While stress is a part of everyday life, it’s not always clear what stress is, how it can affect your health, and how you can best deal with it in a healthy manner.
What is Stress?
Stress is simply the body’s reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response. The body reacts to these changes with physical, mental, and emotional responses. Even positive life changes can produce stress; and not all stress is bad. In fact, research has shown that thinking skills improve as stress increases. So in short bursts, stress can be a good thing, and can help us prepare for an upcoming event like a sports match, job interview or exam. Typically, the body returns to its normal state after the event is over.
There are different types of stress, including those that may be a one time or short term occurrence, or it can be an occurrence that keeps happening over a long period of time. Just like there are different kinds of stress, everyone reacts differently to stress in their lives. Some people may cope with stress more effectively or recover from stressful events more quickly than others. For others, it can become a chronic problem leading to other mental health issues.
How Does Stress Affect You?
Stress can affect your health in a variety of ways, so it is important to pay attention to how you deal with stressful events in order to know when to seek help. Stress can cause physical changes in the body, including increases in heart rate and breathing, tensing of muscles, and heightened short-term memory. These responses have evolved over time to keep us safe, as they prepare the body for ‘fight or flight’ when we sense danger. While these responses are typical, there are times when the stress response becomes prolonged and can be problematic.
When the stress response becomes chronic, it has a very different effect to the short bursts that enhance the body’s abilities. In many cases, the system controlling the stress response is no longer able to return to its normal state. Attention, memory, and the way we deal with emotions are negatively impacted. This long-term stress can contribute to both physical and mental illness through effects on the heart, immune and metabolic functions, and hormones acting on the brain. Managing stress can become a problem for some, as it can cause anxiety, headaches, and tension, and reduce our ability to handle difficult situations in an appropriate manner.
Nevertheless, despite sometimes being unpleasant, stress itself is not an illness. There are connections, however, between stress and mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). This can make it difficult to determine when normal stress ends and more debilitating mental issues begin.
Tips for Managing Stress
The American Psychological Association has detailed healthy techniques for helping people to reduce stress in the long- and short-term. They include:
- Take a break. Whether it is a work project, new baby,
financial issues, or relationship problems, it is important to try to give
yourself space from the stress. This
allows you to have time to refocus, and perhaps gain a new perspective on the
- Exercise. Research shows that physical exercise
is beneficial to both your body and your mind. While a regular exercise routine
is extremely beneficial, even a a daily walk or dance session can provide an
immediate reduction in stress that may last for hours.
- Smile and laugh. Our brains are interconnected with our
emotions and facial expressions. When people are stressed, they often hold a
lot of the stress in their face. So laughs or smiles can help relieve some of
that tension and improve the situation.
- Get social support. Confide in someone you trust about your
concerns and feelings. This person should be someone who you feel will
understand or validate your feelings, and not someone who is involved in the
stressor. Whether a phone call, text message, or sharing a cup of coffee,
connection with another person can go a long way toward alleviating stress.
- Meditate. Meditation and mindful prayer help the mind and body to relax and focus. When practicing a form of mindfulness, people can release emotions that may have been causing the body physical stress. Much like exercise, research has shown that even meditating briefly can reap immediate benefits.
Stress affects everyone differently at different stages of life, and everyone’s ability to cope is different. If you are still feeling overwhelming stress, don’t be afraid to reach out to a mental health professional. Through counseling, you can learn other effective ways to handle stress.
Are you a caregiver experiencing stress? For more tips on how to reduce and cope with stress read more on our blog, Overcoming Stress: What a Caregiver Should Know.