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Table of Contents > Conditions > Stress
Signs and Symptoms
What Causes It?
Who's Most At Risk?
What to Expect at Your Provider's Office
Treatment Options
Treatment Plan
Drug Therapies
Complementary and Alternative Therapies
Prognosis/Possible Complications
Following Up
Supporting Research

Everyone experiences stress from time to time. Stress disorders, however, are of a different magnitude. These occur as a result of profound trauma, such as encountering or witnessing a death, or experiencing serious injury. People with stress disorders exhibit intense fear, helplessness, or horror. Acute stress disorder occurs soon after the traumatic event and lasts for a month or less. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may begin within a few days of an event or may have delayed onset—sometimes as long as 30 to 40 years—and continues for more than three months.

Signs and Symptoms

A stress disorder is often accompanied by the following signs and symptoms.

  • Flashbacks, dreams, and intrusive thoughts
  • Avoidance of anything that prompts recollection of the trauma
  • Inability to recall aspects of the traumatic event
  • Detachment, a decrease in emotional responsiveness
  • A sense that one's future will be cut short
  • Impulsiveness, risk-taking
  • Hopelessness
  • Overreactions, such as increased arousal and startled response
  • Problems functioning normally in work and social settings

What Causes It?

Stress conditions are caused by the combination of a traumatic event and a strong reaction to it. Such traumas include war, rape, inappropriate sexual experience, illness, bereavement, or natural disaster.

Who's Most At Risk?

People with the following conditions or characteristics are at a higher-than-average risk for developing a stress disorder.

  • Women are at greater risk than men
  • Older people and children
  • People with the following personality traits: neurotic, extroverted, poor self-confidence, past history of psychiatric problems
  • Genetic predisposition
  • Guilt or shame
  • Lack of social support or financial security
  • Early separation from parents, childhood neglect
  • Alcoholic parents
  • Poverty

What to Expect at Your Provider's Office

If you are experiencing symptoms associated with stress disorder, you should see your health care provider. He or she can help make a diagnosis and guide you in determining which treatment or combination of therapies will work best for you.

Your provider will do a physical examination, noting if you appear pale, tired, or disoriented. Diagnostic procedures may include a psychiatric exam and psychological testing, hypnosis in cases of amnesia, and an electroencephalogram (EEG) to rule out brain damage or diagnose sleep disorder. Imaging techniques can also rule out brain damage.

Treatment Options

Crisis intervention can help prevent post-traumatic stress disorder from developing.

Treatment Plan

While symptoms associated with acute stress usually automatically decrease with time, chronic stress requires a longer and more complex treatment plan. Crisis intervention may provide support, acceptance, and education. Psychotherapy can help people master their fears and overcome avoidance behaviors.

Drug Therapies

Your provider may prescribe the following medications for symptom relief (although none has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for this use):

  • Benzodiazepines—drugs used as minor tranquilizers and hypnotics
  • Antidepressants to reduce anxiety and impulsiveness
  • Sedating antidepressants to relieve insomnia

Complementary and Alternative Therapies

A comprehensive treatment plan for stress disorders may include a range of complementary and alternative therapies.


Following these nutritional tips may reduce symptoms.

  • Avoidrefined foods such as sugar and baked goods, as well as inflammatory foods such as caffeine, alcohol, dairy, and animal products.
  • Increase foods that nourish the nervous system, such as whole grains, fresh vegetables, and foods rich in essential fatty acids such as nuts, seeds, and cold-water fish.

Potentially beneficial nutrient supplements include the following.

  • Digestive enzymes, including betaine HCL, to support proper digestive function
  • B-complex (50 to 100 mg a day), calcium (1,000 mg a day), and magnesium (400 mg a day), which may be depleted by stress


The following herbal remedies may provide relief from symptoms: a combination of equal parts of passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) and oatstraw (Avena sativa) with one to three of the following herbs.

  • With anxiety: kava kava (Piper methysticum), motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca)
  • With insomnia: valerian (Valeriana officinalis), skullcap (Scutellaria laterifolia)
  • With depression: St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum), wood betony (Stachys betonica)
  • With digestive upset: wild yam (Dioscorea villosa), chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
  • With exhaustion: bladderwrack (Fucus vesiculosus), gotu kola (Centella asiatica)

Siberian ginseng (Eleuthrococcus senticosus) inhibits the alarm phase of stress. It is best taken four to six months as a fluid extract (1:1) 1/2 to 1 tsp. two to three times per day. Take before 3 pm.

Herbs are generally available as dried extracts (pills, capsules, or tablets), teas, or tinctures (alcohol extraction, unless otherwise noted). Dose for teas is 1 heaping tsp./cup water steeped for 10 minutes (roots need 20 minutes).


