By Jennifer Fitzgerald
Stress is part of our everyday lives. Although many would argue that avoiding stress would be ideal, good stress motivates, energizes, and helps us stay at peak performance. Without it, we wouldn’t get much done. However, too much stress is not good and can lead to numerous health concerns, including physical illness, emotional distress, and mental health issues. By changing the way we think about stress and changing the way we manage it, we can all lead healthier and happier lives.
What is Stress?
Stress is “a state of mental tension and worry caused by problems in your life, work, etc.” Stress, a reaction, is caused by stressors in our environment and in our minds. Most often, people think of stressors as outside of themselves—traffic, an argument with a spouse, financial issues, work deadlines, etc.—but stress can also be caused by our own internal dialogue. For example, we may say to ourselves, “I should have done better on that project” or “I’m not smart/attractive/wealthy/funny enough.” These internal stressors trigger the same stress response and can be just as damaging to our overall health. We all experience stress, but our stressors and stress responses may be vastly different.
Financial issues—81% of Americans worry about this topic.
Work and job stability—67% of Americans worry about this topic.
The nation’s economy—80% of Americans worry about this topic.
Health concerns (family and personal)—64% of Americans worry about this topic.
Relationships—62% of Americans worry about this topic.
Personal safety—48% of Americans worry about this topic.
Loss—72% of Americans worry about this topic.
Responses to Stress
Like stressors, we also have different stress responses including behavioral, mental, and emotional.
Common Stress Responses
Behavioral Symptoms – Avoiding things (people, places, things), eating too much/too little, spending money and other addictions, withdrawing from others, tardiness/lateness, mistakes in the workplace, etc.
Emotional Symptoms – Apathy, anxiety, irritability, sadness.
Physical Symptoms – Frequent colds/illness, headaches, insomnia, weight gain/loss, gastro-intestinal issues, neck/back and other muscle aches.
It is important to consider how we feel, think, and behave when experiencing stress, as they serve as red flags for our overall stress management. If you become grouchy or tired when you’re stressed, pay attention to these symptoms and know that it is your body’s way of telling you to slow down.
All stressors, external and internal, produce a stress response in our bodies. When we experience stress, also known as the fight or flight response, our bodies release the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. This is a necessary response that keeps us safe when we must react quickly and avoid potential harm. However, when cortisol and adrenaline stay in our bodies and are not released through exercise, meditation, rest, and other self-care methods, they are toxic to us. On top of that, we are more sedentary now than ever. Instead of running and sweating, and ridding our body of cortisol and adrenaline, we sit at our desks, in our cars, and on our couches, which cause these stress hormones to stay in our bodies and become toxic.
It is estimated that between 75-90% of doctor’s visits are for stress-related conditions. This does not mean that stress alone causes all of these illnesses, but stress exacerbates symptoms and can create an earlier onset for disease that we are predisposed to. We may not be in control of stressors in our environment or sometimes even in our head, but we can make lifestyle changes to remedy some of the harm that stress can cause.
Illness caused or exacerbated by stress:
High blood pressure
Immune system disorders
Irritable bowel syndrome
Recurrent colds and flus
Headaches and migraines
Depression and anxiety
Some types of cancer
Don’t be discouraged; there are ways to rid our bodies of these hormones, through self-care practices. When we practice self-care, we boost endorphins that make us feel good and relieve our stress.
10 Ways to Relieve Stress and Rid Our Bodies of Stress Toxins:
Connect with others.
Humans are social animals. Research suggests that people who feel connected are happier, healthier, and may even live longer. To build connections, join a club or enroll in a class. You will already share a common interest with other group or class members. Boost existing connections by committing a set amount of time to your loved ones each week, without cell phones, laptops, iPods or other distractions.
Thinking negatively can affect your mood and your health. People who regularly focus on the positive are less upset by painful events and memories. Ask yourself how realistic your fears are, and don’t assume the worst. Keep a gratitude journal, and write down anything that makes you smile. Remember your achievements and successes instead of dwelling on failures.
Get physically active.
Stress-induced hormones released during exercise can help prevent heart disease, relieve insomnia, and reduce anxiety and depression. Schedule regular physical activity by writing it in your calendar. Work out with a friend—it’s harder to break a commitment to someone else than to ourselves. You can also find small ways to get active even when you are busy, such as walking a bit faster or further when you shop for groceries.
Research suggests that people who consistently help others experience less depression, greater calm, and fewer pains. When you volunteer with a community organization, you can make a valuable contribution while forging connections, developing your skills, and learning more about an area that interests you. Helping doesn’t always require huge commitments; even small gestures are appreciated. Telling someone what you admire about them may also boost your mood.
Get enough rest.
People who do not get enough sleep face a number of possible risks, including weight gain, decreased memory, impaired driving, and heart problems. To create restful nights, avoid drinking caffeine six to eight hours before bed, and finish any next-day preparations an hour before bed. If you cannot fall asleep after 15 minutes, avoid frustration by getting up until you feel more tired.
Create joy and satisfaction.
Positive emotions can boost your ability to bounce back from stress. To increase your joy and satisfaction, identify the high points of your day, and try to engage in those activities more. Do something you loved as a child, listen to a humor CD in your car, or watch a comedy.
Eating healthy food can boost your energy, lower the risk of developing certain diseases, and influence your mood. To promote good nutrition, eat regularly—skipping meals can make your blood sugar drop, which may leave you nervous or irritable. Resist junk food by packing healthy snacks such as raisins or nuts, and include a variety of nutrients in your diet.
Take care of your spirit.
People who have strong spiritual lives may be healthier, live longer, and suffer less from stress. Connect to what you find meaningful. Talk to others who share similar spiritual beliefs, and learn from each other. Enrich your life by reading inspiring texts for insights.
Deal better with hard times.
Most of us will face some particularly tough times in our lives, like a loss or divorce. Having ways to cope with these challenges can protect your health and well-being. Tackle problems by making a list of possible solutions, then picking one and breaking it into manageable chunks. Get support from others who have gone through similar situations. Organize your thoughts by writing about upsetting events.
Get professional help if you need it.
If the problems in your life are stopping you from functioning well or enjoying daily activities, professional help can make a big difference. Seek support from a counselor or talk to your doctor about treatment options.
Jennifer Fitzgerald, MSW, is Account Manager/EAP Consultant with LifeResources. Jennifer can be reached by phone at 508.650.6875 or by email at Jennifer.email@example.com. AllOne Health’s services allows employers to achieve better efficiencies, improve productivity, and make a positive impact on the health of their workforce and families.
For more information on this topic, visit:
www.nimh.nih.gov National Institute of Mental Health
www.mayoclinic.org Mayo Clinic
www.apa.org American Psychological Association
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