day. This will give you a chance to rest, and will also prevent the stress that comes from getting "behind schedule."