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Stress Centre for Addiction
and Mental Health

 Health Info A-Z



What is stress?

Stress is a response to environmental pressures or demands (“stressors”), in particular when we feel they are a threat to our coping strategies or well-being. Stress is a normal response to situations where we perceive a threat or danger. When this happens, our built-in alarm system—the “fight-or-flight” response—becomes activated to protect us.     

What causes stress?

Stress is a likely result of any situation in which:

  •  high pressures or demands are placed on us
  • we perceive the situation as being a threat to our well-being, or we don’t feel we have enough resources to cope with the demands.

These situations can include negative events such as financial problems, relationship breakup, difficulties at work or school, injury, illness or bereavement. However, situations leading to stress can also include positive changes such as work promotion, getting married or buying a house. 

Is it normal to feel stress?

A certain amount of stress is a normal part of daily life. Small doses of stress help us, for example, to meet deadlines, to be prepared for presentations, to be productive and to arrive on time for important events.Chronic stress, however, can become harmful. When stress becomes overwhelming and prolonged, the risks for psychological and medical problems increase.

Prolonged stress increases the risk of psychological problems such as anxiety and depression; sleep problems; pain, muscle tension or other bodily complaints; and substance use problems.

Prolonged stress also increases the risk of medical problems such as headaches, gastrointestinal problems, immune system suppression, infertilityproblems, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and stroke.

In addition, psychological and medical problems can reinforce one another, increasing the effects of stress. 

Who experiences stress?

Because stress is a normal part of life, we all experience it. However, the intensity, frequency and duration of stress will differ for each person. Numerous factors can increase the experience of stress, such as when people:

  • have limited social support
  • have multiple stressors
  • have difficulty regulating or balancing their emotions
  • have difficulty tolerating uncertainty or distress
  • lack self-confidence or do not feel they can cope with the stressor
  • interpret the stressor negatively, so that they feel powerless, overwhelmed or helpless.

​What are the symptoms of stress?

The signs and symptoms of stress may be cognitive (thinking-related), emotional, physical or behavioural. Their severity can range from mild to severe.

Cognitive symptoms include difficulty concentrating or thinking, memory problems, negativity or lack of self-confidence, constant worry and difficulty making decisions.

Emotional symptoms include moodiness; low morale; irritability; feeling hopeless or helpless; feeling apprehensive, anxious or nervous; feeling depressed, unhappy or guilty; and feeling agitated and unable to relax.

Physical symptoms include headaches; muscle tension or other physical pain or discomfort; stomach problems or nausea, diarrhea or vomiting; loss of sex drive; rapid heart rate; high blood pressure; and fatigue.


ral symptoms include changes in eating or sleeping patterns; social withdrawal; nervous habits such as nail biting, teeth grinding or foot tapping; increased use of caffeine, cigarettes, alcohol or other drugs; and neglecting family or work responsibilities, or experiencing a decline in performance or productivity.

How can I reduce and manage stress? 

Taking care of ourselves is important for reducing stress and psychological distress. Some good ways to reduce and manage stress include eating healthily, exercising regularly, trying to reduce negativity, prioritizing leisure time, limiting alcohol and caffeine, avoiding cigarettes and other drugs, and adopting proper sleep hygiene. 

Other ways to help reduce and cope with stress include:

  • prioritizing, organizing and delegating tasks
  • seeking support from family and friends
  • attending a support group or stress management program, consulting a health care professional, or accessing self-help materials.

Once we have a sense of emotional well-being, we feel stronger and are more able to bounce back from stress. We also feel that we can cope better with difficult life events. 

How do I know if I need professional help for stress? 

It is important not to suffer in silence. Seek professional help if the signs and symptoms of stress have been present for a period of time, such that:

  • your functioning at work, school, home or socially is affected
  • you experience increasing distress and emotional difficulties.

Severe stress may be a symptom of an anxiety disorder 

© 2010 Centre for Addiction and Mental Health

Where can I find help, treatment and support for stress?

Treatment from CAMH 

Help for Families from CAMH

Ontario Mental Health Helpline (open 24/7 for treatment anywhere in Ontario)​​

Where can I find more Information from CAMH related to stress?

Anxiety Disorders: An Information Guide (PDF)

Anxiety Disorder 101 (online tutorial) Please Note: Your pop-up blocker must be turned off to view this tutorial

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder 101 (online tutorial) Please Note: Your pop-up blocker must be turned off to view this tutorial

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