“I’m under a lot of stress right now.” You’ve heard people say it, and chances are excellent that you’ve said it yourself at some point — perhaps many times. But do you know what stress really is and how it affects your body and mind? Here, I’d like to take a more in-depth look at what it really means to be stressed. We’ll also explore the idea of building resilience to help you through your most difficult and stressful moments.
So What is Stress, Anyway?
Stress, while often unpleasant, is a normal part of being human. It’s your reaction to a difficult, dangerous, or frustrating situation — the feeling of being overwhelmed or unable to cope with your circumstances. Stress can be acute (sudden in onset) if it’s related to your immediate situation, like an important presentation at work or a big traffic jam that’s making you late. When you’re stressed, you might notice that your pulse is racing or that your palms are sweaty — those are natural physical reactions to a high-stakes situation! This kind of stress tends to dissipate as soon as the situation has resolved itself.
Stress can also be chronic, which means you’re experiencing some degree of it all the time. You might feel chronic stress about your finances, your employment, or a family member who is ill. You could even be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) if you’ve recently witnessed a frightening event like a natural disaster or serious car accident.
Chronic stress can manifest itself physically as frequent headaches, insomnia, digestive issues, high blood pressure, or jaw-clenching. It also affects your mental and emotional health, making you feel irritable, panicky, or depressed. And it can even have an impact on your social life, making you reluctant to spend time with friends and family.
Now, stress isn’t always bad. It can help to keep you more alert and motivated. Think about it: have you ever noticed that a little rush of adrenaline can be a positive influence before a big presentation or interview? Stress isn’t harmful when it helps you rise to the occasion and meet a challenge head-on. It’s only when it’s chronic and difficult to manage that stress becomes a problem.
The Relationship Between Stress and Mental Health
Chronic stress is highly detrimental to your mental and emotional health. It can lead to clinical depression, a major mood disorder characterized by feelings of sadness, anger, listlessness, and hopelessness. It’s a vicious cycle — your stress can lead you to depression, and your depression, in turn, can make you feel more stressed. You might be experiencing the stress-depression double whammy if you:
- have recently noticed a major change in your appetite, whether you’re eating more or less than usual.
- have gained or lost weight unexpectedly.
- are sleeping poorly or not at all, OR sleeping more than usual.
- finding it difficult to concentrate
- have lost interest in things that used to be important to you or make you happy.
- have lost interest in socializing.
- are more prone to outbursts of anger or tears than usual.
- are having thoughts about hurting yourself.
If you’ve been having any thoughts about self-harm or suicide, please drop what you’re doing and call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline right away at (800) 273–8255. It’s important that you get help immediately.
Now let’s check out some smart stress management strategies. Once you know how to manage stress effectively, you won’t feel like it’s getting the best of you.
Tips for Busting Stress and Building Resilience
There’s more than one way to reduce stress — and you’re going to want to attack the beast that is your chronic stress from multiple angles. I really like Dr. Sue Varma’s Four Ms of Mental Health for stress mitigation and overall well-being, as they’re easy to understand and remember. The Four Ms are:
Meaningful Connection or Engagement
We need regular social connection to stay happy and emotionally healthy. Call your mom, schedule a FaceTime with your cousin in Europe, or make a coffee date with your BFF. If you’ve been working from home and are feeling isolated, take your laptop to a coffee shop or public park and work from there. You’ll be amazed at how much better you feel once you’ve had a few nice chats with people. And catching up with someone you love can help you remember that people have your back, which can help you to be more resilient. Caveat: it’s okay (and sometimes necessary) to avoid people who bug you. While you may not be able to dodge all interaction with your boss or your in-laws, it’s fine to be unavailable to your nosy neighbor or coworker.
Mastery is the act of doing something you enjoy, like knitting, playing an instrument, riding a bike, or baking cookies. You don’t have to excel at it for the activity to be effective. Getting into something and completing the task will help you blow off steam and regulate your mood.
What is “mindfulness,” anyway? We hear people talk about it frequently, but it’s not always clear what it is. Mindfulness is being fully present in the moment, shutting out distractions and noisy thoughts. You can practice mindfulness by spending just five to ten minutes of your day focusing on deep breathing techniques or progressive muscle relaxation. You might enjoy using an app like Calm, which offers guided meditations and other brain exercises to help you slow down and center yourself.
Movement means making time for exercise every day, even if it’s just a ten- or fifteen-minute walk around your neighborhood. You’ll get some sunlight and fresh air, get your heart rate going, and toast some unwanted calories. If you’re feeling up to it, make it a half-hour or hour-long walk or jog. There’s nothing like exercise to combat the mental and physical effects of stress, and you’ll sleep better that night too!
Stress is part of life, and being equipped to deal with it will help you to stay resilient when the world around you is chaotic. When everything feels like it’s too much, pause and remember the stress reduction techniques you’ve learned. They’ll help you navigate life’s stickier situations without reaching your boiling point. Take a deep breath. You’ve got this!
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