We all can get overwhelmed by stress in our lives from time to time. How many of the following situations are you dealing with right now? Caring for your children or your elderly parents. Working for an unreasonable boss, having unreasonable productivity standards at work, or doing the work of two. Your bills are overdue and you need to go grocery shopping because the fridge is empty except for a jar of mayonnaise. You are late for work again and your gas tank is empty. Your car needs new brakes, but your checking account is overdrawn. Many of us are coping with these things I’ve listed on a daily basis. This constant onslaught is what brings stress into our lives.
Where Does Stress Come From
Stress is our body's natural way of coping with pressures in our lives. Our stress response has actually developed over many decades via the evolutionary process into what it is today. As such, it is a process meant first and foremost, to protect us. Think of it like an early warning system there to protect you from the dangers you might face in your daily life.
Your caveman ancestor faced a very dangerous world. He never knew when he would be attacked by a wild animal, become infected by unknown and unseen microorganisms, freeze to death, or otherwise face an early death. Because of this, his body developed the fight-or-flight response to prepare him to outlive these threats. This fight-or-flight response is still with us today and forms the basis of our stress response.
Symptoms of Stress
Stress can look different in different people, but has several common signs and symptoms. Some of these are:
Feelings of anxiety or overwhelm
Shortness of breath
A feeling of dread
A feeling of panic
Difficulty enjoying activities like usual
Difficulty concentrating, memory problems
Increased sensation of pain
Getting sick often and easily
Feelings of restlessness
When you don’t deal with your stress on a regular basis and allow it to build up, it will become what we call chronic stress. This brings with it a whole host of problems which include many different health problems like high blood pressure, heart disease, grinding teeth, feeling pressured and overwhelmed, digestive issues, insomnia, appetite changes, depression, anxiety, aches and pains, migraines, arthritis, diabetes, obesity, alcohol or substance abuse, and other health problems. You can see how it might be in your best interest to manage your stress.
How to Manage Your Stress
1. Establish healthy sleep habits. Current recommendations are that adults need 7 hours of sleep per day.
2. Eat a healthy diet. This will help you to fight off the effects of stress. I think we all know what this entails- a good mix of colorful fruits and veggies, lean meats, whole grains, and healthy fats. Nothing fancy here.
3. Exercise regularly. This will help you to produce the good hormones that counteract stress in your body. Find something that you enjoy so it will be easier to establish a regular pattern.
4. Find a mindfulness practice that you can do regularly. This can be as simple as deep breathing or can be something like meditation, Tai Chi, or yoga. Research shows that deep breathing will start up the parasympathetic system which actually reverses the effects of fight or flight. Check out this previous blog on deep breathing here. Stretching is great as well. Research shows that it will relax tightened muscles. It also increases Serotonin levels in the body which will improve your mood and release the effects of stress and tension.
5. Limit tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana. Although using these substances may help you to feel more relaxed in the short term, they generally increase your stress in the long term. These substances can increase tension, behavioral acting out, and consequences, as well as ultimately increase feelings of depression and anxiety.
6. Allow yourself some downtime. If you are in the habit of filling every minute of every day with some sort of activity, or if you need to be productive at all times, then you are increasing your stress. Taking some time to do something you enjoy, or time to even do nothing can be really healing and rejuvenating for you. Strive for a balance in your day between doing those things you have to do, and those that you want to do. If not that, then at least work in a few periods of downtime throughout the week.
7. Build a support system that you can rely on. Having people in your life who you can call on at a moment’s notice or who will emotionally have your back is incredibly important. Having supportive people in your life helps to mitigate the detrimental changes stress can cause in your brain. It’s really that important.
8. And now, a few fun ways to fight stress! Life doesn’t have to be all serious all the time. Sometimes you just have to break loose. Try some of these fun ways to fight stress:
a. Trade massages with your partner
b. Go dancing
c. Take a bubble bath
d. Bake something yummy
e. Fill a page with doodling
f. Read a story, or listen to a story on tape
g. Finish a puzzle
h. Listen to a comedy routine
i. Drink some OJ (foods high in vit C will help reduce stress)
j. Listen to some music
k. Go for a bike ride
l. Blow up a balloon (it forces you to deep breath)
m. Paint a picture
n. Laugh! This will reduce cortisol levels, which, in case you forgot, is the stress hormone
Not managing your stress effectively can lead to chronic problems including depression and anxiety. Make stress management a part of your regular self-care routine and you can’t go wrong! And if you need help or would like to talk more about this topic, please follow the link for information on self-esteem counseling and confidence building.