We often say that we're stressed, but how often do we ask, “What is Stress?” Simply put, stress is anything that causes you physical, mental, or emotional uneasiness. Your muscles are stressed when you're carrying heavy groceries up a flight of stairs. Your mind is stressed when you're rushing to crunch numbers ahead of a deadline at work. Your heart is stressed when your spouse is angry with you (especially if you deserve it.)
Stress can be obvious, as in the above examples, or it can be subconscious, wearing you out gradually while you don't even realize it. Your feelings, both physical and emotional, have limits, like a gas tank. When the tank starts running on fumes, the car sputters, and eventually grinds to a halt. This is what stress does to your body.
Why Do We Get Stressed Out?
Stress was once an important biological function that early humans relied on as a part of their survival instinct. Everything from the threat of wild animals, to dangerous weather conditions, to not knowing where or when you'll eat next triggered an important stress response that prompts immediate action. If you see a tiger, the threat of death will cause you to flee. If you haven't eaten for three days, your hunger will drive you to forage and hunt.
In the modern day, we simply don't face the same threat to our life and livelihood on a daily basis. Instead, our stressors are much more nuanced. Financial difficulties, breakups, work troubles, and family quarrels are all common sources of extreme stress. We stress about the political climate. We stress about the Earth's climate, too. These sorts of problems are very real to us, but they're not the reason our bodies have a stress response mechanism.
Negative Effects of Stress
Stress can wreak havoc on our bodies in startling ways. In fact, practically any ailment you can imagine has been attributed to stress in one way or another. A widely-cited study from the Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences lays out just a few of these ailments.
Your immune system, for example, is slower to combat disease when you're under duress. If you're less capable of fighting off infections, you're more likely to get sick from even low exposure to diseases.
The study also discusses the higher frequency of gastrointestinal problems among high-stress patients. In particular, peptic ulcers and ulcerative colitis occur more often in high-stress jobs and lifestyles. And, if you consume alcohol, cigarettes, or even coffee, you're putting more stress on your insides than they're used to handling.
Your heart, too, is at much greater risk if you live a stressful lifestyle.
Some signs of stress are obvious; if you're sweating and your heart is racing, you know instinctively that your body's under duress.
But, since stress can also be a slow burn, keep watch for other common symptoms like…
- Isolating yourself, avoiding social interaction
- Sleep problems including insomnia, nightmares, and sweating
- Compulsive behaviors like excessive drinking or gambling when you normally wouldn't
- Regular bad moods
- Significant change in weight
- Loss of appetite
- Poor personal hygiene and/or grooming
- Forgetfulness & difficulty learning new things
…and that's not all. The American Institute of Stress lists many more examples here. If you find yourself experiencing multiple symptoms, particularly on a recurring basis, you're likely dealing with undue stress in your life.
Tips for Managing Stress
Know Where Your Stress Really Comes From
You can't possibly tackle your stressors unless you know exactly what they are. And, many stressors aren't what they seem to be.
Say your boss reprimands you for missing a deadline. Maybe she shouts at you harshly. Maybe even in front of the rest of your team.
You feel dejected, sure. You feel embarrassed. But humiliation isn't the root of your stress; it's simply the end result of your mistake. You'll stop quivering, you'll dry your eyes, and you'll get on with your day. But all of the stress is still there.
You're more likely feeling inadequate, because you failed to do your job properly. You probably feel disrespected, because you were called out in front of your peers. These sorts of emotions lead to self-doubt, one of the most well-known root causes of stress.
Take time to explore the real root causes underneath your emotions. Are you really angry at your spouse? Or, are you worried about an uncertain future with him and this latest incident gives you more doubts? Uncertainty, particularly with relationships, finances, and health, is another one of the greatest underlying causes of stress.
Talk with your BetterHelp counselor about your feelings. Be up front about everything going on in your life. They'll help you get to the bottom of your stress.
Know When to Ask for Help
Let's talk more about that counselor.
Asking for help can seem like a big stressor by itself. After all, you can barely cope with your stress now; how can you possibly sort through it all for someone else? Let alone a stranger?
Actually, the point is to sort through it. Unfortunately, television and film do a terrible job of portraying therapy for what it really is. Not every conversation is inspiring and eye-opening. In fact, expect to do 90% of the talking yourself.
