If your stress-o-meter hasn’t pegged at PROFOUND in the last half year or so, we would liked to find out your secret. Even without a paralyzing pandemic, civil discord and contentious political races that may add to feelings of tension, the average person will sometimes experience elevated levels of stress in normal times.
What we face today is certainly an unprecedented period of human existence causing unparalleled levels of stress in many. Throw in the fact leadership of many companies are maximizing micromanagement, or maybe you’ve found yourself jobless, and most around us have hit levels of stress response we never imagined.
It is International Stress Awareness Day, a day created to provide the public with information about how stress affects the body and mind, what causes stress, and how it can be coped with and managed. Talking every day with people who are feeling stressed to their limits, witnessing it all around us, we hoped to take a moment and help raise awareness about stress and stress prevention and promote the wellbeing of all the great individuals and organizations we serve.
If you are not struggling today, maybe you can share this with someone who is or use it to equip yourself to be of service to those you know can benefit from some of what we have gathered here….
What is Stress
According to the Cleveland Clinic, stress is a process, not a diagnosis. It is the body’s reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response. We experience stress when there is an imbalance between the demands placed on us and our resources to cope with those demands.
The level and extent of stress a person may feel depends a great deal on the attitude they choose when approaching a particular situation. An event that may be extremely stressful for one person can be a mere hiccup in another person’s life.
You may feel under pressure to do something and fear you may fail. The more important the outcome, the more stressed you feel. You can feel stressed by external situations (too much work, children misbehaving) and by internal triggers (the way you think about external situations).
Stress is not always a bad thing. Some people thrive on stress and even need it to get things done.
Effects of stress
When the term ‘stress’ is used in a clinical sense, it refers to a situation that causes discomfort and distress for a person and can lead to other mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression.
Stress may also contribute to physical illness such as cardiovascular disease. When stress turns into a serious illness, it’s important to get professional help as soon as possible. Untreated anxiety disorders can lead to serious depression.
Stress affects us in many ways, including:
- Emotionally – anxiety, depression, tension, anger
- The way we think – poor concentration, forgetfulness, indecisiveness, apathy, hopelessness
- Behaviorally – increased drinking and smoking, insomnia, accident proneness, weight problems, obsessive-compulsive behavior, nervousness, gambling.
Your response to stress
Your attitude, personality and approach to life will influence how you respond to stress. Factors that play a part include:
- How you think about a problem
- How anxious you feel generally
- How severely the problem affects you
- Whether you have experienced anything like this before
- Whether you can control what is happening
- How long the event affects you
- How important the outcome is to you
- The different ways a person copes with difficult situations
- Your life experiences and life history
- Your self-esteem
- Whether you have people around who can provide support.
Stress as a health problem
As a health problem, stress occurs when a person feels that the demands made on them exceed their ability to cope. Factors contributing to a person feeling stressed might include:
- Environment (work, home, school)
- Emotional and personal problems
- Physical disorders.
Stress and physical illness
When we feel under stress, our body kicks into high gear to deal with the threat. Our heartbeat, breathing rate and blood pressure all go up. The longer we feel stressed, the greater the demand on our body.
The more often we are placed under stress, the more often we have to use energy to cope. There is growing evidence that stress may contribute to physical illness such as cardiovascular disease (although this link remains controversial and research is ongoing), high blood pressure, proneness to infection and chronic fatigue.
Whatever the cause, physical diseases need appropriate medical management before any attempt is made at stress management. Discuss with your doctor how stress management may be used to support treatment of your physical symptoms.
Stress and anxiety
Untreated stress can turn into a mental illness such as an anxiety disorder or depression.
Almost everyone experiences some anxiety. This is normal. However, an anxiety disorder is different from everyday anxiety – it is more severe, can persist and may interfere with a person’s daily life.
Common anxiety disorders include:
- Generalized anxiety disorder – the person is constantly worried, often about irrational things, and cannot be reassured
- Panic disorder
- Specific phobias – such as fear of flying or of spiders
- Agoraphobia – fear of public places or of being away from home
- Social anxiety disorder – fear of the scrutiny and judgement of others.
A less common anxiety disorder is acute stress disorder.
Anxiety is a very treatable condition. There are many different psychological and medication options. Treatments need to be individually decided on and regularly reviewed to make sure they are effective and to minimize side effects of medications. Separately and in combination, psychotherapy and medication therapy generally produce good results.
Untreated anxiety disorders and depression
Untreated anxiety disorders can lead to serious depression. Depressive illness is common – about 17% of Australians will suffer from depression at some time in their life.
Depression is about twice as common in women as in men. The most common time in life for people to suffer from depression is in their 40s. However, it can develop at any age. Depression is often associated with an increased incidence of suicide. The annual suicide rate for people with depression is three or four times higher than that of other psychiatric disorders.
Stress at work
Stress in the workplace is common and is caused by many different factors, including excessive hours, conflicts with others and feelings of isolation. The amount of stress a person experiences is often determined by whether or not they can accept that some things in life will simply never be sorted out to their satisfaction. For example, a person may feel stressed by the way they are treated by their employer or by the behavior of a work colleague.
