Personal Assistance Service (PAS) | 2200 West Main Street | Erwin Square Tower | 4th Floor, Suite 400A | Durham, NC 27705 | 919-416-1PAS (919-416-1727)

Dealing with Stress

Experiencing workplace stress? Watch our Stress in the Workplace presentation for tips on managing stress.

Feeling Stressed? Remember, not all stress is bad!

We expect things such as getting fired from a job or a death in the family to create stress. But even good things, such as a promotion or a new baby, can produce stress.

Stress is your body's response to any change in its inner or outer environment. You can NOT rid yourself of all stress. Stress is a response to living. However the critical factor to living well with life's stressors is our thoughts about the situations in which we find ourselves.


Physical Symptoms

  • Fatigue
  • Sleeplessness
  • A change in appetite
  • Headache, backache or chest pain
  • Muscle spasms
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Shortness of breath
Feeling Stressed? Remember, not all stress is bad!

Emotional Symptoms

  • Irritability, anxiety or depression
  • Frequent crying
  • A noticeably negative attitude
  • Numbness
  • Feeling overwhelmed or out of control
  • Poor concentration
  • Little things bothering you
  • Difficulty controlling your temper, outbursts

(Parlay International, 1995)


For more information about effectively dealing with stress, please visit this page by the National Institute of Mental Health.

When we are faced with one stressful period after another, with no time to relax in between, it can affect our physical and mental well-being.

When something happens to us, we automatically evaluate the situation mentally. Some situations in life are stress-provoking, but it is our thoughts about situations that determine whether they are a problem to us. If we decide that the demands of the situation outweigh the skills we have, then we label the situation as "stressful" and react with the classic "stress response".

As mentioned, not all situations that are stressful are negative. However, we may feel that situations are "stressful" because we don't feel fully prepared to deal with them. Everyone sees situations differently and has different coping skills. For this reason, no two people will respond exactly the same way to a given situation.

Coping is simply a way of stopping the stress cycle.

There is no single right way of coping with a given situation. Each of us must figure out what works best for us. What works best will depend, in part, on your coping style. There are three main styles. None of these styles is better than the other and some people use a mixture of them.

The first step in coping is to know yourself. Begin by deciding which of these may be your style:

  • Task-oriented: you may feel comfortable analyzing the situation and taking action to deal directly with the situation.
  • Emotion-oriented: you may prefer to deal with your feelings and find social supports.
  • Distraction-oriented: you may use activities or work to take your mind off the situation. Keep this style in mind as you read the information on coping skills.

You can reduce stress and enjoy life more by developing your coping skills. Learning to manage your time and make healthy choices both in your work and your leisure time can help you become less stressed.

Below are some ideas of how to decrease the negative stressors in your life and gain a healthier balance between stress and relaxation.

  • Work and Time Management
    • Keep your expectations as realistic as possible, accept what you cannot change, and take it a day at a time.
    • Set limits, give yourself permission to say "No."
    • Break large tasks into achievable goals.
    • Organize and plan - "To Do" lists.
    • Prioritize goals, "Must vs. Can wait."
    • Assess what % of energy a situation deserves. Don't waste 100% of your energy on a 5% issue!
    • Manage interruptions (visitors, telephone, mail).  
  • Lifestyle Management
    • Learn relaxation techniques - yoga, meditation, deep breathing, or massage. See Physical Skills
    • Sleep - obtain enough, seek professional consultation if having difficulty.
    • Watch your diet - Alcohol, caffeine, sugar, fats and tobacco all put a strain on your body's ability to cope with stress. A diet with a balance of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and foods high in protein but low in fat will help create optimum health.
    • Exercise.
    • Relationships - maintain or develop new friendships, social groups, support groups.
    • Spiritual - establish a sense of purpose and direction.
    • Hobbies/interests - explore new ones.
    • Vacations, breaks - enhance variety, change of pace and scenery.
    • Take time alone.
    • Balance work and family time.
    • Anticipate and plan for stressful periods.
    • Identify fears/anxieties.
    • Talk about your feelings.
    • Remember to play.
    • Connect with other people. Spend more time with "nourishing" friends and less time with those who leave you feeling drained.
    • List 5 things you love to do and then do one of them!
    • Use humor and spread it around. A good laugh reduces tension, clears the mind and brings people together.

Physical Skills

These are things you can do for and with your body. This includes making sure that you take good care of your body as well as using physical techniques to help get rid of stress. Physical relaxation techniques are useful in preventing stress and lowering your physical signs of stress. Aim to set aside 20 minutes in your day to relax.

A. Deep Breathing

Breathing can be done anytime, anywhere. Deep breathing provides extra oxygen to the blood and causes the body to release endorphins, which are naturally occurring hormones that re-energize and promote relaxation.

  1. Slowly inhale through your nose, expanding your abdomen before allowing air to fill your lungs.
  2. Reverse the process as you exhale. Do this exercise for three to five minutes whenever you feel tense.

B. Progressive Relaxation

This is a technique to help relax tense muscles.

  1. Sit or lie down on your back in a comfortable, quiet room. Close your eyes.
  2. Make tight fists, hold for five seconds, then relax your hands. Do this three times. Pay attention to the different sensations of tension and relaxation.
  3. Repeat step 2 with all of your muscle groups: arms, shoulders, chest, abdomen, back, hips, thighs, lower legs and feet. * At first, it may take about 20 minutes. With practice, you'll be able to do this in about five minutes.

C. Stretching Exercises

If done correctly, stretching can promote relaxation and reduce stress. Never bounce when you stretch - you could injure your muscles. Do these exercises for five or ten minutes.

Stretch 1: Decide what muscles to stretch.

  1. As you stretch, think about one area being stretched; imagine the tension leaving as you gently take these areas to their comfortable limit.
  2. Exhale into the stretch; inhale on the release. Breathe deeply and slowly - do not hold your breath.
  3. Close your eyes for better awareness of your body's responses.

Stretch 2: Here's a stretch to relieve stiff muscles.

  1. Sit up straight and inhale.
  2. Exhale as you let your head move down to your chest. You'll feel a gentle stretch on the back of your neck and your shoulders.
  3. Roll your right ear toward your right shoulder while inhaling. Drop your chin to your chest again while exhaling. Repeat to the left.
  4. Drop your arms to your sides and push both shoulders forward. Slowly raise them towards your ears and circle them back and downward to the starting point. After two or three rotations, change directions.

D. Walking

Going for a walk can clear your mind, reduce tension and increase energy. Walking can help by providing a needed escape and it may increase the brain's production of endorphins (naturally occurring chemicals that relax and re-energize you).

E. How to Sleep Better

Can't sleep? Well, get up. Don't even try to sleep. All that tossing and turning and watching the clock is not for you. It will only succeed in making you more tense. Get out of bed and into a comfortable chair. Read a book, watch television or play solitaire. Stay up as late as you like. Enjoy yourself. Before you know it, you will be dozing. If you don't actually fall asleep, at least you will be relaxed.

(Canadian Mental Health Association 2006)


Click on these links for more information about stress:

If you would like to speak to a counselor about your stress concerns, please call Duke Personal Assistance Service at 919-416-1PAS or 919-416-1727. PAS is a free and confidential service for Duke faculty, staff, and immediate family members.