Stress is a common problem that affects almost all of us at some point in our lives. Learning to identify when you are under stress, what is stressing you, and different ways of coping with stress can greatly improve both your mental and physical wellbeing.
This article provides basic information on stress and some simple recommendations for dealing with stress. It is not intended to take the place of advice from a physician or counselor, but it can be the first step in deciding how to manage your stress and increase your quality of life.
What Is Stress? Stress is your body’s way of responding to any kind of demand. It can be caused by both good (e.g., job interview) and bad (e.g., death of a loved one) experiences. When people feel stressed by something going on around them, their bodies react by releasing chemicals into the blood. These chemicals give people more energy and strength, which can be a good thing if their stress is caused by physical danger. But this can also be a bad thing, if their stress is in response to something emotional and there is no outlet for this extra energy and strength. This article will discuss different causes of stress, how stress affects you, the difference between ‘good’ or ‘positive’ stress and ‘bad’ or ‘negative’ stress, and some common facts about how stress affects people today.
What Causes Stress? Many different things can cause stress — from physical (such as fear of something dangerous) to emotional (such as worry over your family or job.) Identifying what may be causing you stress is often the first step in learning how to better deal with your stress. Some of the most common sources of stress are:
Survival Stress – You may have heard the phrase “fight or flight” before. This is a common response to danger in all people and animals. When you are afraid that someone or something may physically hurt you, your body naturally responds with a burst of energy so that you will be better able to survive the dangerous situation (fight) or escape it all together (flight). This is survival stress.
Internal Stress – Have you ever caught yourself worrying about things you can do nothing about or worrying for no reason at all? This is internal stress and it is one of the most important kinds of stress to understand and manage. Internal stress is when people make themselves stressed. This often happens when we worry about things we can’t control or put ourselves in situations we know will cause us stress. Some people become addicted to the kind of hurried, tense, lifestyle that results from being under stress. They even look for stressful situations and feel stress about things that aren’t stressful.
Environmental Stress – This is a response to things around you that cause stress, such as noise, crowding, and pressure from work or family. Identifying these environmental stresses and learning to avoid them or deal with them will help lower your stress level.
Fatigue and Overwork – This kind of stress builds up over a long time and can take a hard toll on your body. It can be caused by working too much or too hard at your job(s), school, or home. It can also be caused by not knowing how to manage your time well or how to take time out for rest and relaxation. This can be one of the hardest kinds of stress to avoid because many people feel this is out of their control.
Recognizing when you are stressed and managing your stress can greatly improve your life. Some short-term stress — for example what you feel before an important job presentation, test, interview, or sporting event — may give you the extra energy you need to perform at your best. But long-term stress — for example constant worry over your job, school, or family — may actually drain your energy and your ability to perform well.
Physical and Mental Signs of Stress You’ve heard before that recognizing when you are under stress is the first step in learning how to deal with your stress, but what does that mean? Sometimes we are so used to living with stress, we don’t know how to identify it.
Whether you are experiencing immediate or short-term stress or have been experiencing stress for a long time or long-term stress, your body and mind may be showing the effects. Here are some ‘warning signs’ that stress is affecting your body and mind.
