Stress management


Stress is defined as a feeling of emotional or physical tension. Emotional stress usually occurs when situations are considered difficult or unmanageable. Therefore, different people consider different situations as stressful.

Physical stress refers to a physiological reaction of the body to various triggers. The pain experienced after surgery is an example of physical stress. Physical stress often leads to emotional stress, and emotional stress is frequently experienced as physical discomfort (e.g., stomach cramps).

Stress management refers to various efforts used to control and reduce the tension that occurs in these situations. (See also Stress in childhood.)


Stress management involves making emotional and physical changes. The degree of stress and the desire to make the changes will determine the level of change that will take place.

Attitude: The attitude of an individual can influence whether a situation or emotion is stressful or not. Having a negative attitude can predict stress in a person, because this type of person will often report more stress than would someone with a positive attitude.

Physical well-being: A poor nutritional status places the body in a state of physical stress and at risk of infection. As a result, the person can be more susceptible to infections. A poor nutritional state can be related to unhealthy food choices, inadequate food intake, or an erratic eating schedule. A nutritionally unbalanced eating pattern can result in an inadequate intake of nutrients.

This form of physical stress also decreases the ability to deal with situations that are perceived as difficult or unmanageable (emotional stress) because malnutrition will affect the way our brain processes information.

Physical activity: Inadequate physical activity can result in a stressful state for the body. Physical activity has many physiologic benefits. A consistent program of physical activity can contribute to a decrease in Depression, if it exists. It also improves the feeling of well-being.

Support systems: Most everyone needs someone in their life whom they can rely on when they are having a hard time. Minimal or absent support systems make stressful situations more difficult to deal with.

Relaxation: People with no outside interests, hobbies, or means of relaxation, may be unable to handle stressful situations because they have no outlet for stress.


  • Positive thinking.  
  • Refocus the negative to be positive.  
  • Make an effort to stop negative thoughts.  
  • Plan some fun. Take a break.

Physical activity:

  • Start an individualized program of physical activity. Most experts recommend doing 20 minutes of aerobic activity 3 times per week.  
  • Decide on a specific time, type, frequency, and level of physical activity. Make this dedicated time fit into your schedule so it can be part of your routine.  
  • Find a buddy to exercise with - it is more fun and it will encourage you to stick with your routine.  
  • You do not have to join a gym - 20 minutes of brisk walking outdoor will do the trick.


  • Plan to eat foods for improved health and well-being. For example, increase the amount of fruits and vegetables you eat.  
  • Use the food guide pyramid to help select healthy food choices.  
  • Eat an appropriate amount of food at a reasonable schedule.

Social support:

  • Make an effort to interact socially with people. Even though you feel stressed, you will be glad to have gone out to meet your friends if only to get your mind off of things.  
  • Reach out to individuals.  
  • Nurture yourself and others.


  • Learn about and try using one or more of the many relaxation techniques, such as guided imagery, listening to music, or practicing yoga or meditation. One or more should work for you.  
  • Take time for personal interests and hobbies.  
  • Listen to one’s body.  
  • Take a mini retreat.

If these stress management techniques do not work for you, there are professional individuals such as licensed social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists who can help. Scheduling time with one of these mental health professionals is often helpful in learning stress management strategies, including relaxation techniques. Support groups of various types are also available through the community.

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised: December 5, 2012
by David A. Scott, M.D.

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