So you’ve been told by a trusted medical professional that your health issues are being caused by stress. Now what? You can’t magically eliminate the issues that cause stress in your life, but understanding the toll they take on your body and being aware of the signs that you might be crossing that line are important steps to being able to reduce the effects of stress – and make sure it doesn’t negatively affect your health.
Let’s first talk a little more about stress.We all have a vision in our minds about what that looks like – frenzy, chaos or massive amounts of pressure – but stress is a normal (and healthy) part of everyday life, often going unnoticed until it builds up and manifests itself into that vision you have in your head.
What causes stress?
Stress is a normal human reaction to changes or challenging situations. When we feel threatened, our body has a “fight or flight” response – our brain releases stress hormones (namely, cortisol and adrenaline) that cause an elevated heart rate, rapid breathing, tightened muscles and higher blood pressure.
Stress can be useful – it can help us accomplish tasks or prevent us from getting hurt. But if there is too much stress over time, it can make us both mentally and physically ill. This is referred to as long-term stress – or chronic stress – and it’s caused by a combination of many factors including the demands of work and school, financial worries, changes in our life like divorce or moving cities, and traumatic events such as being in an accident.
What impact can stress have on my body?
Stress can be hard to spot but there are some signs and symptoms to keep an eye out for. These vary for each person and can be physical, emotional, or behavioral.
Physical signs include headaches, stomach problems such as increased heartburn in the stomach or digestive issues like pain, bloating or diarrhea/constipation, sweating, sleep trouble, and chest pain.
Mental signs are things like not being able to concentrate and feeling irritable, anxious, or depressed. Behavioral signs may be over-eating, drinking too much, or isolating from loved ones.
When stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol get released, it can cause a more rapid heartbeat or unstable sugar levels in your bloodstream. When this occurs frequently, you may experience more severe symptoms including getting sick more often, insomnia, headaches, dizzy spells, feeling down or angry a lot of the time, depression, heart disease, high blood pressure and even diabetes.
What can I do to help reduce the effects of stress on my body?
Reducing stress is important to ensure both physical and mental health in the long term. There are a few proven techniques to help you manage stress effectively, including:
- Exercise: Regular physical activity is one of the best ways to keep long-term stress in check. Even short bursts of activity can help break the stress cycle and give your body a moment to reset and recover.
- Relaxation: In addition to exercise, try finding an activity that relaxes you. A common practice is yoga or meditation, but relaxation can come in many forms —only you know what gets you “out of your own head” and fills your bucket instead of emptying it. For one person, organizing a closet can be stressful and filled with pressure, whereas for someone else, the reduction of clutter may bring them peace and satisfaction. Reducing stress is about finding something that makes you happy and relaxed and doing that, even in short bursts, to break up the remaining hours of the day filled with stress.
- Sleep: While easier said than done, getting enough sleep each night is truly critical. Lack of sleep often is the short-term snowball that starts the avalanche of chronic stress. Quieting the noise in your brain is the first step. Reading (in print or on an e-reader, NOT on your phone) is a great way for your mind to switch gears, and choosing something relatively boring can help you feel sleepy. White noise apps on your phone are another way to help lull you to sleep.
- Therapy: If talking helps, don’t hesitate to speak to your healthcare provider, therapist, employee assistance program or even a friend. Sometimes the simple act of saying your stressors out loud takes away some of their power over you.
- Mindfulness: Asking yourself whether what you’re stressed about is something you have any control over can also help. If you’re able to compartmentalize and set aside thoughts related to situations you can’t change, your mind has more room to deal with the “productive stress” that helps you problem solve things you can actually change.
- Setting Boundaries: Shed the shoulds: There are a lot of social norms and societal pressures we feel like we “should” do or adhere to that just add to the never ending list. If you WANT to do those things because they bring you joy or you HAVE to do them because they’re important to the financial or personal security of you or your family, do them. If you’re doing them because you feel an external judgment for not doing them, seriously consider the value of each of the things on that list and decide how important they truly are.
If you ever feel overwhelmed, have thoughts of hurting yourself, or start using drugs or alcohol as a way of coping, seek medical attention right away! The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a free 24/7 national helpline for referrals and info: Just dial 1-800-662-HELP.
Can mental health professionals help me with my stress?
A psychologist or counselor can absolutely assist in many different ways, including helping you identify and manage the sources of stress, which isn’t always as easy as it sounds. They can also provide psychoeducation so that you learn more about your emotions and develop helpful coping skills or suggest support groups or other resources for managing stress. Additionally, they can provide advice on how to reduce short-term stress at the moment, and provide strategies for managing it long-term.
Does what I eat affect my stress levels?
Yes! Food is an important factor in stress. Reducing your intake of foods high in sugar and refined carbs is highly recommended because they’re linked to mood swings. Avoiding caffeine and alcohol can also significantly reduce your stress level.
Instead, focus on eating plenty of whole foods like fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean protein, nuts, and seeds to help the body manage stress. Drinking plenty of water can help reduce stress, too. Wherever possible, add in foods that are rich in vitamins and minerals, B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, and antioxidants. When in doubt, check out our list of 5 Foods to Reduce Stress.
Let’s be clear, our bodies’ stress responses can motivate us and protect us, but it’s important to recognize when we have “too much of a good thing.” Issues caused by stress are often hard to diagnose because we don’t want to admit to ourselves that our bodies could succumb to the pressure caused by stress. We’re embarrassed and frustrated that we can’t just “handle it.” But sometimes there are just too many “its” over too long a period of time for us to simply add to the load and we need to take a step back and ensure we treat stress the way we would any other chronic health condition.
So take a moment to identify your stressors and begin to make small changes to break the cycle and take away the power they have over you and your body. There’s no magic wand and, unless you’ve found a way to clone yourself, just taking on less pressure is often not an option. Be realistic and do what you can – HOW you start is less important than THAT you start. Finding ways to reduce your stress shouldn’t create more stress. So start simple, start today.