Signs of Short-term Stress Often occurring in quick ‘bursts’ in reaction to something in your environment, short-term stress can affect your body in many ways. Some examples include:
Making your heartbeat and breath faster
Making you sweat more
Leaving you with cold hands, feet, or skin
Making you feel sick to your stomach or giving you ‘butterflies’
Tightening your muscles or making you feel tense
Leaving your mouth dry
Making you have to go to the bathroom frequently
Increasing muscle spasms, headaches, fatigue, and shortness of breath
While this burst of energy may help you in physical situations where your body needs to react quickly, it can have bad effects on your mind and performance if there is no outlet or reason for your stress. These effects may include:
Interfering with your judgment and causing you to make bad decisions
Making you see difficult situations as threatening
Reducing your enjoyment and making you feel bad
Making it difficult for you to concentrate or to deal with distraction
Leaving you anxious, frustrated or mad
Making you feel rejected, unable to laugh, afraid of free time, unable to work, and not willing to discuss your problems with others
Signs of Long-term Stress Long-term stress or stress that is occurring over long periods of time can have an even greater effect on your body and mind. Long-term stress can affect your body by:
Changing your appetite (making you eat either less or more)
Changing your sleep habits (either causing you to sleep too much or not letting you sleep enough)
Encouraging ‘nervous’ behavior such as twitching, fiddling, talking too much, nail biting, teeth grinding, pacing, and other repetitive habits
Causing you to catch colds or the flu more often and causing other illnesses such as asthma, headaches, stomach problems, skin problems, and other aches and pains
Affecting your sex life and performance
Making you feel constantly tired and worn out
Long-term stress can also have serious effects on your mental health and behavior. If you are under stress for long periods of time, you may find that you have difficulty thinking clearly, dealing with problems, or even handling day-to-day situations as simple as shaving, picking up clothes or arriving somewhere on time. Some mental signs of long-term stress include:
Worrying and feeling anxious (which can sometimes lead to anxiety disorder and panic attacks)
Feeling out of control, overwhelmed, confused, and/or unable to make decisions
Experiencing mood changes such as depression, frustration, anger, helplessness, irritability, defensiveness, irrationality, overreaction, or impatience and restlessness
Increasing dependence on food, cigarettes, alcohol, or drugs
Neglecting important things in life such as work, school, and even personal appearance
Developing irrational fears of things such as physical illnesses, natural disasters like thunderstorms and earthquakes, and even being terrified of ordinary situations like heights or small spaces
While occasionally experiencing one or two of the above symptoms may not be cause for concern (everyone has a few nervous habits and difficulties in their lives!), having a number of these symptoms may mean you are under more stress than you think. But realizing you are under stress is the first step in learning to deal with stress.
Responding to the immediate physical effects of stress can help lessen the long-term and mental effects of stress. Developing a healthier lifestyle and building activities into your schedule that help you relax can also help your body, and mind, bounce back from stress. Here are some other ‘quick fixes’ and long-term tips for helping you deal with the physical effects of stress.
Quick Fixes to Physical Effects of Stress Breathe deeply – take several deep breaths to slow down your heart rate and reduce your anxiety. Relax your muscles – stretch your neck, stand or sit up straight, get some of the tension out of your body. Make a change – step back from what you’re doing and/or what’s stressing you; a few seconds can bring a lot of perspective.
Laugh – nothing relieves the tension in your body, or your mind, like a little humor.
Leading a More Stress-free Lifestyle While quick fixes can make a difference, sometimes we need to make larger changes in our life to deal with stress. Again, keeping your body healthy helps you bounce back more quickly from stress and can have a great impact on your mental stress levels and health.
Exercise Regularly – Do something to get your blood pumping. This keeps your heart and lungs healthy. Walk, jog, run, dance, bike, swim, play tennis or handball, bowl, take yoga, lift weights, try aerobics, hike, climb rocks — the options are endless. Just beware of competitive sports if you tend to become angry or anxious when playing to win. Pick a sport that will help you relax, not increase your stress.
Adopt a Hobby – Have an activity that’s strictly for your own pleasure. This could be singing, playing an instrument, painting, knitting, bird watching, beach combing, photography, or ceramics; again, the options are endless. Make this your chance to ‘escape from the world’ for a while.
Stop Smoking – Many people light up when they are stressed, without realizing that this is making their stress even worse. The nicotine in tobacco causes a stress response in our body. If that’s not enough to make you quit, think about all the stressful illnesses smoking contributes to, such as cancer, heart disease, and high blood pressure. Or think of the immediate effects: bad breath, yellowed teeth, wrinkles, and increased phlegm. If you are a smoker, talk to a doctor, a nurse, or a friend about help in quitting. If you live or work around people who smoke, try to avoid their secondhand smoke.
