“I’m just so stressed!” How many times do we say or hear this on a daily basis? Talking about our stress is like asking about the weather…everyone has it or has something to say about it. Stress is a part of life for nearly everyone. It can motivate us to act when needed, prompt a needed change, or call our attention to something that needs deeper attention. But, stress can also be a red flag for something more problematic and, if left unaddressed, emotionally damaging.

What is stress and what causes it? The short answer is that stress is a feeling of unpleasant tension and can be experienced physically, emotionally, or as a diffuse sense of alertness or irritability. Some tension is a natural and even healthy part of the situation — like getting ready to run a race, take a test, or have an emotionally charged conversation. In other situations, feeling tense can signal stress that needs more mindful attention. How your body reacts and responds to stress can be positive when it’s short-term (like helping you swerve around a giant pothole in the road or finish that term paper at the last minute) but lingering stress can take a toll on your body and mind.

The things that cause us stress often involve us taking actions to deal with that stressor. Add to that the fact that it’s hard to make good decisions when we’re feeling overloaded with stress in the moment and the result can feel overwhelming. Stress can cause all sorts of negative physical and emotional consequences, but there’s a growing base of research on simple stress management techniques that can prevent or reduce the negative side effects and help improve our quality of life and our overall wellness.

While we can’t always control the stress that comes into our lives, we can control how we manage and react to it. In fact, understanding these stressors in order to best respond to them in a healthy way is a key component of mental health.