Feeling stressed? If you’re like most people then the answer to that question probably depends on the day of the week. Kids acting up? Big presentation at work today? Relationship struggles? Stressors like these seem to throw a wrench in our otherwise peaceful lives.
One recent study concluded that 78% of Americans feel stressed at least once a week and 15% report feeling stressed every day. A 2020 article from the American Psychological Association called stress a “national mental health crisis”.
As with anything, the first step to fighting stress is to understand it. Crazy as it may seem, stress isn’t inherently bad, but more on that later.
What Is Stress?
Stress is a physiological response to a perceived threat. This response developed in order to protect us from wild animals or other people who wanted to harm us. Our brains learned to sense danger and respond in a way that increased our chances of survival.
Specifically, when we are stressed, our bodies experience:
- Accelerated Heart Rate And Breathing
- Increased Oxygen Flow To Muscles
- A Burst Of Adrenaline
- Increased Focus
These responses increase energy and heighten awareness, allowing us to focus on our immediate needs.
Most modern day stressors are not life threatening, but they do threaten our way of life. A failed test won’t kill you, but it might mean you lose your scholarship and have to take a semester off of school to work. Our bodies treat these situations just like they would treat a lion attack or a mugging.
Different Types Of Stress
There are three different types of stress.
Acute stress is what you experience when you narrowly avoid a car accident or experience some other brush with danger. It can even be exciting, like when you ride a roller coaster or watch an intense movie. This stress passes quickly.
Episodic Acute Stress
Episodic Acute Stress is what happens when you experience a high number of acute stress incidents in a short amount of time.
Chronic stress is the most harmful type of stress. When experiencing chronic stress, our stress levels remain high for long periods of time. This can lead to physiological harm and even shorten your lifespan.
Risks Of Chronic Stress
Our stress response follows four steps:
- Our bodies sense danger
- The hypothalamus in our brain reacts and sends signals to the adrenal glands
- The adrenal glands release a cocktail of hormones designed to prepare you to fight for your life. This is often called the “Fight or Flight” reaction.
- In response, your heartbeat increases, your breathing increases, blood vessels contract, you sweat, and insulin production is inhibited.
In short bursts, these effects are not harmful. Chronic stress prolongs them to dangerous levels, potentially resulting in:
- Damaged blood vessels
- High blood pressure
- Increased risk of heart attack or stroke
- Weight gain
4 Tips For Dealing With Stress
Set Aside Time To Unwind
Stress can often result from obsessive fixation. Have you ever noticed how hard it can be to get something out of your mind if you’re stressed about it? This can create circular patterns of thought which may lead you to spiral.
Set aside time to turn your brain off. Do something you like. Practice self-care. Give yourself permission to relax. It may prove difficult at first, but this is a skill which can be developed with practice.
Mindfulness means many things to many different types of people. Some find mindfulness through meditation. Others journal. Stress often comes when we feel out of control in our lives. The point is to try framing your problems in such a way that lets you feel in control.
Take Time To Connect With Others
Fostering healthy relationships is one of the strongest predictors of happiness and contented living which we have. When we’re stressed, we tend to focus all our attention on the problems which are causing that stress.
Make time for other people. Go out with friends or your significant other. Call a family member. Talk to a neighbor.
Take Care Of Your Body
Eating right and exercise have been shown to increase overall health and well-being.
Physical activity pumps our bodies full of feel-good endorphins which can provide stress relief. Remember the stress response is for “Fight or Flight”. Exercise imitates this effect, signaling to our brain that we’ve escaped the danger so that it can relax.
Diet is an often overlooked aspect of mental well being. A healthy diet has been associated with a lower risk of depression and anxiety. This is because improper nutrition puts a lot of stress on your body. Getting essential nutrients should be a top priority for anyone experiencing frequent stress.
Stress is a natural part of life. We stress our muscles when we exercise, and it makes us stronger. But stress should not control us.
Hopefully, this article has taught you a little more about the stress that you feel and given you a few helpful tools to manage it.