How to Deal with Emotional Stress

Three Methods:Identifying Symptoms of Emotional StressCoping with Emotional StressFinding Professional Help to Deal with Emotional Stress

Everyone feels stressed at some point. Occasionally, you may feel a higher level of stress than is common for you. Anxiety or a depressive mood related to high levels of emotional stress are actually quite normal.[1] What sets standard levels of stress apart from harmful levels is the way they affect your daily life and the methods you use to cope with them.[2] By clearly identifying the ways in which you exhibit emotional stress and using techniques to cope with the sources (work, school, relationships, etc.), you can deal with the emotional stress present in your life.

Method 1
Identifying Symptoms of Emotional Stress

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    Look for physical symptoms. Stress can be incredibly disruptive to your physical health, as well as your emotional health. In fact, stress places physiological demands on your body that are called an “allostatic load.” When this load is too heavy, it can place you at risk for a variety of medical ailments, including serious diseases like diabetes, depression, heart disease, and autoimmune disorders.[3] This is part of why it’s so important to keep an eye on your stress levels; it could be causing physical symptoms that you can’t otherwise explain and could be damaging your health. Common physical effects of stress can include:[4][5]
    • Headache
    • Muscle tension, aches and pains
    • Chest pain
    • Fatigue or exhaustion
    • Alteration of your appetite or sex drive
    • Upset stomach and nausea
    • Trouble sleeping
    • Heartburn or acid reflux
    • Difficulty with your bowels
    • Long-term effects of chronic stress include a weakened immune system, premature aging, increased risk of illness, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, depression, cognitive impairment, inflammatory and autoimmune disorders, heart disease, and greater likelihood of developing illnesses in older age.[6]
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    Examine your recent temper. An overload of stress can manifest itself through a short temper or uncharacteristic difficulty managing anger. Anger (or extreme irritability) is one of the three primary stress emotions, along with anxiety and depression.[7] This symptom of emotional distress is unhealthy for both you and those around you.
    • These changes can also exhibit as rapid changes to your mood—or mood swings—due to circumstances that wouldn’t typically bother you.[8]
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    Log your sleep patterns. While certain symptoms of emotional stress are easily recognizable, other may be less so. Ongoing sleep disturbances are an indication of stress. You may be sleeping more or less than usual or having trouble falling or staying asleep when you try.[9] If you have trouble sleeping more than one or two nights a week with no identifiable physical reason that your doctor can determine, then emotional stress is a likely candidate.[10]
    • Chronic tiredness and lethargy are just as often signs of emotional stressors as an inability to sleep, especially if no other illness explains your fatigue.[11]
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    Note changes in your weight or eating habits. If you find yourself eating more than usual or—alternatively—unable to maintain an appetite, this is a common sign of emotional distress.[12] You may also notice fluctuations in weight without any big changes to your diet or exercise routine.[13]
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    Log patterns of obsessive or compulsive behavior. The anxiety associated with emotional distress can find an outlet in obsessive behaviors related to other things. This can range from feeling a compulsion to wash your hands more often than normal all the way to a constant dread that something bad is going to happen.[14]
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    Note the quality of your interactions with others. Another common sign of emotional stress is a change in your social behaviors. This can include anything from staying in far more often (when you used to be more social) to noticing a decline in your sex life with your partner.[15] As with most of these symptoms, you can want to consult your doctor to rule out a potential physical ailment.
    • You may also see this manifest as a decline in your work or school performance or with colleagues.[16]
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    Look for signs of depression. Chronic stress, or the consistent, grinding stress that lasts for an extended period,[17] has been linked to the development of depression.[18] Studies have shown that stress can shrink the hippocampus, an area of the brain that effects short-term memory, learning, and emotional regulation.[19][20] This can cause symptoms of depression, which include many of the symptoms mentioned in this article, such as trouble sleeping, change in appetite, and mood disruption. Depression is a serious health condition that often gets worse if left untreated, but it is also highly treatable.[21] You should talk with a healthcare professional if you display these or other symptoms of depression, which include:[22]
    • Persistent feelings of sadness, emptiness, or anxiety
    • Feeling hopeless, worthless, or helpless
    • Loss of interest in things you used to enjoy
    • Fatigue or exhaustion
    • Trouble concentrating or making decisions
    • Changes in appetite, weight, or sleep
    • Restlessness or irritability
    • Unexplained physical symptoms
    • Thoughts of harm, death, or suicide. If you are experiencing any thoughts of harm to yourself or others, call your emergency services or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 immediately.
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    Determine your level of functioning. Stress is a natural part of human life, and minor stress is often unavoidable. You may have a few areas of dysfunction, such as trouble sleeping or irritability, but not feel unable to cope. However, if you feel that your stress is interfering with your ability to live your life or even get through the day, you should seek help from a health care professional immediately. Here are some signs that your functioning may be impaired and that you should seek help:[23]
    • You have seen a marked decline in your work or school performance
    • You feel anxious or depressed
    • You have begun to use alcohol or drugs to cope
    • You feel unable to cope, even with everyday things
    • You are experiencing fears that you can't explain
    • You have become obsessed with something, such as your weight
    • You have physical symptoms that your doctor cannot explain
    • You have withdrawn from people and activities you love
    • You have thoughts of harm to yourself or others
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    Take a mood test. It can be difficult to determine what you’re feeling and whether you should be worried about it. The best option is usually to consult with someone about your thoughts and feelings, but you can also try a mood assessment. You can find a self-test at the British National Health Service website here.
    • These types of self-assessment should not be a replacement for consulting your doctor, but they can help you identify whether your stress is minor and transitory, or whether you have a more serious cause for concern.

