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We all have stress. We even need stress, to some degree. It is stress that keeps us moving toward goals. Unfortunately, many of us have much more stress than we need.

Too much stress can cause serious problems, contributing to diseases like hypertension, heart disease, reflux, and diabetes.

Stress also contributes to a number of psychological problems, including anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.

Most people think stress comes from negative events in our lives, like job loss or loss of a spouse. The truth is, stress can come just as easily from positive life changes, like getting a promotion or getting married.

Stress basically arises from any change in your environment or situation, whether good or bad. The greater those changes, the more stress you will endure.

Stress also arises when people engage in tasks that are negatively-charged or that violate their personal values. People sometimes are put in such a position at work, where they feel trapped into actions that they think are ill-advised or downright wrong, but they cannot refuse to do them or simply walk away from their job.

Children can experience stress, too. However, they might express it more through behavioral changes than words, including problem behaviors, irritability, vague physical complaints, becoming "clingy," a decline in school performance, withdrawal, and sleep problems.

In the sections below, we discuss symptoms of excessive stress, ways to reduce stress, and the role of psychologists in helping you manage stress more effectively.

Symptoms of Excessive Stress

Things that could suggest the presence of excessive stress include:

  • Irritability.
  • Insomnia.
  • Feeling tense and tired much of the time.
  • Rushing all the time from one task to another, or from one place to another.
  • Spending too much time putting out brush fires.
  • Physical or psychological ailments like those listed above.
  • Regularly needing a drink to relax or unwind.
  • Dreading going to work; increased absenteeism.
  • Anxiety and restlessness.
  • Gastrointestinal problems, such as heartburn and nausea.
  • Headaches.
  • Sexual problems.
  • Malaise; generally feeling unwell.
  • Muscle aches or other pain not due to a physical injury.

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Managing Stress On Your Own

Here are some steps you can take to reduce stress on your own:

  • Sleep more; most of us are chronically sleep-deprived.
  • Eat balanced, sensible meals; don't skip meals or stuff yourself with food.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Meditate or do relaxation exercises.
  • Involve yourself in a hobby or task that allows you to get really absorbed and zone out for a while.
  • Establish some protected time for yourself, at least every week, where you do what you want for yourself.
  • Limit work hours; the fact that you can fill more hours with work does not mean that you should, or that you will be productive if you do.
  • Learn to say no; the fewer tasks you take on, the less stress you will have.
  • Learn to organize and establish routines that allow you to work more efficiently.
  • Learn time management skills to make the most of your time.

This might sound goofy, but we really do think dogs have the right idea sometimes. Look on our Humor page for 18 Things We Can Learn From A Dog. It is only partly in jest.

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The Role of the Psychologist

Psychologists help people manage stress in a number of ways.

The psychologist can clarify sources of stress and help the person evaluate which of these can be modified in the short-term and long-term.

People often have a fixed view of their situation and see no room to maneuver away from the stressors in their lives. The psychologist can bring an objective point of view and help the person reevaluate his assumptions. Sometimes this can break the logjam and allow him to make wiser choices that reduce his stress.

The psychologist can teach specific skills for stress reduction, such as relaxation techniques and time management skills.

The psychologists also can teach assertiveness so that the person is better able to set limits and say no to others. In addition to the actual skills, the psychologist helps people overcome the anxiety that can block the use of assertive communication.

Often, the person knows all too well that he is stressed, but has trouble implementing the changes that would reduce the stress. In these cases, the psychologist could work to clarify the person's long-term values and goals, help the person weigh his choices accordingly, and encourage him to make decisions that are healthier and more congruent with his values.

Finally, when stressors really cannot be reduced, the psychologist can help the person by offering support and exploring ways to offset the stress in order to restore some balance to the person's life.

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Disclaimer:  You know, we see a disclaimer like this in every ad that lawyers put out, and it probably is a good idea for us to use one, too:  "No representation is made that the quality of the psychological services to be performed is greater than the quality of psychological services performed by other psychologists.  The outcome of assessments or psychotherapy, or individual client satisfaction, cannot be guaranteed and is dependent on many factors.  Material on this site regarding symptoms, disorders, and treatment is informational only.  Diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders requires the expertise of a trained professional."

The information on this site regarding psychological disorders and treatment comes from many sources that cannot be credited, simply because they have been integrated over the years into our general knowledge base. However, one important source is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition (1994) published by the American Psychiatric Association.