What is stress?

The term “stress” can have many different meanings and can relate to many different things. At times, it is used to refer to environmental events that trigger a bodily reaction. At other times, it is used to describe that reaction itself.

Stress is the body’s natural response to demands. It is usually felt as an urgency or tension. Stress is a natural and, indeed, a necessary part of life. Positive stress can feel exciting and helps you meet your challenges. But prolonged stress can lead to damaging stress reactions that result in psychological and emotional disorders, psychosomatic disorders (a physical disorder whose cause is linked to an emotional state), and even life-threatening diseases.

What are stressor triggers?

There are two types of stressors -- those that reside primarily outside the person and those that are more within the person. Examples of stressors outside the person include economic pressures; rapid technological, social, or personal change; difficult work environments; and interpersonal conflicts. Factors within the individual that influence stress include personality patterns, patterns of thinking and acting, unrealistic expectations, unmet needs, and genetics.

What are the symptoms of stress?

Physical symptoms may include tightened muscles, rapid heart beat, rising blood pressure, grinding teeth, clenched jaws, sleeplessness, clammy hands, perspiration, upset stomach, headaches, back pain, gastrointestinal symptoms, and fatigue. Emotional symptoms include anxiety, depression, nervousness, agitation, irritability, restlessness, nightmares, and substance abuse.

Personal performance may decline in many areas. Interpersonal relationships may deteriorate. There may be an increase in unhealthy habits such as excessive drinking, smoking, or over-eating. Finally, personal health may be compromised. Many diseases are either related to or worsened by stress. Stress has been linked to colitis, high blood pressure, strokes, heart problems, chronic headaches, asthma, skin disorders, and other conditions. Stress may harm one's immune system.

How can I manage stress?

The first step is to recognize stress and realize that it can be managed. Learning an effective means of relaxation and using it regularly is a good first step. Allow yourself some “quiet time,” even if it’s just a few minutes. Examining and modifying your thinking, particularly unrealistic expectations, is another. Behaviors such as reasonable scheduling, regular exercise, appropriate assertiveness, proper nutrition, sufficient sleep, and discarding unhealthy behaviors (such as smoking, excessive drinking, and eating) are all important. Talking problems out with a friend or family member can help put things in their proper perspective. Seeking professional assistance can help one gain a new perspective on how to manage some of the more difficult types of stress.

What about smoking and stress?

Although most people understand that smoking harms a person’s health, many smokers believe it helps them cope with stress. Since nicotine is a psychoactive (mood altering) drug, tobacco use seems to make the subjective effects of stress (such as feelings of frustration, anger, and anxiety) less severe. This is because the nicotine in cigarettes reaches the brain in only 8 seconds, releasing a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine causes an initial sense of calm and well-being, and causes your body to crave that sensation again and again. This is a cruel illusion; while one may feel an initial sense of calm when he/she smokes, the body is actually under a great deal of increased stress. Blood pressure and heart rate increase, muscles become tense, blood vessels constrict, and less oxygen is available to the brain and body to facilitate healthy coping. Smoking also leads to ineffective coping, as the causes of the initial feelings of stress are still present – smoking does not change the situation at all.

Should I wait until my stress level has declined before I quit smoking?

Don’t wait! While it may not be ideal to quit smoking in the middle of a very stressful time (such as a divorce or job loss), smokers should not wait until a relatively “stress-free” time to quit! Such a date may never come. Quitting smoking will provide you with the freedom to effectively cope with your daily stressors.

What is the best way to quit smoking?

Here are some tips to help you quit smoking. Keep in mind that there is no single best way that works for all people.

  • Pick a quitting date 1 to 3 weeks in the future. Prepare for the date by cutting down on smoking, staying away from your favorite places to smoke, and making a plan for how you will deal with stressful events without smoking.
  • On your quitting date, get rid of all cigarettes, keep busy, and stay in smoke-free places.
  • The nicotine patch, nicotine gum, or other medication may be prescribed to help you quit. Take as directed by your healthcare provider.
  • Make a clean break. Do not allow yourself to smoke “now and then.” An addiction to nicotine can be reactivated anytime, even years after quitting.
  • Take it one moment, one hour, and one day at time. Cravings to smoke are usually short-lived (seconds to minutes) and will go away whether or not you have a cigarette. Tell yourself that “smoking is no longer an option in my life”. Remember the “5D’s” – delay, drink water, deep breathing, distract, or discuss your feelings with someone.
  • Get help if you need it. Choose a comprehensive smoking cessation program that does not rely on a single technique. Research shows that a combination of medication and individual counseling provides the best result!
  • Most smokers who quit report an increased sense of well-being as they develop effective coping skills – whether it is exercise, meditation, psychotherapy, or other methods, they find effective ways to deal with their stressors.


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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 9/25/2013...#5275