Although people who visit acupuncturists commonly complain of stress, there have been few clinical trials examining the effect of acupuncture specifically on this condition. One small study found that acupuncture helped reduce blood pressure levels in people subjected to mental stress. Another study found that auricular (ear) acupuncture successfully reduced anxiety in some individuals. Because this condition can affect a variety of meridians, treatment is based on an individual assessment. Qualified acupuncturists may also recommend lifestyle/dietary counseling and herbal treatment.


No well-designed studies have evaluated the effect of chiropractic on individuals with stress, but chiropractors report that spinal manipulation may reduce stress in some individuals. It is theorized that spinal manipulation may have a relaxing effect on the body. There is no evidence, however, that this effect is any greater than that potentially achieved by other physical relaxation techniques, including massage.


An experienced homeopath can prescribe a regimen for treating stress disorder that is designed especially for you. Some of the most common acute remedies are listed below.

  • Aconite for panic with heart palpitations, shortness of breath
  • Arsenicum for anxiety with restlessness
  • Phosphorous for free-floating anxiety and foreboding

Acute dose is three to five pellets of 12X to 30C every one to four hours until symptoms are relieved.

Prognosis/Possible Complications

People with stress disorder are at greater risk of developing other mood or anxiety disorders, or experiencing substance abuse. They are predisposed to conditions such as heart disease, insomnia, and gastrointestinal illness. Suicide is more common among people with stress disorder.

Following Up

Patients are treated on an outpatient basis until symptoms have subsided. In cases where there is a concern about self-abuse or suicide, the patient will be referred for treatment on an inpatient basis.

Supporting Research

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 4th ed. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association; 1994.

Blumenthal M, ed. The Complete German Commission E Monographs. Boston, Mass: Integrative Medicine Communications; 1998: 422, 425, 431, 462.

Braunwald E, ed. Heart Disease: A Text Book of Cardiovascular Medicine. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: W.B. Saunders; 1997.

Dambro MR. Griffith's 5-Minute Clinical Consult. 1999 ed. Baltimore, Md: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.; 1999.

Fauci AS, Braunwald E, Isselbacher KJ, et al, eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine. 14th ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 1998.

Kaplan HW, ed. Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry. 6th ed. Baltimore, Md: Williams & Wilkins; 1995.

Middlekauff HR, Yu JL, Kui K. Acupuncture effects on reflex responses to mental stress in humans. Am J Physiol Regulat Integrat Comp Physiol. 2001;280:R1462-R1468.

Morrison R. Desktop Guide to Keynotes and Confirmatory Symptoms. Albany, Calif: Hahnemann Clinic Publishing; 1993:4, 40, 292, 293.

Murray MT. The Healing Power of Herbs. Rocklin, Calif: Prima Publishing; 1991:54-57.

Rakel RE, ed. Conn's Current Therapy. 50th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: W.B. Saunders; 1998.

Rosen P, ed. Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Management. 4th ed. St. Louis, Mo: Mosby-Year Book; 1998.

Sabiston DC, ed. Textbook of Surgery. 15th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: W.B. Saunders; 1998.

Wang SM, Kain ZN. Auricular acupuncture: a potential treatment for anxiety. Anesth Analg. 2001;92:548-553

Yamada T, ed. Textbook of Gastroenterology. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott-Raven Publishers; 1995.

Review Date: March 2000
Reviewed By: Participants in the review process include: Gary Guebert, DC, DACBR, (Chiropractic section October 2001) Login Chiropractic College, Maryland Heights, MO; Lonnie Lee, MD, Internal Medicine, Silver Springs, MD; Joseph Trainor, DC, (Chiropractic section October 2001) Integrative Therapeutics, Inc., Natick, MA; Marcellus Walker, MD, LAc, (Acupuncture section October 2001) St. Vincent's Catholic Medical Center, New York, NY; Leonard Wisneski, MD, FACP, George Washington University, Rockville, MD; Ira Zunin, MD, MPH, MBA, (Acupuncture section October 2001) President and Chairman, Hawaii State Consortium for Integrative Medicine, Honolulu, HI.

Copyright © 2004 A.D.A.M., Inc

The publisher does not accept any responsibility for the accuracy of the information or the consequences arising from the application, use, or misuse of any of the information contained herein, including any injury and/or damage to any person or property as a matter of product liability, negligence, or otherwise. No warranty, expressed or implied, is made in regard to the contents of this material. No claims or endorsements are made for any drugs or compounds currently marketed or in investigative use. This material is not intended as a guide to self-medication. The reader is advised to discuss the information provided here with a doctor, pharmacist, nurse, or other authorized healthcare practitioner and to check product information (including package inserts) regarding dosage, precautions, warnings, interactions, and contraindications before administering any drug, herb, or supplement discussed herein.

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