By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

With income tax time fast approaching and spring school and work activities dominating daily life, stress can creep in.

How you respond to that stress makes a difference in your mental and physical health.

Excessive stress can lead to emotional and physical symptoms, such as muscle tension, neck and back pain, sleeplessness or shortness of breath, said Barry J. Jacobs, a clinical psychologist and director of behavioral sciences for the Crozer-Keystone Family Medicine Residency Program in Springfield, Pennsylvania.

Stress may also affect behaviors and factors that increase the risk of heart disease. Those include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, overeating and physical inactivity.

Sometimes it’s possible to change stressful circumstances. If not, attempt to change your reactions to those circumstances, said Jacobs.

Good nutrition, exercise and adequate sleep all can help you cope with stress. There are also ways to handle stressful situations in the moment, including breathing exercises, meditation or visual imagery to help you relax, Jacobs said.

Physical activity can calm you, improve your mood and help you curtail unhealthy habits that may have developed because of stress. Being more active can help you quit smoking, maintain a healthy weight or lower your blood pressure.

Walking is one of the most popular and least expensive forms of physical activity. Research has shown that brisk walking at least 150 minutes per week can make a big difference in improving health.

While stress may be common when facing deadlines and busy schedules, it should not be confused with anxiety, Jacobs noted. Persistent stress can escalate to anxiety, a more acute condition possibly leading to problems such as sleep deprivation and panic attacks.

If you suffer from anxiety, or fear you may be suffering from it, speak with your doctor about whether you need treatment.

When job and family commitments are on overload, time management can be an enormous help. It makes you feel in control of your schedule and makes it easier to deal with unanticipated “curve balls,” Jacobs said.

Parents who set unrealistic expectations for themselves may contribute to family stress and/or amplify it. When juggling a full-time job and family, try your best, and realize you aren’t superhuman.

“Children don’t need perfect parents,” Jacobs said. “They need good enough parents.”

Whether you’re a parent or not, leisure time is important. Finding opportunities to relax — whether getting together with friends, going to a movie or enjoying a hobby — can be rejuvenating and help reduce stress.

If you receive paid vacation or personal days at your job, taking advantage of that benefit can help reduce stress while refreshing your outlook when you return to work.

After a period of declining use of vacation days, more Americans may be starting to change their vacation habits by using more paid days off, according to Project: Time Off.

Finances obviously have an enormous impact on people’s lives and can play a role in generating unhealthy stress. In fact, it’s one of the main sources of worry, Jacobs said.

“Financial planning matters a lot for overall stress management,” he said. Those who educate themselves, seek expert advice and plan accordingly will “feel like they’re in the driver’s seat.”

If you have questions or comments about this story, please email editor@heart.org.