Stress basics

What is stress?

Stress is the body’s response to a real or perceived threat. That response – a racing heart, tense muscles and sweating – is meant to get you ready for some kind of action and out of harm’s way.

Stress can be helpful. But too much stress can harm your health and increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.

There is “ good” stress and “bad” stress. Good stress can be managed. It can stimulate you to get things done.e. You can handle good stress.

Bad stress can make you to feel out of control. It can:

  • make you break out in a cold sweat
  • make your heart beat furiously
  • scare you
  • make you feel sick

Bad stress, which can last for hours, days, weeks or more, is dangerous. It can harm your health and wellbeing.

Your perceptions, thoughts and actions can make a big difference in turning bad stress into good stress. By understanding your personality and your reactions to stressful situations, you can learn to cope better.

There are undeniable links between heart disease, stroke and stress.

Heart disease, stroke and stress

There are undeniable links between heart disease, stroke and stress.

Stress can cause the heart to work harder, increase blood pressure, and increase sugar and fat levels in the blood. These things, in turn, can increase the risk of clots forming and travelling to the heart or brain, causing a heart attack or stroke.

As well, if you feel stressed, it can be hard to lead a healthy lifestyle. Instead of using exercise to relieve stress you might overeat, eat unhealthy foods, drink too much alcohol or smoke. These behaviours, in turn, can increase your risk of developing heart disease and stroke.

Responding to stress with anger can also make matters worse. Anger increases your heart rate and your blood pressure, putting you at risk of a heart attack. People who are prone to anger are also more likely to turn to unhealthy behaviours.

Having a serious health event – like a heart attack, stroke or being diagnosed with an illness – can also be stressful. And that stress can slow down the recovery process or even create health problems that weren’t there before. 

Understanding stress

To deal with your stress, you need to recognize when you feel stress and how it affects you. Examine the causes of your stress, your thoughts, how you feel and how you respond.

What is a stressor?

Stress-provoking situations are called stressors. They are all around us, almost all the time.

Stressors can be major events, such as:

  • losing a loved one
  • changing jobs
  • moving
  • leaving school
  • losing a job.

Stressors can be routine events, such as:

  • traffic jams
  • work pressures
  • family responsibilities. 

Stressors can be ongoing events, such as:

  • not being able to afford food
  • not being able to find a job
  • not being able to find an affordable home.

If you can identify your stressors, you can start to learn how to deal with them. 

The stress response

Stage 1: Mobilization of energy

Your body reacts to a sudden, frightening stressor such as narrowly avoiding a car accident. This is called primary stress.

Or, you can deliberately enter a stressful situation, such as going for a job interview. This is secondary stress.

In both cases, you may feel the following symptoms:

  • your heart rate increases
  • you breathe rapidly, in short gasps
  • you experience a cold sweat
  • you have butterflies in your stomach – indigestion or no appetite
  • you feel dizzy or lightheaded.

Stage 2: Consumption energy
If you don’t recover from Stage 1, Your body will begin to release stored sugars and fats, consuming vital resources. As a result, you may:

  • feel driven and under pressure
  • become exhausted to the point of fatigue
  • overeat or have a poor  diet
  • experience anxiety or tension
  • have difficulty concentrating
  • suffer illnesses, such as colds and flu
  • increase unhealthy behaviours.

Stage 3: Exhaustion
If your stress doesn’t go away, it can become chronic. Your body will need more energy than it can produce, and you could develop a serious illness, such as:

Or, you may experience symptoms such as:

  • insomnia (difficulty sleeping)
  •  errors in judgement
  • personality changes.
Related information

Visit Canadian mental health association for more information on stress and mental health. 

Learn more about managing emotions and recovery

Health Canada has information on minimizing stress and the government’s role in helping deal with stress and other mental health issues.

UCLA has several free guided meditation (audio; English and Spanish) developed with their Mindful Awareness Research Center.

Free online cognitive behavioural therapy for people with chronic health conditions.

Assess your stress management skills and take our stress test.