Did you recently experience a breakup? Is there a conflict between you and another family member or friend? Perhaps your mind keeps drifting to a particularly involved project at work. Whatever your particular case, like millions of Americans right now, you are undergoing stress.
Nearly a quarter of adults in the U.S. said that they were under extreme stress. While these figures may seem surprisingly high (indeed, this rate is up significantly from last year), you are probably familiar with the negative effects that worrying can have on your life. Anxiety can impact your mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing.
Today we are living in a world where we are constantly exposed to high demands. The lines between our personal and professional lives are increasingly becoming more blurred thanks to mobiles phones, tablets, and the popularity of social media. And while blue light filtering lenses can help reduce the effects of long screen use, there’s no substitute from taking a break. Unfortunately, though we are working as many hours as we ever have in the past, leaving us less time to self-heal and recover from our obligations.
It is still important to note that your anxiety is a completely natural reaction to many negative experiences in life, and it is normal to experience stress from time to time. Stress that never abates is when a problem develops and your quality of life and even physical health are affected. “Good stress” can even give you the boost you need to finish that big project at work, or work up the courage to ask out a potential date.
So, how can you confront your (bad) stress and leave your worries behind? Before considering how we can prevent stress, let’s understand what stress really is, and how you can tell if you’re experiencing it.
How can you tell you’re experiencing stress?
Generally your anxiety can manifest itself in some of the following ways:
Difficulty getting to sleep
Binge eating / overeating / lack of appetite
Muscle aches and soreness
Increased heart rate
Increased use of cigarettes, alcohol, etc.
Note that this list is not complete and only lists some of the most typical symptoms. We all experience stress differently. You should always consider consulting a physician to rule out any medical problems that may be confused for stress.
The stress response
Stress is a hard-wired physical response that travels throughout your body. In the brain, the hypothalamus causes the release of stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. During the stress response, you begin to breathe at a quicker rate in order to help distribute oxygen to your body. Unfortunately, this can make breathing more difficult, especially if you have a medical condition such as asthma.
Your heart also pumps blood faster under stress, constricting blood vessels and diverting more oxygen to your muscles (to assist with the fight or flight response). This, in turn, raises your blood pressure, and over prolonged periods, can increase your chances of having a stroke or a heart attack.
The rush of hormones, rapid breathing, elevated heart rate, and extra glucose that is sent by your liver during a stress response can also affect your digestive system. The loss of glucose creates a fuel shortage in your body, which is easily fixed with sugary foods that provide us with a quick energy boost, making us crave sweet foods. You are also more likely to experience heartburn or acid reflux due to an increase in stomach acid. Diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and general discomfort in the stomach are also not uncommon.
Chronic anxiety can affect a man’s levels of testosterone, which can in turn interfere with sperm production and cause erectile dysfunction. For women, stress can affect the menstrual cycle, causing irregular, heavier, or more painful periods.
Stress can also make good sleep more difficult. Studies have shown that those with the highest levels of stress were more likely to experience worse sleep. Not being able to settle down and get rest can also affect your health in other ways, as those who are chronically sleep deprived are at an increased risk for heart problems, as well as diabetes.
What you can do
Reducing your stress levels with not only make you happier, but will improve both the length and quality of your life. Remember however, that it is unrealistic to never experience any anxiety in your life. The real challenge (and goal) will be managing stressors in your life and how you respond to stressful events, rather than eliminating them completely.
Identify your stressors:
Monitor yourself throughout a typical day. When your mood takes a dive, try to identify the cause and how it makes you feel. Once you have identified a stressor, try coming up with a few options to address it. Does the stressor seem insurmountable? You or those around you may have expectations that are not reasonable. Talk to with someone you trust: your boss, family, friends, colleagues, etc. about what is bothering you and solicit them for input.
Approach and plan:
Even the most worrisome of problems only seem insurmountable due to the lack of developing a plan. While you may not be able to pay off $10,000 in debt today, setting a realistic goal (even if it takes a number of years) will help make you feel in control of your stressors. List everything that is bothering you and then sort them by priority. Remove anything that is not essential. Develop a plan of action for each of these.
Relationships can serve as sources of stress, but friends, family, and colleagues can also offer valuable support and insight to you in a time of need.
Managing your stress is not a one-time quick fix. It will most likely involve a series of lifestyle changes that require changes in how you approach problem-solving and your coping mechanisms.