You’ve heard the adage. Death and taxes are the only two certain things in this world. But we’d like to add one more thing – stress.
Fortunately, stress isn’t always bad. There is such a thing as good stress, believe it or not. In the long term, however, excess stress can be bothersome, unhealthy and downright harmful.
Varun Monga, MD, a psychiatrist at Banner Health, offered his insight into what stress is and how stress may be affecting you in more ways than you realize. Additionally, he discussed helpful options for decreasing stress when the pressure builds up.
What is stress?
Recognizing stress is a vital skill in taking back control. Dr. Monga described stress as “a state of worry and mental tension caused by a difficult situation.” He went on to explain that everyone deals with stress from time to time, especially during times of change. It’s how our bodies respond to that stress that can cause problems.
How is stress impacting your life?
Stress may feel like just a mental hardship. But the truth is that it can reach into every aspect of your life, including your physical health. Dr. Monga outlined three places to look out for stress.
Even mild stress can alter our moods in the short term. But long-term exposure can trigger a stress hormone, cortisol, which can actually change the structure of the brain over time. Cortisol can inhibit areas of the brain that regulate emotions and cause drastic mood swings and irritability.
Researchers have even found a link between consistent stress with an increased risk of developing anxiety or depression. Worsening mental health can trigger unhealthy behaviors which will only serve to make the situation more difficult, such as binge eating, alcohol use, smoking, drug abuse, etc. If you notice these sorts of habits creeping into your life, seek help from your primary care physician or a behavioral health specialist immediately.
Common mental and behavioral symptoms include:
- Lack of motivation
- Difficulty focusing
- Mood swings
- Racing thoughts
- Decreased physical activity
That heightened sense of readiness (“fight or flight response”) that comes during stress is supported by physical reactions in the body. You may feel a rapid heart rate when you’re stressed, or you may begin to sweat. When stress is present in the body constantly, it can lead to real issues. Dr. Monga explained that high blood pressure, heart attacks, an increased chance for arrhythmia (irregular heart rhythms) and many other heart conditions can result from prolonged stress.
Have you ever been so stressed that you feel sick to your stomach? Excess chronic stress can lead to gastrointestinal issues, endocrine (hormonal) issues or a weakened immune system.
It’s important to remember that everything in your body is connected. When your brain is under extra pressure, that can impact your overall physical well-being. Unfortunately, when physical symptoms begin to pop up, more stressors are piled on. Addressing excess stress early is the best way to avoid escalation.
Common physical symptoms of stress include:
- Depleted energy
- Difficulty with restful sleep
- Muscle tension
- Frequent illness
- Chest pain
It’s difficult to be mentally present during stressful times. Even casual conversation can feel like a burden. While your loved ones may be patient and understand the pressure you’re experiencing, feeling cut off from these relationships can be damaging for you and the people in your life.
Support from loved ones and professionals may be just the thing to keep you grounded in reality. Reaching out to others during stressful times may feel difficult, but these people want to help. You may be surprised by how much better you feel after expressing yourself to people who care about you.
Common relationship symptoms of stress include:
- Angry outbursts
- Avoiding others
- Lower self-esteem
- Decreased libido
Coping with unavoidable stress
Most stress is not inevitable, though it may feel that way at the moment. You have the power to mitigate more stressful situations than you may realize.
However, some sources of stress are simply out of our control. For example, the loss of a loved one can be especially stressful, whether the loss was expected or not. Dr. Monga offered advice to those dealing with unavoidable stress.
“Try not to run from the situation,” he advised. “Do your best to accept that some things are out of our hands. Rather than bottling up your feelings, express your sadness to family and friends.”
Oftentimes, these sad feelings don’t fade away until they are processed. Whether you sort through those feelings with loved ones, a professional, or both, always give your feelings the attention they deserve.
Ways to manage your stress levels
The first step in stress management will always be to identify the source. Describe your stress in as many ways as possible. Is it big or small? Is it work-related or familial? What time of day do you feel most stressed? The answers to questions like these are clues leading you to the true source.
Once you’ve identified the basis of your discomfort, Dr. Monga offered a short list of tips you can try to manage your response to stress:
Modify your lifestyle
- Prioritize self-care with 20-30 minutes for meditation, unplugging, hobbies, etc.
- Exercise (to lower your heart rate and prevent weight gain)
- Practice healthy sleep habits
- Maintain a healthy diet
- Avoid alcohol, smoking and vaping
Control your environment
- Avoid negative conversations and influences
- Make a short list of things you are grateful for
- Express your feelings openly
- Learn to say no
- Review your work/life balance and adjust to protect your health
- Plan a vacation or relaxing day off
- Connect and spend time with people you love
- Make new connections
Manage your time
- Delegate responsibilities
- Prioritize your tasks in a list
- Break your responsibilities into smaller tasks
- Recognize and avoid perfectionism
- Take a step back and consider long-term perspectives
Going it alone?
Stress can feel very isolating. Especially when others depend on you. Remember that it’s ok for you to depend on others for support as well. Sometimes being your best self means seeking help.
One final tip: If you are ready to connect with a therapist, but just can’t seem to muster the effort to find one, don’t be afraid to ask a loved one to do the leg work. Telehealth is a great option for people who may be overwhelmed by the prospect of seeking support.
Understanding your needs
There are mountains of helpful resources when it comes to managing stress, anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. No matter where you are in your mental health journey, there is always more to learn.
Need help coping with stress?
Call the Banner Behavioral Health Appointment Line at (800) 254-4357.
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