Living with stress and learning ways to handle it
Our bodies are designed to handle stress – but in small doses. In fact, it’s part of our survival instinct. Have you ever heard a strange noise during the night and suddenly become wide awake? That’s your fight or flight response making you hyperaware and focused so you can keep yourself safe. In many situations, stress can be good. But, when you’re under constant stress without any periods of relaxation, it may become a serious problem. It can send your body into overdrive and cause all sorts of health issues.1
What is stress?
Stress can be hard to define because it’s not something you can see, like a runny nose or broken bone. Stress is your body’s reaction to any situation that causes physical, mental or emotional strain. Everyone experiences stress and reacts to their unique stressors differently. How you respond to that stress may impact your overall well-being. There are two main types of stress:2
- Acute stress: This is when you experience stress for a short period of time. It’s usually positive stress from things like, prepping for an interview, training for a marathon or planning to propose to your partner. This kind of stress can cause short-lived and harmless things, like butterflies in your stomach or sweaty palms.
- Chronic stress: This happens when you stay at a level of high stress for too long and it can cause some pretty severe symptoms.
You can probably find a stressor (or two) by simply taking stock of your surroundings right now. Maybe you’re in the middle of responding to a frustrating email, you notice a pile of dirty laundry to your left or you can hear your kids arguing in the next room. Life is full of good and bad stressors. Some we can easily ignore or deal with, while others take more of our energy. Here’s a list of common stressors you might relate to:3
Unhealthy work or home environment
Death of a loved one
Losing a job
Buying a house
Caring for a family member
Traumatic event (natural disaster, theft, car accident or other similar events)
Have you ever worried so much that you’ve made yourself physically sick? That’s how powerful stress can be. Your mind-body connection is real. Stress may cause physical, mental and emotional symptoms. Plus, many health conditions may be caused by or made worse from chronic stress. Signs and symptoms of chronic high stress may include things like:2
Muscle pain or tension
Change in sex drive
High blood pressure
Anxiety and irritability
Lack of motivation
Sadness or depression
Did you know stress affects all your body’s systems? Think muscles, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous and reproductive. Whoa. Can’t stress this one enough. Constant high stress may put you at risk for serious health conditions, including:3
- Mental health problems (depression, anxiety, personality disorders)
- Cardiovascular disease (heart disease, high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke)
- Obesity and eating disorders
- Menstrual problems
- Sexual dysfunction and decreased libido
- Skin and hair conditions (acne, psoriasis, permanent hair loss)
- Gut issues (gastritis, ulcerative colitis, irritable colon)
- Weakened immune system
Stress is inevitable. So, it’s important to reduce and manage it as much as you can. Here are some ways to help relieve stress, prevent burnout and help ward off those stress-related health issues:4
- Get regular exercise
- Try meditation, yoga or massage therapy
- Spend time with friends and family
- Laugh (a lot!)
- Make time for hobbies that make you happy, like reading or listening to music
- Get plenty of sleep
- Fuel your body with nutritious foods
You might be wondering why surfing the internet or watching your favorite movie aren’t on the list. Did you know inactive ways to manage stress, like watching TV or playing video games may actually increase your stress over time?4 Taking a mindful approach to managing stress is key to proper and long-term stress relief.
When should I see my doctor about stress?
If you think you may be experiencing symptoms of high stress and they don’t get better with stress management, visit your primary care provider (the doctor or provider you might see for your yearly physical). They will want to know what your symptoms are and will likely ask about any big life changes or possible triggers. In addition to paying your doctor a visit, you may want to consider seeing a counselor or therapist who might be able to help you find behavioral health resources to better navigate some of the stressors in your life. Don’t mess with stress – take the necessary steps to find balance in mind and body to help keep yourself in good health.4