We all need some stress to keep us going and motivate us in life, or we won't get anything done! Stress is what makes us get up and perform at work, get the motivation and focus to study for a test, to prepare for a presentation, etc.
But excessive stress can have negative effects on us in several ways:
- Decreased concentration
- Reduced ability to make decisions
- Irritability and less emotional regulation
The feeling of stress is related to stress chemicals made within our bodies. Our ancestors were kept alive by stress. The “fight or flight” response occurs when our bodies released chemicals designed to help us either fight off or escape from a threat. That response remains today, so while we’re no longer in danger of being eaten by a saber-toothed tiger, we still release those chemicals that are intended to help us respond to a perceived threat. Those chemicals are helpful and necessary to save our lives during critical moments, but chronic stress, resulting from too many pressures and commitments in our lives, causes these chemicals to be in our system all the time. And that’s where the trouble starts.
When we’re chronically stressed, we experience:
Chronic Stress and Depression
- High blood pressure (increasing risk of stroke and other complications, such as eye and kidney damage)
- Increased heart rate and breathing rate
- Decreased blood flow to the brain and gut (because it’s all being directed to the limbs to help you “escape”)
- Decreased immunity to illness (not only colds and simple infections, but also cancer, heart disease, etc.)
- Arterial wall damage from the stress chemicals themselves
Depression can often be the result of chronic stress. Some of the same chemicals related to chronic stress are also involved in the development of depression. Plus, if you’re stressed all the time and don’t feel like it’s ever going to get better, that can lead you right down the road to depression.
Stress can also take its toll on relationships. People who are highly stressed can be difficult to be around. It’s important to be able to recognize your own stress symptoms in order to be able to deal with them more quickly and effectively.
For example, many people struggling with high stress can be demanding, short-tempered and even mean. Oftentimes, we take these feelings out on those closest to us. It doesn’t take very long for our spouses, significant others, children, parents, friends, coworkers, etc. to get sick of it and decide to avoid us. The degree of avoidance could even mean the end of the relationship, and it could happen at a time when we need our support system the most.
So now that we know stress is so-very-bad, then what should we do about it? Believe it or not, the most important thing you can do to manage stress is exercise. Exercise helps burn off the chemicals that are telling us to run. Doing some activity (not necessarily running) helps the brain receive the message that the body is moving, and then the chemicals are reduced. Additionally, exercise causes the release of endorphins, which are natural mood elevators.
A second very effective stress-reducer is to limit or eliminate caffeine use (ugh, I know!). Caffeine mimics the very chemicals we’re trying to alleviate. Reducing/eliminating caffeine also helps with anxiety disorders for similar reasons. It’s important not to go cold-turkey on caffeine elimination (especially if you’re a coffee/soda/tea addict) as this can cause a rebound/withdrawal effect. And while it’s tempting to reach for an energy drink when you feel like you have 286 things to do in the next hour, it can actually make you feel worse and aggravate your stress level.
Stress is sometimes more self-imposed than it needs to be. Try to fight the challenge of procrastination. For myself, there are certain things that I know I don’t like to do, so I put them off. But while I’m putting them off, my mind is dwelling on these things—I KNOW I have to do them at some point, so I can’t enjoy the present moment. In the time that I’ve been preoccupied with delaying the task, I could’ve probably done it already.
Sometimes list making can be helpful. Prioritizing what needs to be done is an obvious effect, as is simply seeing everything on paper—it’s not “pinging” around in your head any more like a pinball machine. Another advantage to a list is that you might be able to delegate some of the items. For example, your spouse could pick up the dry cleaning on the way home, or a coworker might be able to run one of those work errands.
A disadvantage of list-making is it may be so overwhelming that you have trouble getting started. An example of this is a friend who made a list for what she needed to get done on a Saturday, and it covered two legal-sized sheets of paper. She was immobilized. So start small and prioritize.
Stress Reduction Tips
- Get adequate sleep (being tired makes everything worse)
- Watch your nutrition (sugar highs and their subsequent lows results in feeling terrible and making you even more irritable). Your vehicle doesn’t run on bad gas, so why give your body crummy fuel?
- Enjoy leisure activities/hobbies. Sometimes these are the first to go when you’re crunched for time, but doing things that you like to do—whether by yourself or with others—is very important. It’s much like the instructions we receive on an airplane. If the oxygen mask drops, you need to put on your own mask before you can help others.
- Journaling about whatever is going on in your life at any given time can really help. Venting about the bad things can keep them from being bottled up, and being grateful for the good things can help you see the silver lining of any situation.
- Many people find that a daily gratitude list (upon waking or going to bed at night) is one of the most potent stress reduction tools that they have. Perspective is so important.
- Meditation and relaxation exercises can be helpful. One of the easiest exercises to do is deep breathing. Often with stressful situations we “forget” to breathe correctly. We breathe shallow and fast at a time when blood flow to our brain is already decreased. Not good.
Deep breathing can be done anywhere at any time. Place your hand on your abdomen, and take a deep breath so you feel your abdomen rise. Slowly exhale letting your abdomen fall. Do this 3 times or so, and you’ll be amazed by how much better you feel. The other thing that happens is that you buy yourself some time so you don’t say something you wish you hadn’t!
Now, take five minutes, and go for a walk. Do some deep breathing while you’re at it….and stop stressing!