Sometimes, this stress can be resolved by dealing with the particular behavior. In many organizations, there are processes to deal with workplace problems like harassment, victimization or unfair treatment. In many cases, the problem can be resolved if the behavior is changed.
However, some problems will never be fully resolved, and you may have to accept them. For example, if someone who you think is poorly qualified is given a job you felt entitled to, you may continue to feel stressed, unless you are able to let go of that grievance and move on.
Groups at higher risk for stress
We all deal with stress and uncertainty in different ways. But certain people can feel more stress, increased anxiety and heightened worry than their neighbors, friends and family, especially during the pandemic and restrictive stay-at-home orders. Those who might become more stressed during this crisis include:
- People who are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19 (for example, older people, and people of any age with certain underlying medical conditions).
- Children and teens.
- People caring for family members or loved ones.
- Frontline workers such as health care providers and first responders,
- Essential workers who work in the food industry.
- People who have existing mental health conditions.
- People who use substances or have a substance use disorder.
- People who have lost their jobs, had their work hours reduced, or had other major changes to their employment.
- People who have disabilities or developmental delay.
- People who are socially isolated from others, including people who live alone, and people in rural or frontier areas.
- People in some racial and ethnic minority groups.
- People who do not have access to information in their primary language.
- People experiencing homelessness.
- People who live in congregate (group) settings.
Recognizing and coping with stress in a positive, healthy way can help you remain calm. And recognizing the stress of others and lending support can make everyone stronger.
Many of the stressors we face in life are not under our control. Our responses to these things can have a heavy impact on our stress levels. What’s more, many of the thoughts we have and actions we take when stressed can contribute to our problems by intensifying the already-negative feelings we may be enduring.
The old saying ‘prevention is better than cure’ is certainly true for stress management. It is wise to look at what we can control, stop doing things that perpetuate and exacerbate our stress levels and proactively focus on what we can do to help ourselves feel more relaxed.
To deal with stress more effectively, it helps to first inventory your stresses and investigate how you react to them. Try to:
- Understand what situations make you feel stressed
- Understand what situations you can and can’t control
- Prepare for stressful events in advance, by thinking about the future
- Keep yourself healthy with good nutrition, exercise and regular relaxation
- Try to do happy things every day.
The following are things we can do to actively manage our stress before it overwhelms us:
1. Stop Ruminating
We all face things that cause us stress. It’s natural to think about these stressors to see what we can do to better understand the situation so we can change it. But sometimes we can slip into a type of thinking that is unproductive, overly negative, and borders on obsessive. This type of thinking is known as “rumination.”
When we fall prey to rumination, we intensify the stress we are already feeling by focusing on the negative and continually reliving it. When we’re in this pattern of thinking, our focus is more on what went wrong than on what we can do to fix things.
Rumination can become a habit. The good news is that habits can be broken, even habits of thought. Learn more about rumination and its role in your life, and see what you can do to stop ruminating.
2. Stop Losing Sleep
Many things contribute to our stress levels, but sleep deprivation is one factor that makes a bigger impact than we may realize. When we don’t get enough sleep, not only are we more reactive to stress, but our cognitive functioning isn’t as sharp, which can contribute to mistakes made, causing a cycle of anxiety.
Stress can also impact our ability to get quality sleep. By practicing good sleep hygiene, such as avoiding using televisions or computers before bed, going to bed the same time every night, and darkening the room, you may get better sleep.4
3. Stop Eating Junk
What you eat can impact how you feel. Just as lost sleep can impact your reactivity, so can the wrong diet. If you have ever crashed from a caffeine high or a sugar rush, you already instinctively know this.
Stress can also impact what you crave and lead to emotional eating. This can present an even greater challenge for those who are stressed and trying to eat better, but it can (and should) be done! Learn more about the relationship between stress and your eating patterns and how to change your habits, if necessary.
4. Stop Leaning on Frenemies
Relationships can be fantastic sources of stress relief. When we experience times of stress, the emotional support, the helpful resources, and the stability that friends bring us can be quite a buffer against the challenges we face.
Additionally, many people find themselves looking to relationships the most when under stress. This response, like the more commonly discussed fight-or-flight response, can help us to get our needs met when we are experiencing stress. This response drives us to connect with others and share support.
That said, the stress of a conflicted relationship can take a heavy toll on your health and well-being. Relationships that are sometimes supportive and sometimes unpredictably conflict-riddled can be particularly difficult because there’s an underlying sense of uncertainty and tension.
Because of this, it is especially important not only to know when to let go of a toxic relationship but to know how to keep all the relationships in your life as healthy as possible.
5. Stop Overloading Your Schedule
When we are too busy, even if the schedule is filled with exciting things, we can feel more stressed, simply from a lack of downtime. If the schedule is cluttered with stressful or unnecessary activities, it becomes even more draining. Learning to say no to demands on your time and cutting out the things in your life that stress you are great strategies for cultivating inner peace.
