Stress comes in all shapes and sizes and can stem from just about any aspect of life, from major transitions to the countless little tasks that make up daily life.
Definitions of stress vary, but most include the idea of mental, physical, or emotional tension. When you’re stressed, you might feel overwhelmed, have trouble relaxing or sleeping, or experience other symptoms of common mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression.
Different things feel stressful to different people, but all of us have experienced life stress one way or another. In fact, stress can even be helpful; it might motivate you to achieve your goals or give you energy to complete a task.
But when stress becomes too frequent or intense, it can have negative consequences for your physical and mental health.
Prevalence of stress
Stress is extremely common in the United States.
A 2017 report on stress levels in America indicates that:
- 80% of survey participants had experienced at least one symptom of stress in the previous month
- Women, on average, report higher average levels of stress than do men
- 31% of Americans saw an increase in their stress levels in the past year (2016-2017)
- 20% experienced extreme levels of stress (indicating an 8-10 on a 10-point scale)
Causes of stress
Stress stems from different factors. Another 2017 study found :
- 62% of participants were stressed about money issues
- 61% experienced work stress
- 59% were significantly concerned by the nation’s social/political divisiveness
- 52% of participants (all of whom were Americans) were stressed by the 2016 presidential election
Symptoms of stress
Everyone reacts to stress differently, but the following are a few of the most common symptoms:
- Anxiety or worry: You may be frequently preoccupied or find your thoughts racing.
- Feeling overwhelmed: Stress can make you feel like you’re not able to manage all of your life’s demands.
- Conflicts with friends, family, and colleagues: You may be irritable, and less patient with others.
- Physical symptoms: Stress often comes with physical symptoms including muscle tension, headaches, and digestive troubles.
- Difficulty sleeping: You might have trouble falling asleep or wake up feeling unrested.
Different types of stress
Stress comes in countless forms. Some common forms of stress include:
- Day-to-day stressors: Your packed schedule, your pinging phone, your endless to-do list: All of these aspects of your daily life can contribute to overall stress.
- Relationship-related stress: You might experience stress as a result of challenges in your relationships with friends, family, or significant others.
- Work-related stress: Work and career concerns are very common sources of stress, from conflicts with coworkers or bosses to burnout and work-life balance.
- Major life changes: Any big change is likely to come with some degree of stress, even a happy change like getting married or landing a dream job.
- Stress related to discrimination: Individuals who are discriminated against on the basis of race, ethnicity, culture, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability often experience stress as a result.
- Stress related to politics or current events: As of 2017, concern over the state of the country was a leading source of stress for Americans . News stories, world events, and even broad social issues like inequality can all be significant sources of personal stress.
Related: Eustress vs. Distress
What to do if you’re stressed out
If you’re looking for tools to manage the stress in your life, consider the following options:
- Therapy: Find a therapist who can help you understand your stress and learn proven techniques for managing it. (See more tips below on selecting a therapist.)
- Check-ups: Because stress can be related to medical conditions, it’s important to stay up-to-date with your medical appointments. Scheduling a check-up with your primary care doctor can help you rule out physical conditions that may contribute to your symptoms. Your doctor can also help you plan nutritional strategies for alleviating stress, like avoiding caffeine or eating a more balanced diet.
- Exercise: Some studies show that regular physical activity can decrease symptoms of anxiety, which often go along with stress. 
- Meditation or mindfulness practices. You can experiment with meditation or other mindfulness practices through classes or apps. Studies have shown that these practices can help reduce the symptoms of stress and anxiety that may accompany stress. 
- Creative pursuits: Visual arts, performing arts, and creative writing can all be helpful ways to diffuse your body’s stress response and add fulfilling activities to your daily life.
- Nature: Studies suggest that spending time in a natural setting – even a city park – can have beneficial effects on individuals’ stress levels. 
How to look for a therapist for stress management
Find an approach to stress management that resonates with you
Almost all therapists have training in helping clients address stress and related problems — the key is finding out what therapy approaches and techniques to addressing stress resonate most with you.
Some common therapy types for stress management include:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
- Mindfulness Practices
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
- Interpersonal Psychotherapy
- Existential Therapy
Ask what approach your potential therapist takes to stress management therapy, and what approaches have proven effective for them.
Understand what clientele the therapist works most commonly with
In addition, knowing what clientele a therapist works with can inform your decision of whether you want to work with them as well.
Does your therapist see many high-achievers? Or do they mostly see college students? Do they have an understanding of your creative arts profession? Do they take a culturally competent approach to treatment? Have they supported clients dealing with stress from your particular situation (e.g. stress from divorce, loss of a parent, or moving to a new city)?
Seeing a therapist who has an appreciation of your background and circumstances can be helpful in sessions as you explain the stressors you’re experiencing.
Know what questions to ask potential therapists
These questions may prove helpful when interviewing potential therapists:
- What therapy type (possibly one of the examples above) do you use when helping clients manage their stress levels?
- Does you have experience working with clients who have my particular symptoms of stress?
Prioritize personal fit with the therapist
While personal fit is a nuanced factor, it is critical to your success in therapy. Multiple studies have revealed the importance of this factor, often referred to as therapeutic alliance.
On your initial phone call with the therapist, ask yourself:
- Could I see myself forming a connection with this therapist?
- Does their approach suit my personality?
- Do I feel like I will be heard and respected by this therapist?
Additionally, consider these factors:
- Some therapists are more reflective and spend most of the session listening and drawing insights about your patterns and coping styles.
- Some therapists are more directive, establishing weekly agendas and assigning tasks to complete between sessions.
- Some utilize specific techniques or tools (exposure exercises, eye movements, tapping, breath work, guided imagery, art and music, etc.).
- Some use a combination of multiple approaches.
Consider cost, location, and scheduling
The last thing you want is additional stress from navigating inconvenient logistics! Before making an appointment, consider the following:
- Can I afford these session fees? The cost of therapy for addiction depends on location, practitioner, and whether you’re using insurance.
- Can I commit to attending sessions regularly? Remember to account for travel time, and other demands in your schedule.
New to therapy? Learn more about how to find a therapist.