Eliminate or Reduce Caffeine – A little pick-me-up in the morning may not be a bad thing, but relying too heavily on caffeine (either drinking large amounts or drinking it continuously throughout the day) can put your body into stress overdrive. Caffeine stimulates a stress response in your body (that’s what that pick-me-up is!) Too much can leave you feeling constantly stressed. When cutting back, remember that caffeine comes in other forms besides coffee — non-herbal teas, colas, chocolate, many pain-killers, and ‘stay awake’ products — so watch what you put in your body.
Eat Healthily – You are what you eat and sticking to a healthy diet will help keep your body strong. Reduce salt, which can lead to tension and high blood pressure, and eat plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables, and whole grains. Remember to eat regularly so you have enough energy. But try not to make your eating habits another stressful part of your life! Giving in to an occasional craving for a chocolate cookie or being rushed for time and eating a fast food lunch is not the end of the world, as long as these are occasional lapses and not regular habits.
Sleep Regularly and Get Enough Sleep – Base your sleep on what you need, not the needs of others around you. If you need eight hours of sleep a night to feel good throughout the day, don’t worry that your spouse/sister/parents need less or more. Every person has different sleep needs, and the majority of Americans do not get enough sleep. Once you know how many hours you (usually) need a night, try to stick to a regular sleep schedule so that you can get the most from your sleep time.
Learn a Relaxation Technique – Count your breath. Belly breathe. Make funny faces and wiggle your toes. Find a habit or technique that helps you relax on a day-to-day basis. Just make sure it’s one you can do regularly without it affecting your job, school, family or social life. Screaming at the top of your lungs may feel like a great stress relief, but it’s not going to get you any promotions or win you any friends.
Avoid Overusing Drugs and Alcohol – If you take medication, be sure to use the proper doses. If you drink alcohol, limit the amount you drink to no more than 1-2 drinks per day. Avoid all illegal substances. If you have an alcohol or drug problem, going through withdrawal can also cause stress; so be sure to work closely with your physician or a counselor when addressing your problem.
These are just some of the many ways you can reduce your stress. Visit your doctor; talk to a physical therapist or counselor; take an exercise class; check out a book on relaxation; or research other techniques online. You can also come up with your own techniques or activities! What’s important is to find something that works for you — this means something that you feel comfortable doing, can do easily and regularly, and makes you feel better.
Major life changes such as the death of loved ones, financial difficulties, moves or divorces, are bound to cause a person stress. Even joyful changes such as marriage, pregnancies, or holidays can add stress. These changes are part of life and can’t be avoided. But you can learn to better manage the stress you can’t avoid, and should learn to avoid the stress you can.
In addition to treating your body well and learning how to manage the physical symptoms of stress, changing your mental attitude and your lifestyle can help minimize stress.
Long-term Strategies for Dealing with Stress
Identify what is causing you stress. Don’t ignore or gloss over your problems. If something is bothering you, identify what it is. If you think it shouldn’t be bothering you, stop and ask yourself why it does — maybe something larger is bothering you and it has seemed easier to focus on the small things. This may help you cope in the moment-to-moment, but eventually you must face up to your larger issues. Taking the time to identify the serious stressors in your life will help you come up with a strategy for managing them.
Recognize what you can change. Can you change what’s bothering you? If not, can you change your response to the problem or learn to channel your frustration in another way? People find comfort in patterns, even if those patterns are stressful. Maybe it’s time to change those patterns. If your relatives criticize your cooking every time you invite them to dinner (and you aren’t ready to stop seeing them altogether), maybe you could suggest dining out or throw a pot-luck dinner where everyone brings a dish. Or maybe you can chime in and begin making outrageous jokes about how if they don’t like your tapioca you can always use the leftovers to re-caulk the bathroom. If you can’t change your stressors in life (such as critical relatives), maybe you can change the situation (different environment) or your response (humor) to lessen the most stressful situations.
Reduce the intensity of your reactions. Should you be reacting so strongly to the situation? Sometimes, we need to put things in perspective. You may be overreacting and seeing the situation as more stressful than it is. Take a breath; walk out of the room; accept that no one’s perfect, including your parents, coworkers, teachers, children, and yourself. Step back and ask yourself if what’s bothering you deserves all your attention and energy. Maybe the time you’re spending worrying could be better spent on improving your life and the life of those around you.