6. Stop Your Cognitive Distortions
Thinking patterns can be habitual, and what you habitually think about colors your world and contributes to your stress levels. This can be good news if your thought patterns have an optimistic bent; it can be quite damaging if your thinking patterns tend toward the negative. Because the stress response is triggered by perceived threat, an attitude that maximizes the negative can lead to us more often feeling threatened and, therefore, stressed.
7. Stop Putting Off Exercise
Exercise can help you to feel less stressed in the short run and build your resilience toward stress in the long run. Many people know this but have a difficult time getting off the couch on a regular basis, especially when stressed, or too busy to get onto the couch in the first place.
It’s ironic that sometimes when we would most benefit from exercise, that’s the last thing we want to do. Push yourself to do it!
8. Stop Negativity
When we don’t have control in a situation, we are more likely to feel stressed.11 And, interestingly, we sometimes sense that we have less control than we actually have! Recognizing the choices we do have—even if they are not the choices we wish we had—can help us to feel more empowered, optimistic, and less the victim of circumstance.
9. Stop Missing Opportunities
When stressed, we can often feel defeated or tired of the fight and miss opportunities to take charge of a situation. Other times, we may meet disappointments or personal failures, and neglect to keep trying, which makes what could be a temporary setback into something much larger. Developing an optimistic attitude can not only help you to feel happier and more grateful for what you have, but it can also help you to see opportunities you may otherwise miss if you focus mainly on the things that stress you.
10. Don’t Ignore Your Stress
People often don’t address their stress in a proactive way until they feel overwhelmed by it, and often then, they tend to be reactive rather than proactive, which doesn’t always lead to the best decision-making. Stress management is an ongoing process, not a one-time act.
It is important to have an overall stress management plan that includes not only cutting out stressors and managing stress that you feel, but actually remaining aware of the stress you are experiencing, and not letting your stress levels get too high.
11. Throttle your media consumption
Seek out reliable news sources – such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or your state health board – for the latest information about COVID-19. However, we recommend limiting the news to less than a few times per day. Check first thing in the morning and the late afternoon. But not before bedtime. Constantly tuning into the news increases stress and often draws attention to things that you have little control over.
12. Get outside
No matter what the season, take an opportunity to get outside and experience nature – but be sure to follow any shelter-in-place and social distancing guidelines. Step away from your home office and take a walk around your neighborhood or a local trail – if opened. If you have kids, go on a nature or neighborhood scavenger hunt or play “I spy” in the yard.
13. Control What You Can
During this time of uncertainty, take the opportunity to control what you can in your home environment. Get the family to pitch in for some deep cleaning. Sort through your family’s clothing and set aside any donations for when donation centers open back up. Do some cleanup outdoors. In the fall, rake the yard and check the gutters, if you can do so safely. If it’s spring, clean out your flower garden or prepare your vegetable garden for planting. Accomplishing tasks such as these can be rewarding.
14. Get Creative
Using your hands and your creative brain can be a wonderful way to relieve stress. It helps you focus on the present and create something new. If you have arts and crafts supplies on hand, use them to create something special. If you need a little inspiration, check out this list of kids’ crafts to make with minimal supplies. There are also several fun crafts that artists of all ages and skill levels can make using household items.
15. Seek Help When Needed
If you feel stressed too much of the time, it’s a good idea to create a plan for managing stress before your stress levels create obvious health issues. You can use the resources in this site to create a cohesive stress management plan that includes short-term stress relievers, long-term resilience-builders, and basic education in stress.
If your stress levels are unhealthy and you feel you need more support and resources, consider getting help. You should see your doctor or community health center if:
- You feel stressed often
- Particular things stress you and you feel they are beyond your control
- You feel your reactions to stress are extreme or worry you
- You feel anxious or depressed about stress.
16. Get immediate help in a crisis
While people can mitigate certain types of stress by taking a break, breathing deeply, connecting with friends or using online tools, other types of stress may require expert assistance. If you are struggling with stress, anxiety or depression, we encourage you to visit this resource page from the National Institute of Mental Health or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
In addition, you may contact:
- Call 911
- Disaster Distress Helpline: 1-800-985-5990 (press 2 for Spanish), or text TalkWithUs for English or Hablanos for Spanish to 66746. Spanish speakers from Puerto Rico can text Hablanos to 1-787-339-2663.
- Lifeline Crisis Chat.
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 or text LOVEIS to 22522
- National Child Abuse Hotline: 1-800-4AChild (1-800-422-4453) or text 1-800-422-4453
- National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or Online Chat
- The Eldercare Locator: 1-800-677-1116 TTY Instructions
- Veteran’s Crisis Line: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or Crisis Chat or text: 8388255
Stress, Better Health Channel, Last updated: May 2020
10 Things to Stop Doing If You’re Stressed: Are You Sabotaging Yourself? Here’s How to Stop, Elizabeth Scott, MS, Updated on September 24, 2020
Coping with Stress, Centers for Disease Control, Updated July 1, 2020