It is a proven fact that as humans, we need a certain amount of stress in our life to live – good stress if you will, something researchers call eustress. With stress defined as “anything that affects our homeostasis” (the ability to maintain a relatively stable internal state that persists despite changes in the world outside), some examples of good stress include receiving a promotion at work, starting a new job, getting married, buying a home, having a child, etc.
Actually it can strengthen our heart, improve our immune system and even helps us to grow physically, mentally and emotionally. But for many of us, the stress in our lives are the highest levels they have ever been. High stress that happens occasionally is something we are equipped to handle, but when it becomes high and chronic (meaning we have it all the time), it begins to negatively affect our health – mentally, physically and emotionally.
Don’t think the stress struggle is real? According to the American Institute of Stress, these are the top seven sources of chronic stress:
- Job Pressure – Co-Worker Tension, Boss Issues, Work Overload
- Money – Loss of Job, Reduced Retirement, Medical Expenses
- Health – Health Crisis, Terminal or Chronic Illness
- Relationships – Divorce, Death of a Spouse, Arguments with Friends, Loneliness
- Poor Nutrition – Inadequate Nutrition, Caffeine, Processed Foods, Refined Sugars
- Media Overload – Television, Radio, Internet, E-mail, Social Networking
- Sleep Deprivation – Inability to clear the mind and fall asleep
In the U.S. alone, one study found the following facts related to stress:
- 77% of people regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress
- 73% regularly experience psychological symptoms caused by stress
- 33% feel they are living with extreme stress
- 48% feel their stress has increased over the past five years
- 76% cited money and work as their leading causes of their stress
- 48% report lying awake at night due to their stress
So, the struggle is real, and it seems to be increasing every year. What can you do about it?
While many of us think we are destined to live at the mercy of chronic stress, there are actually several things discussed in this book that we can do to either reduce the amount of stress we are under or at least reduce the effects it has on us. But first, let’s look at what happens physiologically when faced with a situation we perceive as harmful to us.
Fight or Flight Response
As humans, we are equipped with a mechanism known as a “fight or flight response” which when faced with a situation that we think could be dangerous, our body prepares us to either stay and fight or to flee depending on how we perceive the situation. In today’s world, that situation can range from encountering a growling dog during your morning jog to getting ready to make a big presentation at a company meeting.
Also known as the acute stress response, when we sense a perceived danger, our adrenal glands activate and flood our bloodstream with a release of cortisol and catecholamines – a combination of adrenaline and noradrenaline.
This in turn causes an increase in our:
- Heart rate and breathing rate – this provides more oxygen and consequently more energy that cells use for the response. The heart rate increases the blood pressure.
- Eye pupil dilation – allows more light into the pupils for better vision of the surroundings.
- Skin flushing – The extra blood flowing in the body makes the skin appear pinker. The body’s ability to clot blood increases in preparation to stop a bleeding injury if one is sustained from the encounter.
- Muscle trembling – With the extra oxygen and adrenalines in the blood, the muscles are primed for action and this can cause them to tremble in the meantime.
Our awareness of what is going on around us becomes hyper-sensitive and our body and mind are ready to act … either stay and fight or prepare to flee. This body response lasts anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes before returning back to normal.
Physiologically, our bodies can handle an occasional acute stress response and come through it without any known lasting effects; however, when it becomes chronic, it can have serious effects on our health.
Why Stress is So Bad for Our Health
As noted, during a fight or flight response, our heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate all increase. When we experience these things chronically, it puts an additional strain on our cardiovascular system as a whole and can in fact trigger heart attacks, strokes and even an eruption in a vein or artery in the case of an undiagnosed aneurysm. Any of these can lead to death if not dealt with in a swift manner. And if the person is a smoker, lung and cardiovascular issues can be compounded.
Because of sustained high levels of cortisol in the bloodstream in the case of chronic stress, people tend to crave foods high in sugar and highly processed. This in turn leads to a higher than normal amount of glucose in the bloodstream, which over time leads to weight gain and in many cases obesity. High levels of glucose in the bloodstream over time also frequently leads to Type 2 diabetes. Scientists also believe that high levels of cortisol inhibit the production of a tumor suppression gene which can lead to the progression of cancer cells.