If your stress is overwhelming you and you can't manage it, you should talk to someone. There's no stigma associated with therapy in the 21st century; some of the most brilliant and successful people take advantage of its benefits.
Maintain a Good Diet
Where have you heard this before?
Right, that's because it's so critical to your health. Even your mental health.
Poor diet has been linked to mental health in study, after study, after study. You know what a good diet is. How's yours been?
If you haven't been eating your fruits and vegetables, then hit the produce aisle. Load yourself up on B and C vitamins, with lots of Omega-3s. These critical nutrients are stress-busters to help kick start your mood and keep you out of the doldrums.
“Cleanliness is next to godliness.”
“A clean home is a happy home.”
These time-tested cliches live on for a reason. They don't just refer to sanitary living conditions; cleanliness is all about your mental health.
Disorganization is a major driver of stress. Just think about all of the disasters it can lead to: missed appointments, late bill payments, loss of trust & credibility in relationships, lower productivity at work, and… the outcomes that those problems lead to. Blown opportunities. Bad credit. Tenuous relationships. Unfavorable treatment at the office.
All of these problems are common root causes of stress. If you've never been an organized person, it's time to learn. The very act of keeping an orderly home and a carefully planned schedule helps you avoid unnecessary stress.
Over-stimulation is practically a crisis in the 21st century. How often do you catch yourself scrolling through your news feed with the TV on in the background while chattering with your spouse on the couch?
Being unfocused and dividing your attention too much is incredibly stressful. There's actually no such thing as multitasking, so you're really pushing your mind way too hard, switching focus between so many points of interest.
Watch your show. Then talk to your friend about it. Then, when she says goodbye, check out that news feed. Learn to fully engage in activities so you can manage the energy it takes to be involved in those activities.
Manage Realistic Workloads and Set Realistic Goals
The name of the game is “work-life balance.” You need to be able to make time for yourself and get away from your job. It doesn't matter if it's a day job, parenting, starting your own business, or coaching a sports team.
If it's a significant activity in your life that regularly and inflexibly demands a lot of your time, it's critical that you don't get overly absorbed. Yes, you can get too absorbed in parenting (ever heard of helicopter parents?) Yes, you can get too absorbed in your own business; too many entrepreneurs fall victim to harmful perfectionism.
Stress Management Activities
You thought we forgot this when we were talking about diet, didn't you?
Nope, exercise is inextricably linked to stress management. Even as little as an hour a day a few times per week can drastically improve your stress management. Getting the blood pumping and the muscles working blasts your system with all kinds of endorphins that get you feeling good quickly.
If you want the fastest and easiest way to quickly alleviate stress, nothing is more immediately effective than good, healthy exercise.
Meditation is little more than quiet self-examination. As a result, it's the perfect tool for understanding and managing your stressors. There are endless troves of resources online to help you learn different meditation techniques.
Engage in Vitally Absorbing Creative Interests
“Get a hobby!” is all-too-common advice. However, there's a reason it's pushed so strongly, especially in recovery groups. Vitally absorbing interests, particularly creative interests like music, painting, or crafts, are excellent tools to focus your attention and let your mind escape its stressors.
Your hobby doesn't have to be some grand project. Something as simple as crocheting can have a startup cost under $20, can be done from the couch, and can be immensely satisfying. And, if you decide you don't like the activity you tried, that's OK! There are thousands of popular activities out there to help you decompress when you're stressing.
Communicate, Even When You're Uncomfortable
Communication is key. As a few of our examples have covered, relationship troubles are often the manifestation of your stressors. And if you've ever been in a lasting relationship, you know that there's no better tool for mending fences than open, honest communication.
Your underlying stress may be that communicating might change things forever. What if you have to confront a cheating spouse, or a lying employee? You might break up. You might fire that employee. But, the end result is a resolved situation. Stress has been managed and is now in the past, rather than eating at you, unresolved.
Stress is everywhere in our lives. It's unrealistic to tell you that you'll never experience self doubt, uncertainty, or other forms of stress. What you can do is work with your BetterHelp counselor to make a realistic plan you can stick to. Talk to your specialist today about how to lead a more easygoing, stress free life.