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Learn how to manage stress and its hidden impacts on your body

Woman practicing meditation under a large tree in park
Practicing meditation offers many benefits to the body, including reduced stress, anxiety and depression

We all experience stress ranging from everyday hassles to major life changes. Your body’s response to stress is often designed to protect you.

For instance, if a bear were chasing you, stress would increase your heart rate and muscle tension to help you run away from the bear. Not all stress is negative though. Giving a speech at a friend’s wedding is an example of positive stress. However, poor management of any type of stress can result in unwanted health outcomes. Talking about stress with your doctor can be helpful.

Across the lifetime, stress can be experienced as:

  • A single stressful event (car accident, etc.)
  • A short-term series of events (jury duty, etc.)
  • A long-term (chronic) experience (homelessness, recovering from a natural disaster, etc.)

Chronic stress in the body can cause headaches, difficulty sleeping, muscle aches, or stomach trouble. If not dealt with, ongoing stress can cause serious illnesses like heart disease, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar. Additionally, stress can have a negative effect on mental health and can cause feelings of frustration, anger, or sadness.

Paying attention to moments when you feel stressed can help you understand what might be causing that stress. Once the stress triggers are known, you can create self-care plans to lower stress. Self-care behaviors and resources in your home or community can lower stress, and if the stress is ever difficult to manage on your own, you can connect with your providers for support.

Looking for ways to manage stress?

  • Exercising can help reduce stress. It's a free and flexible activity that you can adjust to your own needs.
  • Deep breathing, allowing your belly to expand with each breath, naturally lowers blood pressure and slows your heart rate down.
  • Practicing mindfulness (paying attention to the present moment without judgment) can help with stress awareness. Research studies suggest that it can boost your immune system as well.
  • Body scanning is a technique where you focus on different parts of your body and become aware of any areas of tension or stiffness. By paying attention to these areas, you can consciously relax them and reduce any pain in those muscle groups.
  • Compassion meditation is a type of meditation that focuses on being kind to ourselves and others. This can help us to feel better, both mentally and emotionally.
  • Spending time with people who support you, like friends, family, or coworkers, is a great way to boost your mood and come up with solutions to stressful situations.

The VA National Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention offers a free manage stress workbook. There are also many free VA mobile apps for stress management and tracking tools, such as LiveWholeHealth, COVID Coach, and Mindfulness Coach.

The #livewholehealth blog has many videos and articles centered on wellness. Whole Health coaches and the Live Whole Health app offer resources and support for setting wellness goals based on what matters most, rather than what’s wrong.

Connect with a coach by calling 650-849-0131 or speaking with your VA primary care team. There is something for everyone, and managing stress does not need to be so stressful!

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