Chronic stress can damage both mental and physical health. Being chronically stressed may leave you feeling fatigued, sap your ability to concentrate, and cause headaches and digestive difficulties.
Though acute stress can heighten certain immune responses, the wear and tear of chronic stress is bad for the immune system. Not all stress is bad. But long-term stress can lead to health problems. Preventing and managing long-term stress can lower your risk for other conditions, like heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, and depression. Fortunately, there are some small steps you can take that can have a big impact on reducing stress.
- How you perceive and think about a stressor can also make a big impact on how you respond. It’s not always possible to escape a stressful situation or avoid a problem, but you can try to reduce the stress you are feeling. Evaluate whether you can change the situation that is causing you stress, perhaps by dropping some responsibility, relaxing your standards or asking for help.
- Strong social support can improve resilience to stress. When you’re feeling stressed, take a break to call a friend and talk about your problems. A reassuring voice, even for a minute, can put everything in perspective. Giving support can also increase positive emotions and decrease negative emotions.
- Stress levels and diet are closely related. When we’re overwhelmed, we often forget to eat well and resort to using sugary, fatty snack foods as a pick-me-up. When confronted with a stressor, the central nervous system releases adrenaline and cortisol, which affects the digestive tract among other physiological changes. Acute stress can kill the appetite, but the release of the hormone cortisol during chronic stress can cause fat and sugar cravings. A diet high in a variety of nutrients can both protect health and provide more physical energy to deal with challenges.
- Avoid using substances such as alcohol to dampen the stress response since substances do not solve the root of the problem and can have serious health effects. Because stress causes muscles to tense, being stressed out can create tension headaches, backaches and general fatigue. Combat stress and these symptoms with stretches, massage or warm baths. A strong body of research shows that mindful meditation can reduce psychological stress and anxiety. Even short-term mindfulness meditation programs work. Focus on the present moment; if stray thoughts intrude, acknowledge them and then let them go.
- The advice “take a deep breath” may seem cliché, but it holds true when it comes to stress. While shallow breathing causes stress, deep breathing oxygenates your blood, helps center your body, and clears your mind. Breathe in and out slowly and deeply, concentrating on your lungs as they expand fully in your chest.
- Stress can cause you to lose sleep. Unfortunately, lack of sleep is also a key cause of stress. This vicious cycle causes the brain and body to get out of whack and only gets worse with time. Make sure to get the doctor-recommended seven to eight hours of sleep. Try to have a consistent sleep routine that allows time to wind down before lights out. Turn the TV off earlier, dim the lights, and give yourself time to relax before going to bed. It may be the most effective stress buster.
- Brisk movement may cancel out some of the negative effects of stress, including the impact of stress on the immune system. A short walk or simply standing up to stretch during the day can offer immediate relief in a stressful situation. Getting your blood moving releases endorphins and can improve your mood almost instantaneously.
- Humor and laughter can benefit both mental and physical health. Laughter releases endorphins that improve mood and decrease levels of the stress-causing hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Laughing tricks your nervous system into making you happy.
“Stress is an unavoidable part of life, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore it,” said Donald Jordan, LMSW, Clinician and Clinical Program Manager for Pathways.
“A small amount of short-term stress is actually a good thing; it helps motivate us and kick us into gear. Too much untreated stress over a long period of time, however, can cause potentially serious physical and mental health problems. The good news is that in many cases, stress is manageable. With some patience and a few useful strategies, you can reduce your stress, whether it’s family stress or stress at the workplace.”
If you feel overwhelmed and self-help isn’t helping, Pathways of West Tennessee Healthcare has professionals who can help you learn how to manage your stress effectively. They can help
you identify situations or behaviors that contribute to your stress and then develop an action plan to change the stressors, change your environment, and change your responses.