Method 2
Coping with Emotional Stress

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    Identify the source of your emotional stress. Emotional stress is akin to the feeling of being on your “last straw” or “last nerve” for an extended period of time.[24] This feeling can present in the varieties of different ways discussed elsewhere in this article. The first step to coping with emotional stress is identifying the source of the stress.
    • Our work and/or school responsibilities and interpersonal relationships are some of the most common sources of taxing emotional states.
    • Try writing down things that you feel stressed about. Rank them from 0 (no stress) to 3 (serious stress).
    • If you have a lot of sources of stress but they’re ranked fairly low, or only one or two areas of highly ranked stress, your stress may feel more manageable on your own. If you have many sources of stress that are ranked highly, you should consider seeking professional help, as coping with extreme levels of stress can very challenging on your own.
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    Accept what you cannot change. It can be very challenging to accept that bad things are happening. However, this simple shift relieves you of the pressure of feeling as if things should be different when they are not.[25][26] This can apply to anything from the weather to someone’s behavior. Obviously, some things are easier to accept than others, but for whatever you cannot control, try to adopt an attitude of acceptance.
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    Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness has been shown to help lower stress and anxiety levels. Mindfulness can expand the hippocampus, the same area shrunk by stress and depression. It can also help rewire your brain’s fear responses, resulting in less stress.[27] Mindfulness has even been shown to help battle the effects of depression.[28] Here are two mindfulness exercises to help you get started.[29]
    • The “finding silver linings” exercise. This exercise has been shown to reduce depressive symptoms and can help you build resilience to stress.[30] Begin by listing 5 things that make you happy or that you value.
      • Focus on a source of stress for you right now. Write down a few sentences about the situation and how it made you feel. Try to show yourself compassion as you write, not judging yourself for your feelings. For example: “I’m feeling stressed because my partner doesn’t talk to me as much anymore.”
      • Now try to find three little “silver linings” to the situation. This step takes a lot of practice and a willingness to be open, but it can help you. For example, “This situation is an opportunity for me to practice acceptance for my partner” or “This situation reminds me how much I value communication.” It can be hard to see the bright side, especially of an upsetting situation, but give it a go. Try this for 10 minutes a day for 3 weeks.
    • The “self-compassion break.” We are sometimes a source of our own stress, particularly if we’re judging ourselves for perceived mistakes or failings. Learning to take a quick 5-minute self-compassion break every day can help you break this habit of judging yourself harshly, which can help reduce your stress levels.[31] Begin by selecting a situation that is causing you stress, such as “I’m afraid that I’m not a good mother to my son because I have to work so much.”[32]
      • Notice how the stress feels in your body when you think about this situation. What sensations do you experience? You might experience a rapid heartbeat, a fluttery stomach, nausea, etc.
      • Say gently to yourself, “This is a moment of stress.” It’s important to acknowledge when we’re in pain, rather than try to ignore or repress it.
      • Remind yourself, “Stress is something everyone struggles with.” It can help to remind yourself of your common humanity: you aren’t alone, and it is natural to experience stress in our lives.
      • Place your hands over your heart, or wrap your arms around your body to give yourself a hug. Gently say, “May I show myself kindness” or “May I accept myself.” You can say any phrase that seems meaningful to you, as long as it is compassionate and positive.
      • Repeat this at least once a day, but you can do it whenever you’re having a moment of stress.
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    Identify a support system. The trusted ear of a family member, friend, or even a mental health professional can help you feel better when you express your emotions about stress.[33] Sometimes these individuals can offer potentially valuable feedback. Even a sympathetic and caring presence will ensure that you do not feel alone with your stress.
    • A study with cancer patients found that the greater amount of social support a patient reported, the less they reported mood disturbance.[34]
    • It is important that your support system be comprised of people who will truly support you. Find those who will listen to your concerns and fears without being judgmental, angry, or trying to “fix” something that cannot be changed.[35]
