Stress. Everybody experiences stress to some degree. The current state of our world has added layers of circumstances that impact every person in some fashion. Jobs are in flux, finances are strained, relationships are (physically) distant, routines are interrupted, health is in question and the future is uncertain. All of this, without a doubt, causes stress and anxiety- how does it impact our physical health?
Continuous stress can result in health issues such as anxiety, high blood pressure, abdominal pain, and depression. Ongoing stress can also exacerbate already-existing health issues, and if not recognized, result in behavior that can also contribute to a multitude of medical concerns like heart disease, chronic pain, and overeating.
Not all stress is bad; stress can act as a motivator to encourage preparation for tests or interviews. Or, it can keep us from danger when we recognize life threatening situations. Understanding the source for your stress is important, as is being able to identify and modify how you cope with it when necessary. We have discussed how stress can cause overeating and pain in previous posts, now let’s talk about how it affects us all.
Generally speaking, there are three types of stress:
Chronic stress is a result of an ongoing situation of usually more then 3-6 months, such as a difficult work partnership, providing care for aging family members, and unresolved relationship issues. Even our current world state, coping with the many factors that come into play as we face COVID-19, could fall into this category. When the body experiences stress, Cortisol, a potent anti-inflammatory is produced (read about how stress affects chronic pain here). It is intended to put the body into “fight or flight” mode and help ensure survival as a basic instinct. But, as discussed in previous posts, the body can not maintain a high stress situation over long periods, and being in that perpetual state results in an unmodulated inflammatory response. Signs and symptoms of stress-induced cortisol dysfunction include bone and muscle breakdown, fatigue, depression, pain, memory impairments, electrolyte changes, and changes in blood pressure. It’s even thought that widespread inflammation caused by stress may contribute to a multitude of inflammatory based diseases.
Acute stress is brought on by temporary, short-lived situations, such as a particularly hard day at work, an argument with a friend, unexpected car trouble, etc. This is the most common type of stress, and all of us experience some variety of it daily. Acute stress isn’t always avoidable, but being aware that you are experiencing stress can help you cope with your body’s reaction more easily. Be attuned to breathing faster, sweating, and an elevated heart rate. These are the first signs of stress.
This type of stress is when you feel re- occurring stress that lasts a short period of time. For example, intermittently encountering an individual that triggers strong emotions, temporarily taking on too many tasks, and often feeling over-scheduled and rushed.
Episodic stress is most easily addressed by reducing the amount of stressors- cut back on commitments, delegate responsibilities, and make time for yourself to decompress. All are easier said than done, but it is crucial to prioritize ways to de-stress to prevent the situation becoming a chronic stress.
In previous posts we’ve reviewed ways develop long term de-stressing tactics like exercise and meditation. Here are some suggestions on how to approach acutely stressful situations; first, take a moment to recognize the cause of your stress then help your body recover from the symptoms with these tips:
- Take a brisk walk:
Exercise gets endorphins (the feel-good hormone our bodies produce, read more here) flowing and eases stress. Check out ten of our favorite exercises to keep you active while at home.
- Use a stress-ball:
In a situation where you can’t leave, try using a stress-ball. Keeping something in your pocket you can grip and manipulate when feeling overwhelmed is one way to help ease your frustration and anxiety. It helps by activating the muscles in your hand and wrist which releases energy, as well as acting as a temporary distraction.
Often just taking a moment to breathe can help. The more anxious we become, the faster we breathe, inducing hyperventilation that can perpetuate the anxiety.
- Change tasks:
If possible, take a quick break to clear your head and get a different perspective. Stop doing what is causing stress and change to another project for a while. Then you can return to the situation or task after you’ve had a chance to relax.
- Try to find the silver lining:
It’s not always possible, but in some situations, actively changing your mindset can help you push through until the situation has resolved. This practice is called “re-framing” and it means that if you can be intentional in choosing your outlook, it can help determine your outcome. Of course, not all factors in life are under our control, but our perspective is largely our responsibility- choosing a positive outlook or approach can help boost your mood and help move you through a situation.
- Remove yourself from the situation:
Sometimes enough is enough and you just have to step away. For example, emotional situations with loved ones are often best re-approached when everybody has cooled down and had a chance to collect themselves. Tell those involved you need time to digest and process the conversation. Agree on a specific time to reconnect so there’s no stress as to when it will happen. In other circumstances it may be time to move on altogether, like pursuing a job change, for example. When facing stress related to being at home due to quarantine, removing yourself may mean cooling down in another room, going for a walk, or just stepping outside for ten minutes to reset. Even a small moment of separation can help clear stress and anxiety and allow you to reassess the situation.
- Make a to-do list:
This helps specify exactly what needs to be accomplished so it’s not an unclear, overwhelming amount of chores. Then cross off items you accomplish as you go. This sets up a sense of achievement and shows you are progressing. Many people are facing the challenge of navigating an unstable work status, financial uncertainty, balancing kid’s schoolwork at home, working remotely, managing family health and wellness, and other factors. Any mix of these circumstances can be daunting- lists can help you prioritize and schedule what needs to be tackled first and what can be put on hold.
- Ask for help:
If a situation is ongoing, consider reaching out to others to help lessen the load or find appropriate answers. Such as engaging co-workers advice on how to best deal with an office issue or enlist loved ones when household chores get overwhelming.
- Surround yourself with a support network:
Having a strong group of friends, family, or a support group is essential in navigating life’s tough moments. Whether just for a quick chat, or when more serious situations come up, everybody needs somebody to lean on. In these moments when we cannot physically surround ourselves with people that can support us, look for resources online that provide a connection; churches are streaming their services and ministry groups, virtual book clubs can help you feel connected with others who also enjoy reading, video fitness groups get the blood flowing, provide fitness accountability as well as companionship- the possibilities are endless.
If these tips don’t provide the reprieve you seek, or your stress becomes chronic, please discuss counseling or other treatment options with your provider.