Chronic stress is also bad for our gastrointestinal system. Many people report having symptoms ranging from “butterflies” to stomach aches when chronically stressed. The latter can lead to temporary diarrhea or constipation, or to a more permanent condition called irritable bowel syndrome either IBS-D or IBS-C, respectively.
Some people may notice changes in their skin and break out with acne, psoriasis, eczema or other inflammations of the skin, to include even hair loss. Other reported conditions include teeth grinding, eye twitching, decreased libido, muscle tightness and difficulty sleeping. In women, it can even affect their menstrual cycle.
It can cause changes in the brain. At the end of each chromosome is an end cap called a telomerase. Best described as looking like the plastic end of a shoelace, as we age these caps shorten. Once they reach a certain point, the cell can no longer divide and it dies. Researchers have found that chronic stress causes these end caps to shorten at a much faster pace than normal which speeds up the aging process.
As we can see, chronic stress can have wide-ranging effects on the body with symptoms ranging from mildly irritating to premature death.
Understanding What Causes Stress
There are two main causes of stress – internal and external. Common causes of internal stress include:
- Inability to accept uncertainty
- Rigid thinking, lack of flexibility
- Negative self-talk
- Unrealistic expectations/perfectionism
- All-or-nothing attitude
For external causes, it can include:
- Major life changes
- Work or school issues
- Relationship difficulties
- Financial problems
- Being too busy
- Children and family responsibilities
Within the causes of internal and external stress are some events that are most likely to contribute to an individual developing an illness or health condition affecting their life. These are the top ten stressors that are known to cause health issues if not dealt with properly and sometimes professionally:
- Death of a spouse
- Marriage separation
- Death of a close family member
- Injury or illness
- Job loss
- Marriage reconciliation
What is interesting is that two different people may experience the same stressor but have entirely different effects. One person may be able to shrug off the stress with no lasting efforts, while for the other person, it may be devastating and requires professional counseling in order to deal with it.
Because each person is different, it is prudent to know your breaking point when it comes to stress and try to stay below that point as much as possible. If not, you will have to learn how to best deal with it, so it has the least effects on you and your health.
If the stress is within our control, we can manage it before it becomes a problem and we start to see the effects of it; however, other types of stress are outside of our control, so the only thing we can do is manage the effects of the stress the best that we can.
Key Ways of Dealing With Your Stress
The ultimate goal for most of us is to have a well-balanced life with time for work, relaxation, fun, good relationships and to remain as healthy as possible – both mentally and physically. But as we know, stress can get in the way of having one or more of these things. And depending on the type of stress, it can affect us in different ways. Let’s look at each way in more detail.
As we saw earlier, stress can affect us physically and cause health issues of which some are severe and even deadly. Symptoms that people under chronic stress frequently cite are:
- Fatigue – 51%
- Headache – 44%
- Upset stomach – 34%
- Muscle tension – 30%
- Change in appetite – 23%
- Teeth grinding – 17%
- Change in sex drive – 15%
- Feeling dizzy – 13%
Exercise to the rescue!
One of the tops ways to manage stress so it does not affect your physical health is to exercise. One of the immediate things exercising does is it tends to relax your tense muscles. Try to get in the amount of exercise recommended by the Department of Health and Human Services – 150 minutes of aerobic activity per week. If you break that down, it comes out to 30 minutes per day, five days a week. Swimming, walking, running, hiking, dancing, mowing the lawn are all examples that qualify as aerobic activity.
In addition, they also recommend doing strength training of your major muscle groups at least twice a week. You can use various types of weight machines, resistance bands or even just your own bodyweight. Strive to get in 12 to 15 repetition of an exercise per set and do enough sets to tire out your muscles. Just don’t tire the same muscle groups two days in a row. With either aerobic or strength training, be sure to first warm up before exercising and cool down at the end. Your health is worth spending at least that much time per week exercising isn’t it?
Another way to relax your muscles is to take a hot relaxing bath at the end of the day. Add in a few drops of your favorite essential oil, some Epsom salts and listen to some soft music while soaking away your muscle tension.
Some people prefer to treat themselves to a massage to work out the tension in muscles. A good masseuse can work you over and make you physically feel like a new person.