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    Exercise regularly. Emotional stress often feels like a lack of control over your life, and maintaining an exercise routine is a great way to take back some of that control. Exercising also provides an outlet for some of the stressful energy, and it helps the body produce pleasurable endorphins when you feel accomplished after a good workout. Though fatigue may be one of your stress symptoms, you should still try your hardest to exercise regularly.[36]
    • A heightened amount of physical activity may also help with stress-related sleep disturbances if you’re experiencing them as part of your symptoms.
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    Solve smaller problems. Another great way to help yourself feel like you’re regaining control is to focus on a number of smaller problems you’re confronting.[37] This allows you to shift your focus from larger issues while also finding resolutions to smaller ones. You may even begin feeling like the larger problems are more manageable with some smaller ones behind you.
    • This also means setting realistic goals at work, school, and home.[38] You can’t mitigate stress while still overloading yourself with it.
    • Setting smaller, realistic goals can mean tackling a specific homework assignment at school as opposed to worrying about your grade for the entire semester.
    • At work, you might set a daily to-do list for certain parts of a project rather allowing the entire project to daunt you.
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    Eat a well-balanced diet. Though you may find it difficult if a lack of appetite is one of your symptoms, a well-balanced diet is always a crucial part of feeling physically and mentally healthy.[39] If fatigue and lethargy are some of your stress symptoms, then eating better will help provide you with daily energy as well.
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    Participate in things you enjoy. Even while emotionally stressed, we all still take joy in hobbies, crafts, or other personal activities. Try to make more time for the things that make you happy.[40] This can be anything from sports with friends to spending time with a great book.
    • If you can’t think of a single activity to fit this step, then your stressful situation may have developed into an actual depression. In this case, your physician or a mental health professional may be able to help.[41]
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    Change your environment. Many of the things leading to your emotional distress may stem from the things you encounter on a daily basis. If the daily news stresses you out or the same commute to work every day, then try changing those things in your daily environment.[42] Isolate and avoid as many of these daily stressors as you can and try your hardest to accept that you cannot change the others.
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    Keep a stress journal. Emotional stress doesn’t always occur when your support network is available to listen. A stress journal gives you a chance to write down the source of your stress and exactly how it made you feel, which is a great alternative to venting those feelings to a friend or family member.[43]
    • This approach even allows you to write down how you feel you handled the stress, which can help you discover your own best practices for coping.[44]
    • For instance, you may realize once you go to write it down that a discussion with a significant other turned into an argument around a certain topic. You can use that information to think closely about the topic and a better way to handle the discussion next time it arises.
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    Work to resolve interpersonal conflicts. Ongoing conflicts with those close to you are some of the prime sources of emotional stress. Working to resolve these conflicts wherever possible is a huge step toward mitigating emotional distress.[45]
    • When dealing with potentially tense interactions during these conflicts, express your feelings assertively without letting the person take advantage of you, but always do so respectfully as well.[46]
    • Remember that negotiation and compromise is the best way to defuse interpersonal conflict in a productive way.[47]
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    Engage in meditation or prayer. Meditation is a form of guided thought wherein you focus typically on one specific action, such as breathing (or stretching in the case of yoga).[48] If you are spiritual or religious, you may find a similar form of calm and peace in prayer.
    • Deep, relaxed breathing by itself is a great way to combat stress.[49]
    • Relaxation training is another form of meditation. Find a quiet, comfortable position and flex each muscle in your body one muscle group at a time. Start with your toes and work your way up.[50]

