Everyone experiences stress. Some people experience stress every now and then, while others experience long-term or chronic stress. And most Americans report feeling more stressed since the COVID-19 pandemic started, according to the American Psychological Association.
But the pandemic is not the only stressor in our lives. Political discord, uncertainty about the future, increasing gun violence, and global warming — on top of difficult events and situations in our personal lives — can be major sources of stress. Research has shown that systemic racism and discrimination are also significant causes of chronic stress.
Since many of these stressors are not likely to disappear anytime soon, learning how to reduce and manage stress in healthy ways is important. Chronic stress can take a toll on both your mental and your physical health.
April is Stress Awareness Month. Started in 1992, the campaign is meant to make people aware of the causes and dangers of stress and offer effective ways to manage and reduce harmful and chronic stress.
Stress is your body’s reaction to an event or an ongoing situation in your life, usually a challenging or demanding one, such as a fight with a spouse, financial worries, or events in the world.
In response to stress, your body releases hormones that make your brain more alert, your heart rate increase, and your muscles tense. In short bursts, stress and the release of these hormones are beneficial to you. They help prepare you to handle or navigate stressful situations. They keep your brain sharp for a difficult test, for instance, or enable you to react quickly to a life-threatening event.
However, when stress is ongoing for weeks or months, your body continues to release this hormone, putting your body “on alert” — even when there’s no danger or immediate need. This high-alert state can eventually impact your emotional, physical, and mental well-being.
Robert Smith, PhD, a Boston-based clinical sports psychologist, describes stress as energy. “People need a certain amount of stress. That energy is vital until it’s too much. When you have more than you’re capable of handling, then it gets experienced as stress or anxiety.”
Stress affects people in different ways. For some, it can lead to eating too little; for others, eating too much. Some people feel it internally with headaches or gastrointestinal issues, while others experience external symptoms such as skin rashes or acne.
It can interfere with sexual interest and performance, as well as reproductive health. Stress can also affect your mood, making you more irritable and anxious. If you notice these symptoms, it’s vital to take steps to reduce the stress or stressors in your life. If it’s not managed or reduced effectively, chronic stress may lead to severe health conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and depression.
The first step in managing your stress is acknowledging that it’s a problem — then you can commit to addressing the problem in healthy ways. Experts offer these tips for dealing with stress:
Kate Hanley, a yoga instructor and personal development coach, and the author of “Stress Less: Stop Stressing and Start Living,” says you can make profound changes in your life with relaxation practices. It can be a formal practice like yoga, tai chi, or mediation. Or it can be as simple as taking time to play with your dog, to sip tea in silence while looking out your window, or to spend time gardening. The key is making time to do it. “The relaxation time is the thing that’s going to give you the clarity and focus to be productive and efficient,” Hanley says.
Regular exercise can relieve stress in many ways. It can help you sleep better at night, keep your weight in check, and boost your mood. If you like hitting the gym or running, that’s great! But if you dread those things, going for a walk, riding your bike, or participating in a sport are just as good. Just get moving.
Taking note of the good things that happen in your day can help you shift your focus. Smith suggests writing down five things that went well every day. “The crappy things are the things that grab our attention the most. This exercise allows you to deselect those things, and tune back into why the day was good,” he explains.
Talking to friends, family members, or clergy can help you in a variety of ways. It can help you gain a different perspective on a problem or stressful situation. In some cases, learning that others are facing similar difficulties can make you feel better, or at least less alone. And sometimes just getting things off your chest can be a source of comfort.
One good thing that has happened as a result of the pandemic is that people are re-evaluating their lives and deciding how they want to live post-pandemic. Looking at reducing stress is part of that. “Taking an inventory of the things you do regularly and reassessing how they contribute to or alleviate stress is a big piece of deciding how you want to live going forward,” Hanley says. Whether it’s your job, your commute, a friendship, or something else, now is a great time to consider how you can reduce or eliminate things that cause stress in your life.
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Carbon Health’s medical content is reviewed and approved by healthcare professionals before it is published, but it is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Talk to your healthcare provider about questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition, and before making changes to your healthcare routine.