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Stress is a feeling of tension when you know that you are being put in a situation that is going to be challenging, and you then must manage this situation despite this feeling.
Stress causes your mind and body to be on alert, usually due to something negative or unexpected. You feel overwhelmed or unprepared for this event, leading to your experience of stress.
What Causes Stress?
Stress can come from many different sources. Some are expected, such as deadlines at work, financial burdens, or difficult situations you anticipate to occur. Other sources of stress are unexpected, such as a medical crisis, a disagreement with a loved one, or a global pandemic.
Essentially, stress occurs when you feel your natural resources for managing a situation are inadequate or temporarily overwhelmed.
In this situation, your mind and body respond negatively, and you begin to feel as if you “cannot catch up” with the feelings you are experiencing. This can be experienced somatically, through bodily sensations, or cognitively, through worry, apprehension, or dread.
The Effects of Stress on the Body and Mind
The mind and body are linked, but it is important to discuss the different signs and symptoms that occur in each system as it may be more apparent for some when these signs and symptoms come from the mind versus the body or vice versa.
The cognitive/emotional signs and symptoms of stress include:
- Fogginess or difficulty concentrating
- Forgetfulness or memory lapses
- A feeling as if your mind is racing and it is difficult to focus on any one task at a time
- Mood swings
- Depression, hopelessness, or even thoughts of suicide (If this is a symptom of your stress, it is imperative to seek help) (1)
The bodily signs and symptoms of stress include:
- Fatigue (1)
- Shortness of breath or chest pain – It is very important to seek medical attention if you are experiencing these symptoms.
- “Heaviness” as if your body has weights on it or it feels hard to move
- Pain – While pain can be caused by a variety of ailments, some people will somaticize or transmit their feelings into bodily sensations such as lower back or neck pain.
Each person is different in terms of how they manifest the signs and symptoms of stress.
What is important is being mindful of your tendency toward certain signs and symptoms and being open to seeking help/medical attention to determine if your symptoms may be something greater than stress.
For some, being in a constant state of anxiety is a sign that they are stressed; for others, it may be consistent lethargy or body aches or pains.
Coping With Stress in Unavoidable Situations
The best way to treat stress is to avoid it when possible. This is not always the reality for many people who live in a fast-paced, demanding society.
The most important thing is to find ways of reducing the amount of stress you are exposed to.
This may mean setting boundaries in the types of tasks you take on at work, avoiding potentially triggering situations with interpersonal relationships, or setting limits on the number of tasks you tackle on at once.
Once you have done what you can to limit the amount of stress you experience, the next important step would be to come up with strategies to manage stressors that are either unavoidable or routine.
For example, you are stressed out when in the presence of your in-laws. You may not be able to always avoid them and may need strategies to best manage and minimize your stress during this time.
These strategies can include:
- Limiting the amount of time or exposure to the stressor – In this example, you may prearrange with your spouse to leave after dinner.
- Engaging a support system – Call a friend or trusted confidante before the event to prepare and after to debrief.
- Taking a break when possible – Excuse yourself to take a breath outside, or give yourself an opportunity to disengage when needed.
- Breathe! – This may seem self-explanatory, but people have a tendency to take shallow, rapid breaths when stressed, which exacerbates the stress response rather than helping it. Try and take long, deep breaths and focus on your breathing if you start to feel overwhelmed. (2)
- Seek help – Therapy can be critical in providing a perspective on sources of stress you may overlook and giving you tools and strategies to deal with these stressors.
Major Stress-Related Complications
Ultimately, stress can be toxic to the body. Long-term exposure to stress has been shown to increase disease and significantly shorten lifespans. (3)
From a psychological perspective, long-term stress can lead to anhedonia, depression, anxiety, and panic. Often, when you are exposed to stress for long periods, you begin to feel hopeless and/or helpless, which in turn can contribute to even greater feelings of stress.
Best Way to Approach a Stressful Situation
The biggest factor in dealing with stress successfully is awareness. Often, long-term stress exposure can desensitize you to the amount of stress you have, and this can hamper your ability to deal with stress effectively.
1. Identify your stressors
First and foremost, it is important to consider what stressors exist in your life. This can be done by evaluating the recent past or even scanning the future to see if there are instances, people, or places that you know may cause you stress.
2. Mindfulness is key
From there, mindfulness is key. This is a buzzword that is thrown around frequently, but it is critical for stress management.
Knowing your threshold in terms of manageable versus unmanageable stress, going into stressful situations feelings prepared, and utilizing coping tools (either the ones mentioned above or others) are all part of mindfulness.
These measures will allow you to feel a greater sense of control in the situation and will make the stress feel transient and manageable as opposed to never-ending and overwhelming.
3. Consider the dose and duration of stress
Another thing to consider is the dose and duration of stress. One strong dose of stress can sometimes feel easier to manage than a long, enduring low-level stressor due to the sense that a beginning and an end exist, which makes it feel more manageable.
Some Useful Tips for Stress Management
Here are a few things you can do to make your life as stress-free as possible:
1. Follow a routine
Plan your day around a consistent schedule, with the same bedtime, mealtime, and leisure time every day.
Sticking to a routine will bring some order and stability into your daily life. You will generally feel more in control by focusing on the present-day and less stressed out about the unpredictable future.
Stay active to keep your mind off possible stressors, but reserve a part of your day for exercising. You do not have to do a hard-core workout; any light activity, yoga, aerobics, or cardio exercise would do.
Choose the duration and form of exercise that works for you, but make sure to do it regularly. This will help release endorphins, or happy hormones, that can reduce your stress levels while improving your overall physical and mental health.
3. Engage in things that make you happy and calm
Try relaxation and recreational activities that calm your mind and give you pleasure.
You can listen to soothing music, do a bit of yoga, meditation, or deep breathing, or take up gardening, writing, painting, or any other hobby that can focus your mind and energies on something productive rather than on the stress.
Be aware of the dose and duration of your stressors. If you are experiencing long-term stressors, be even more proactive with the mindful strategies. Even in small doses, being prepared and proactive are key aspects of stress management.
It is when you are caught off guard or feel as if though the stressor is beyond our control that you begin to feel overwhelmed and hopeless.