Method 3
Finding Professional Help to Deal with Emotional Stress

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    See your doctor. Your plain old physician can be the best place to start when seeking professional help for emotional stress. You may have several physical symptoms in addition to emotional ones associated with your stress, and your doctor will help diagnose the symptoms.[51]
    • Based on the symptoms, your doctor will also be able to help you decide whether you should see a counselor/psychologist or a psychiatrist.[52]
    • As actual doctors, psychiatrists can prescribe medication, and much of the treatment may deal with medication management.[53] Licensed psychologists and counselors, on the other hand, have PhDs and MAs (respectively), but they are not MDs and cannot prescribe medication.
    • Psychologists and counselors will use a variety of therapeutic tools aimed at helping you change the behaviors or ways of thinking that lead to your stressful reactions to situations.[54] Psychologists are more likely to do academic research in the field of psychology in addition to working with patients as well. You won’t necessarily receive a better form of care from one or the other. The key is to find a licensed professional who listens and with whom you feel comfortable sharing your emotional stressors.
    • Some instances, such as those dealing with depression or anxiety, may call for both a psychiatrist to manage medications and a psychologist or counselor from whom you can learn other coping techniques.[55]
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    Learn therapeutic techniques. If you and your doctor don’t feel your situation warrants medication, a licensed psychologist or counselor can help you find other techniques for dealing with emotional stress in addition to being great listeners. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one example of a technique to help cope with emotional stress and the related anxiety.[56]
    • With CBT, the therapist helps you become highly aware of your own patterns of thinking and behavior with the goal of helping you to avoid the emotional stress involved with those common patterns.[57]
    • Even if your doctor decides that your situation warrants a medication prescription, you should still consider seeing a therapist as well. Medicating the problem can help you to manage the symptoms, but it won’t assist you in dealing with the root causes of the stress.
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    See a psychiatrist. Emotional stress can easily lead to too much depression or anxiety for a person to manage on his or her own, and this can occasionally mean the use of mood-altering medications while dealing with the worst parts of an emotionally stressful situation. A wide array of drugs are available and meeting with a psychiatrist will help him or her prescribe the drug best suited for your situation.[58]
    • Commonly prescribed medications in these situations include: selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Celexa, Lexapro, Paxil, Prozac, and Zoloft; selective serotonin and norepinephrine inhibitors (SNRIs) such as Cymbalta and Effexor; and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) such as Nardil and Parnate.[59] Your psychiatrist may prescribe any of the above for symptoms of depression, whereas SSRIs specifically have proven effective for treating anxiety disorders.[60]
    • Most mental health professionals will suggest the use of a medication in combination with the other steps here. Relying on a medication alone is far from the most effective way to deal with an emotionally stressful life event.
    • Always take the medication exactly as prescribed, and consult with your psychiatrist before stopping usage.
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    Follow up with the care professional regularly. Many people quickly feel discouraged with the therapy or counseling process due to the lack of immediate results. Talking through your emotionally stressful issues, learning techniques to handle them, and normalizing those techniques as part of your standard reaction to stress will not be a quick process. Have patience with the treatment and keep up with your appointments for as long as your therapist suggests in order to reap worthwhile results from the process.


  • Though this article offers information related to stress relief, it should not be taken as medical or psychiatric advice. Always consult your physician or a mental health professional to determine the best course of treatment for your situation.
  • If you’ve harmed yourself or are afraid you may harm yourself or others, seek medical attention immediately. Call your emergency services or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
  • Ensure you follow dosages prescribed by your doctor for any medications.

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Categories: Stress Anxiety and Crisis Management