For a stress-reducing tip that works in the moment try deep breathing. Breathe in through your nose for eight seconds, hold for four and blow out your mouth for seven seconds. Do that as many times as you feel necessary to reduce the effects of stress that you are experiencing at the time.
The above tips are used by many people to reduce the effects of stress physically. However, stress can also cause mental and emotional effects too.
If you are experiencing one or more of these effects below and can’t really pin it to anything specific, it could be effects from chronic stress. The symptoms can include:
- Depression or anxiety
- Anger, irritability, or restlessness
- Feeling overwhelmed, unmotivated, or unfocused
- Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
- Racing thoughts or constant worry
- Problems with your memory or concentration
- Making bad decisions
Of course the best course of action is the same as it is with the effects of physical stress – reduce the stress causing the symptoms in the first place, but if that is not possible, then here are some things you can do to reduce the effects of mental stress:
- Set aside some time each day for yourself to enjoy something you like to do
- Keep your sense of humor; don’t take things too seriously
- Find a relaxation technique you like and practice it often
- Don’t overcommit yourself; learn to say “No”.
- Prioritize tasks; it will make your day more organized and create less stress when you know exactly what you must do that day.
- Break large tasks that are overwhelming into smaller more manageable tasks.
There is also another aspect associated with mental stress – emotional stress. Besides relationships which are discussed below, other causes of emotional stress include:
- Financial issues
- Unpleasant work environment, including work schedule
- Difficulties with parenting
- Daily life and associated busyness
When faced with emotional stress that cannot be further mitigated, try these things that work for many people:
- Practice mindfulness – becoming more aware of the moment instead of dwelling about things in the past or what-ifing the future.
- Distract yourself – for some, their emotional pain is reduced if they take their mind off it. Going to a movie, socializing with friends, working on a hobby that you enjoy, etc. all can take your mind off your emotional anguish.
- Block off some time – use this time to think about the emotions you are displaying and their causes. One way to diminish emotional stress is to avoid the events or situations that trigger the stress. Sometimes you must sit down and trace back through your day to find the trigger of your emotional stress.
- Practice meditation – by using meditation techniques, you can quiet your mind and reduce the emotional stress. Some focus their thoughts on their breathing. Others may focus on a lighted candle and repeat a mantra over and over that works for them. It may take some time to find what works for you, but you will find something. When you do use it – often!
- Talk to a therapist – if your emotional stress reaches a level where it is interfering with your daily life, and you have tried other ways to deal with it without much success, then it may be time to talk to a mental health professional. They can help identify what is causing your emotional stress and help you work through the issues thus making you feel better and able to function normally. Sometimes we are so close to the issue, that we are not seeing the problem, only suffering the effects.
Stress in a relationship can happen in two ways. One it can spill over into a relationship from stress caused from something outside the relationship, such as a new move, new job, fired from a job or just stress from the everyday grind that builds over time. Or stress can be caused by the relationship itself. Maybe one partner is cheating on the other one. Or may two parties can not agree on something and it causes stress.
Regardless, a common response to relationship stress is that the parties involved become withdrawn from each other. They no longer do things together. They become less affectionate and slowly drift apart. They don’t talk about the things bothering them and causing the stress. Over time, it leads to something the courts call irreconcilable differences, they divorce, go their separate ways and start their life over again.
So what is the fix? First is open the lines of communication. One party must take the initiative to find out what is causing stress in the other party. Get the other party talking and try to listen more than you speak. Don’t assume you know how the other person is feeling, because you might not and that can add fuel to an already incendiary situation. Nor expect them to know how you are feeling – most likely they do not know and that could be part of the source of your stress. Ninety percent of relationship issues could be resolved by just talking with each other in a meaningful way.
Listen without judgment. Once you know the issue(s), give your view on it (them) in a logical and rational manner. Come to some kind of agreement that works for both of you that will improve your relationship with each other. Ultimately for relationships to work best, each party should be able to rely on the other one for support.
Having a support system to turn to in a time of need is critical to managing stress. According to one study, 43% of respondents without emotional support say their stress had increased in the past year, while only 26% of respondents with emotional support say they are under more stress than a year ago. A support system can include family, friends, an employee assistance program, professional help … any number of things that helps you cope with managing your stress.
