Life these days is stressful. Who hasn’t felt stressed about their work, a death, performance at college, a traumatic event like the Covid pandemic, a natural disaster, an act of violence, or a life change?
Managing that stress, therefore, is an essential element of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Learning how to manage it can go a long way to improving our mental and physical well-being as well as minimizing health-related issues brought on by stress or anxiety.
What is Stress?
It’s critical we recognize what stress looks like, take steps to build resilience, and know where to go for help. Firstly, you have to decide if it is stress or anxiety you feel. Stress is the physical or mental response to an external cause, such as having a lot of work or having an illness. The stressor may be a one-time or short-term occurrence, or it can repeatedly happen over a long time. It can wear you out, leave you jittery, and is harmful to your health, manifesting as anxiety, confusion, poor concentration, and decreased performance.
Stress becomes a problem when it starts to take over your life. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of stress may include:
Upset stomach, Headaches
Exhaustion and difficulty sleeping, Irritability and heightened reactions, Restlessness and difficulty focusing
Weakened immune system
Increased risk of anxiety disorder and depression
Anxiety, on the other hand, is how your body reacts to stress. Anxiety can be normal such as in public speaking or taking an exam. If anxiety begins to interfere with your life, it could then affect your health in the same way as stress. You may experience problems with sleeping or with your immune, digestive, cardiovascular, and reproductive systems. You also may be at higher risk for developing a mental illness such as an anxiety disorder or depression.
Coping with Stress and Anxiety
Learning what causes or triggers your stress or anxiety and deciding which coping techniques work best for you to reduce your anxiety may take trial and error to discover what works best for you. Here are some tips:
Eliminate stress where you can — a great place to begin is to learn how to say “no” more often. Avoid people who stress you out, and pare down your to-do list. Once you learn how to manage your time more effectively, your stress level will go down.
Accept there are events you can’t control — there are many things in life that are beyond our control. Instead of stressing about what you can’t control, focus on what you can control. This way, your energy can be way more effective.
Think positive thoughts — Negative thoughts lead to negative behavior while being optimistic and positive helps offset difficult situations. Always try to think positively by looking for the upside in every situation. Think about all the things you appreciate in your life, including your own positive qualities.
Add relaxation techniques to your everyday routine. Relaxation promotes overall health and gives you a chance to step away and clear your head. It doesn’t have to be a big time commitment; it can be accomplished with deep breathing exercises, meditation, or even yoga.
Stay healthy and fit. A well-balanced diet and staying active ensures your body is better prepared to fight stress. Exercise relaxes your body and mind while improving your mood. In fact, physical exercise has been proven to play a key role in preventing and reducing the effects of stress.
Get a good night’s rest — getting enough rest is vital. Getting a good night’s sleep will give your body time to recover from stressful events and set you up to face any new challenges.
The Upside of Stress
Although the mere mention of the word stress can conjure up mental images of unpaid bills, work deadlines, or tense family situations, some studies have determined that stress can also be positive.
Psychologists identify this type of stress when we feel excited, and there is no threat or fear. The pulse quickens, and hormones burgeon. Both good and bad stress result in your body releasing hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, that trigger common signs of stress: butterflies in the stomach, racing heart, and sweaty palms. Ultimately, what distinguishes good stress from bad is how you react or feel about the experience. We feel this positive type of stress when we ride a roller coaster, for example, compete for a promotion, or go on a first date. There are many triggers for this good stress, and it keeps us feeling alive and excited about life.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world — one where we could live stress-free, but if we learn and practice ways to lower our stress levels and focus our energies on what really matters to us, we can overcome the temptations of unhealthy coping mechanisms. These may include alcohol or substance abuse, overeating or eating too little, self-harm, anger or violence, and strained relationships.
We are all unique, and taking the time to try many different things and figure out what combination of skills works for you is well worth doing.
Reach out for support. Confide in family and friends, or turn to someone professional. Expressing how you feel can be cathartic. Also, it’s important to express your feelings instead of bottling them up because that can only add to your stress.
If you’re experiencing depression or anxiety, if you’re unable to sleep or enjoy life, or if you’re turning to alcohol or drugs to cope with stress, it’s time to ask for help. Reach out to your doctor or therapist; the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255; The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP, or The American Institute for Stress.
By Sue Quigley