Re-examine your attitudes and ‘obligations’. Are you putting yourself under too much stress? Are you trying to be all things to all people? Sometimes in trying too hard to do good for others, we aren’t doing well for ourselves.
Stop and examine your priorities in life — and don’t forget to name yourself as one of those priorities. Is working overtime for that new television worth the quality time you’re sacrificing with your family and friends? Can’t take an hour out of your busy week to relax in a bath or read your new magazine but find yourself volunteering to help every family member, friend, coworker, and acquaintance? Feel that you’re depriving your family by buying a frozen dinner instead of preparing one from scratch although you’ve worked a ten-hour shift and need to sleep? You don’t want to set the bar too low, but you don’t want to set it so high that it’s overwhelming.
Ask yourself what you would expect from other people, and expect the same from yourself. Learn to forgive yourself and others when, on occasion, you can’t meet those standards — it’s called being human. And learn to accept help. Ask your family, friends, or partners for assistance. Instead of straining your relationships, you may find this helps. By handing over responsibilities to others (and letting them handle them their way, not ‘your’ way), you’re building trust and making them feel an important part of the process.
Organize yourself. Are you spreading yourself too thin? Are you more productive during certain times of the day? Overwork and fatigue are one of the most common causes of stress. Maybe you are taking on too much: learn to say no to things that will not affect your job, school or relationships. Spending time with family and friends is important, but sometimes you need down time and time to rest. Are you managing your time well? If you work better in the morning, plan your big tasks for morning. If you’re a night owl, plan your important tasks for later in the day. Visit the Tools and Resources area for a checklist of recommendations to improve your organizational skills.
Develop emotional supports and use them. Do you have someone you can talk to about your life? Having someone you can share both the good and bad with is important. If you have a large group of friends, lean on them in times of difficulty; you wouldn’t turn them away if they needed you, would you? If you don’t have a large network, start to build one. Join a group or organization where people will share your interests. Get out there — even if it’s just a trip to the grocery store, gym, library or WalMart; you never know who you may bump into. Seek assistance from professionals (health care, counselors, religious advisors) who are experienced and comfortable in giving support. Most of all, be your own best friend: accept any flaws or the occasional failure; make the most of your abilities and successes.
Let it all out. Laugh. Cry. Scream. Sometimes you need to let out your emotions and few tools are better than the ones nature gave us. Saving these emotional outbursts for a private, comfortable setting is important – crying, screaming and laughing hysterically at work or school will more likely add to your stress, after the fact, than reduce it.
But what’s wrong with having a good cry? Or a good belly laugh? Or a good yell (though certainly not directed at anyone in particular and preferably in the privacy of your car, closet, or pillow, so no one notifies the police). These mechanisms offer some of the most immediate means of stress relief — they just shouldn’t be your only way of dealing with stress.
Society often judges people who can’t control their emotions or behavior, and letting go around friends and family can sometimes result in hurt feelings. But occasionally unleashing your full fury on the dresser you always bump into in the middle of the night or having a good cry on the shoulder of a loved one could leave you more relaxed and relieved than any amount of time management, deep breathing, or rational discussion.
People who experience chronic stress should seek help from professionals – some burdens are too great to bear alone. Although there is no perfect treatment, there are a variety of medications and psychotherapies that can greatly improve the quality of life of people with severe stress problems.
Dr. Bahareh Talei received her Doctorate of Psychology (Psy.D.) from Pepperdine University, Graduate School of Education and Psychology. Dr. Talei is a licensed psychologist and is co-founder of Diagnostic & Counseling Center (DCC). Her experience has primarily been in working with children and adolescents with various disabilities such as autism and difficulties with learning and attention. Throughout her career, Dr. Talei has been actively engaged in the assessment of a diverse population (e.g., pervasive developmental disorder, learning disorders, central nervous system damage) and training of other professionals. Her experience and interests also includes conducting individual and group psychotherapy with family members of children with developmental disabilities and other populations (e.g., depression, anxiety disorders, and infertility).