Everyone experiences stress — it is increasingly common in today’s dynamic, fast-paced world. Whether it’s from a tight deadline at work, an argument with your child, a large payment approaching, or anxiety surrounding the global pandemic, stress can take a serious toll on your physical and mental health.
As Stress Awareness Month comes to a close, it is time, now more than ever, to reevaluate your stress levels and not let your stressors go unnoticed. Stress awareness is especially significant now because, along with our day-to-day stressors, we have the added impending uncertainty of COVID-19.
“Stress has exponentially increased during COVID because in addition to all the normal, personal stressors we all face, there is now an enormous about of societal stress. The societal stress from the pandemic has affected our health, our economy, and virtually every aspect of how we work, learn, travel, and live in society,” said Rachel B. DiSanto, a physician at Iredell Health System’s Statesville Family Practice.
In a time like this, it is crucial to understand what stress really is, what is causing your personal stress, and techniques that provide stress relief.
What is stress?Stress occurs when hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, are released into your blood, causing your heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar to rise. This is commonly known as the “fight-or-flight” response.
Symptoms of stress are your body’s way of responding to a threat. Physical signs of stress can consist of muscle tension, headaches, chest pain, indigestion or heartburn, changes in your bowel habits and fatigue. Mental and emotional signs of stress may include poor concentration, irritability or other mood changes, and difficulty maintaining your relationships. According to DiSanto, stress has been linked to many health conditions, including heart disease, gastrointestinal conditions like ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome, migraines, decreased immune system activity, and mental health issues.
Additionally, stress can affect people of all ages, even children and babies. Babies and children can get stressed if their physical environment is uncomfortable or if their physical or emotional needs are not met. This can include an environment that is too hot, cold, or too noisy; a feeling of hunger, thirst, or fatigue; or the absence of kind communication or loving physical affection.
“The older we get, the more stress we experience because we are more aware of our environment and the problems around the world. But children and the elderly can still feel enormous stress if their care needs are not being met,” said DiSanto.
And while we cannot effectively avoid all stress, we can take the necessary steps to manage our stress levels.
What can I do to decrease my stress?The first step in decreasing your stress levels is determining the source of your stress. Are you feeling stressed out because of a big project at work or problems in your relationship?
Recognizing your stressors can help you pinpoint what areas need extra attention.
“Many people do not take this first, simple step to identify where their stressors are actually coming from,” said DiSanto. “Once we have identified our source of stress, we can take specific steps to reduce it.”
Techniques to reduce stress include:
Developing a regular sleep routine.
Eating regular, healthy meals.
Taking frequent breaks at work or school to move, stretch, drink water, or go outside.
Engaging in prayer.
Making a habit of exercising.
Talking to a trusted friend, relative, pastor, or counselor.
Generally, self-care routines and habits can reduce your stress levels. Talking to someone can also help gain perspective on a difficult situation and, in turn, decrease your stress. During a stressful situation, you should try to focus your attention on the solution rather than the problem at hand.
There are also things you can refrain from to decrease stress during a difficult situation.
“It is important to recognize that we all have healthy and unhealthy mechanisms to cope with stress. We tend to employ our healthy coping skills when we are less stressed, frustrated, or busy. Once we get overwhelmed with stress, we tend to fall back on our unhealthy coping mechanisms,” said DiSanto.
Unhealthy coping mechanisms may include smoking or other drug use, drinking alcohol, shopping or spending too much money, avoidant behaviors like shutting down socially, or seeking out dangerous activities to “let out steam.” Ultimately, these behaviors can cause more stress, so cutting down on these behaviors when overwhelmed is one way to reduce overall stress.
DiSanto recommends setting feasible, healthy boundaries. For example, setting a boundary for your calendar can help you achieve your goals while saving time for self-care and leisure activities.
It’s important to communicate your boundaries with the people around you, though. You may have set a boundary to only talk on the phone to a friend for 15 minutes at a time; communicating this to your friend before answering the call can help you avoid unnecessary stress by being upfront about your boundary while still listening to your friend.
How can I help someone who is under a lot of stress?If someone in your life is undergoing a lot of stress, the best thing you can do is simply listen to them. You can utilize active listening — listen first, reflect on what you heard, ask questions that communicate your concerns, and help the other person develop their own solutions. Encouraging them to engage in self-care activities and even participating in the activities with them may also help.
“It is important when dealing with stress and change to find those centering, constant factors in our lives that provide meaning, comfort, and even security. These can be sharing love in our most important relationships, finding purpose by helping others in need, and focusing on concepts like gratitude, self-care, faith, and hope,” said DiSanto.