For many of us, the daily grind can result in chronic stress. Symptoms can show up as physical, mental, emotional or relationship tension. Many people report they feel like the demands on them exceed the personal physical, physiological, mental and emotional resources they have available. In response, this leaves them feeling overwhelmed at the end of the day. But the problem is it starts all over again in the morning. This chronic stress day in and day out eventually takes its toll.
Preventing Stress in Future
The first step is to recognize effects of stress. It usually starts with tension in your shoulders and neck. It can also include clenching of your hands. Other signs of stress can include:
- back pain
- constipation or diarrhea
- high blood pressure
- trouble sleeping or insomnia
- problems with relationships
- shortness of breath
- stiff neck or jaw
- upset stomach
- weight gain or loss
Of course the best course of action is to either reduce or eliminate the cause of the stress in the first place. However, as mentioned before when the sources of stress are beyond our control, the best thing to do is to reduce the effects of stress by:
- Exercising. It’s a scientifically proven fact that exercising is a healthy way to work off pent-up energy and tension. One of the reasons this works is because when we exercise, endorphins are released into our bloodstream giving us a euphoric “runner’s high”. It not only helps you mentally, but helps you get in shape physically, which makes you feel better overall and improves your self-esteem and self-confidence.
- Eating right. Stress can lead people to eating comfort food that is usually high in sugar, sodium and unhealthy fats. Make sure you’re eating regular, well-balanced nourishing meals that are portion centric.
- Getting some sleep. Sleep is one of the most overlooked ways to relieve pent-up stress. It is while you are asleep that your body repairs itself, both physically and mentally.
- Meditating. Meditation is a form of guided thought that can take many forms. You can do it with exercise that uses the same motions over and over, like walking or swimming. You can meditate by practicing relaxation training, by stretching, or by breathing deeply. It is also part of most yoga programs that include deep controlled breathing which has also proven to help reduce stress in itself.
- Doing muscle relaxation training. Start with one muscle and hold it tight for a few seconds and then relax. Do this with each of your muscles, beginning with the toes and feet and working your way up through the rest of your body. Repeat as many times as needed.
- Stretching can also help relieve tension. Roll your head in a gentle circle. Reach toward the ceiling and bend side to side slowly. Roll your shoulders. Then reverse the direction.
- Deep, relaxed breathing by itself may help relieve stress. As mentioned earlier, this helps you get plenty of oxygen to your cells and helps activates your body’s relaxation response. When used with meditation it is a great one-two punch at reducing stress and can be done anywhere at any time you feel stressed.
- Clearing your mind. Don’t worry about things you can’t control. Also don’t dwell on things that happened in the past or worry about what could happen in the future. Instead live in the moment and focus on working on the things within your control.
- Not letting the small things bother you. Instead, solve them so they are no longer causing you stress. Not only will it give you a sense of control, but it will give you the confidence and self-esteem to tackle larger problems and issues.
- Being ready. Preparedness is one of the best stress reducers there is. For example, if going to a job interview, prepare the best you can so you can go in confident and sure of yourself.
- Thinking positive. Change is inevitable. So instead of looking at it as a negative and it is causing stress in you, look at it as something that is positive and exciting.
- Working it out. If conflicts with other people is a source of stress, work out the issues with those people, so it no longer bothers you.
- Leaning on your support system. Sometimes just a lending ear is all that is needed to reduce stress. Discuss what’s bothering you with a trusted friend, family member, or professional in the mental health community.
- Working within your means. Set realistic goals both at home and at work. Avoid overscheduling and include some “me time” in each day so you don’t feel overwhelmed and stressed.
- Having some fun. This ties in with the one above, but on a more personal instead of work level. Participate in something you don’t find stressful, such as sports, social events, or hobbies.
- Just saying no. If you are a person that can never say no, you must learn to include that word in your vocabulary. If people know you will always to their work for them, they will continue to ask you to do things. But by saying no, they will find another person to do their work.
If left unchecked, stress will be debilitating. You must either eliminate the source of the stress in the first place or mange the effects of stress when the source cannot be diminished or eradicated. Use the information in this book to manage your stress and feel better physically, mentally and emotionally.