Stressed to the Max?
What is Stress & How Can We Handle It?
April is National Stress Awareness Month and, according to a Gallup Poll conducted in 2017, 80 percent of Americans report they “frequently” or “sometimes” experience stress in their daily lives (2). If you have a career and children, this makes you even more likely to feel stressed, as 58 percent of Americans in your boat reported the feeling of needing more hours in the day (2). So, since most of us experience stress, let’s dive deeper and talk about what exactly is stress and how can we deal with it?
The most common definition of stress, according to The American Institute of Stress, is, “physical, mental, or emotional strain or tension (1).” This definition can be further broken down to explain the duration and severity of the stress itself. Short periods of stress, usually caused by environmental factors such as giving a presentation or meeting someone new, is referred to as Acute Stress (1). This type of stress dissipates when the situation has commenced.
Longer periods of stress, normally caused by the ongoing stressors of daily life such as jobs, bills, and family members, is commonly known as Chronic Stress (1). A more positive form of stress, known as Eustress, can be felt when something exciting happens, such as marriage, winning a prize, or accomplishing a goal (1). The opposite of Eustress is Distress (1). This form of stress can be caused by less-positive circumstances such as the loss of a loved one, financial difficulties, or ongoing medical issues (1).
As you can imagine, many stress-inducing situations are an unavoidable part of life. Since our bodies are chemical and hormonal powerhouses, sometimes it can feel impossible to stay in control of our emotional and physical responses to stress. To better understand how to handle stress, we first have to understand what pressure stress puts on our bodies and our minds.
Pretend, for a moment, you are headed to your first day at a new job and you get stuck in unexpected traffic resulting from a wreck up ahead. As the clock continues to tick, you get closer and closer to arriving late on your first day! You anxiously check the clock. You frantically calculate alternative routes in your mind, but there is no exit ramp in sight. You are stuck.
So, what happens to your body? Your brain senses this stress and alerts your body’s fight or flight response system through the release of a hormone called epinephrine. Epinephrine, combined with the power of adrenaline released by your adrenal glands, immediately triggers your body to work to defend itself – just as it would if you found yourself being chased by a bear (3).
Here’s what’s happening: Your heartbeat quickens, delivering oxygen rich blood to your muscles in-case you need to react. This causes your blood pressure to rise along with your body temperature. Your palms sweat against your steering wheel. Your stomach stops digesting your breakfast. You may feel the sensation of needing to go to the bathroom. You feel a bit of energy from the glucose spike in your bloodstream caused by your liver. Your eyes will move more quickly as you scan traffic, and your breathing pattern will quicken as you realize there is no way you will be able to make it to work on time (1).
However, a traffic jam and being late on your first day does not, logically, warrant the same reaction as being chased by a bear. However, your body just went through all the same physical preparations without the release of actually running, jumping, climbing, or otherwise escaping an attack. Instead, you get to work late, your boss gives you a dirty look and asks what happened. You explain yourself only to catch a hard time from your new co-workers for hitting the snooze button too many times. Sadly, this situation is not nearly as invigorating as what your body had prepared you for.
So, what happens when this involuntary response to stress continues to happen throughout the day for weeks, and even months, on end? This heightened level of action and reaction can have adverse health effects on the human body. Everything from heart disease, obesity, chronic pain, anxiety and depression have all been linked to stress (1).
Since we have already determined that stress can prove to be unavoidable, and it can have a negative effect on our bodies if we continue to experience it for extended periods of time, what can we do to keep our stress in-check?
Two of the key components in keeping your body and mind healthy and ready to deal with the stress of daily life is a balanced diet and regular moderate exercise (4). These two things, alone, have been shown to reduce the effect of stress hormones by triggering the brain to release helpful endorphins which make us happy and help to reduce pain and fatigue. Properly fueling and maintaining our bodies helps keep things running smoothly.
Practicing mindfulness has also been linked to a reduction in stress and its negative effects on the body (6). Mindful practices, such as yoga or taking a walk, overlap with exercise – Two for the price of one! At the root of most mindful practices is the simple act of paying attention; to your breathing, the steps you take, the sights you see, the smells you encounter, and how you respond to each of these stimuli throughout your day. Placing the conscious control of your own reactions to various situations back into your present mind is a very powerful tool for many people (6).
Additional mindful practices include meditation or prayer, deep breathing and journaling. Some people enjoy creating something beautiful by painting a picture or knitting a scarf. Even reading a book or picking up a new hobby such as baking can be pleasurable activities through which you find relaxation, enjoyment, or a sense of purpose. Many community centers, YMCA’s, craft stores and adult-learning organizations offer resources on how to get started. The internet is another great resource for finding and researching new and positive interests.
Have more energy and want to be an active part of your community? Many people enjoy being in nature, joining sports leagues, participating in community theater, or volunteering a few hours a week at a local church or organization. Pet lovers have also found offering to walk dogs or cuddle cats at local animal shelters a way to reduce anxiety and help their communities. Check local event calendars, contact your Chamber of Commerce, or ask a person at your school or church how to get involved!
Taking simple steps to improve your diet, exercise, and hobby habits can make a difference in the level of stress you experience, and how you handle it. However, sometimes the burdens of life can be overwhelming and simply more than we can handle on our own. Reaching out to friends and family is always a great place to start if you need some help tackling a difficult project, talking through an issue, or just grabbing dinner out to take your mind off a stressful day.
If friends and family members are unavailable, and other methods don’t seem to be working, counseling services are offered through various organizations, such as Crossroads Behavioral Health Services. Seeking support through counseling can be helpful and is an avenue taken by hundreds of thousands of people in the United States every day. In fact, 42 percent of American adults have seen a counselor at some point in their life and another 36 percent are open to it. In addition, 76 percent of people who have attended counseling see the experience as a positive one (5).
Stress is a natural part of our daily lives, and is something we likely all will experience at one point or another. Finding positive ways to handle stress is helpful not only for your mind, but also for your body. Whether you prefer to destress by reading a book, joining a community group, or visiting a counselor, know that stress is normal, and your reaction to it is within your control.
1. What is Stress?; The American Institute of Stress. https://www.stress.org/daily-life
2. 8 in 10 Americans Are Stressed Out; Gallup Poll; October 2017. https://news.gallup.com/poll/224336/eight-americans-afflicted-stress.aspx
3. Background: Function of the Adrenal Glands; American Association of Endocrine Surgeons. http://endocrinediseases.org/adrenal/adrenal_what.shtml
4. 16 Simple Ways to Relieve Stress and Anxiety; Healthline.com; August 2018. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/16-ways-relieve-stress-anxiety
5. Americans Feel Good About Counseling; Barna.com; February 2018. https://www.barna.com/research/americans-feel-good-counseling/
6. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction: What it is, How it helps; Psychology Today; March 2010. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/crisis-knocks/201003/mindfulness-based-stress-reduction-what-it-is-how-it-helps