Stress is an accessory we all seem to carry. It comes in all shapes and sizes and can cause a myriad of issues involving both the body and the mind. The importance of stress management and the education around the role that stress has on our minds and our bodies is severely underemphasized. In a world that glorifies productivity, this oftentimes leads to burnout and chronic stress as a byproduct of this expectation.
While our bodies are designed to respond to stress, the heightened level of stress in modern times surpasses our body’s capacity to adapt effectively. At Awakened Path, we understand the importance of identifying stress management tools that help minimize the effects that stress has on both mental and physical health. While stress is not always avoidable, it can certainly be managed in a more health-supporting way. Through education on how stress impacts both our body and our mind, we can be best equipped to critically examine the stress in our own lives and take steps towards mitigating it.
What is Chronic Stress?
Yale Medicine defines chronic stress as, “a consistent sense of feeling pressure and overwhelmed over a long period of time.” How many of you resonate with this definition? According to the American Psychological Association, “more than 75% of Americans report physical or emotional symptoms of stress.” While it is a normal part of the human experience, it has become outrageously out of control. Prolonged exposure to stress impacts the immune, cardiovascular, neuroendocrine, and central nervous systems. It is no surprise that stress can impact both physical and mental health in tremendous ways.
There are a multitude of different sources that can contribute to chronic stress; some you may not even realize. Whether there are unavoidable life circumstances or daily stressors that influence our body’s stress levels, generally speaking, it is a combination of different factors that can cause chronic stress.
The Physiology Behind Chronic Stress
The body’s autonomic nervous system is responsible for heart rate, shifts in breathing, increased alertness, and decreased digestion, among other bodily functions. It is the body’s “built in” stress response, otherwise known as the sympathetic nervous system or the “fight or flight response,” that enables us to handle stressful situations.
This evolutionary response was meant to prepare our bodies to either fight or escape stressful situations. For example, if one was to encounter a dangerous predator while navigating the wilderness, the stress response would equip the body to either take on the threat or prep the body to avoid it. This response is critical to our body’s defense system. Once the stressor was no longer present, the body would return to normal. Under the stress response, the body goes through a variety of different changes in order to optimize its response to a threat.
However, in modern times, stress no longer looks like a tiger or a bear in the wilderness. It looks like a nasty email, a looming deadline, a negative work environment, a toxic relationship, etc. It is no longer necessarily directly threatening to our existence, but it is certainly threatening to our physical and mental health. More recently, the stress of shifts in common life experiences due to COVID-19 presents an additional layer of stress that impacts our health.
Nowadays, the stressors that activate the stress response are persistent and omnipresent. Our bodies no longer have the opportunity to return to baseline as it once could because the stressors are in constant action. Continued activation of the stress response causes harm to the body and the mind. Bottom line, we are all stressed out. Our bodies are deprived of the opportunity to return to baseline which perpetuates the activation of the stress response.
Common symptoms of stress include (but are not limited to):
- Anxiety or irritability
- Chest pain or heart racing
- Exhaustion and fatigue
- Headaches, dizziness, shaking
- Digestive problems
- Weakened immunity
On top of the body’s response to chronic stress, we oftentimes turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms to minimize symptoms or find temporary relief. These unhealthy coping skills can include alcohol or drug use, gambling, emotional eating, compulsive behaviors such as sex or shopping, etc. These behaviors exacerbate current mental health concerns and can further contribute to a host of additional mental health issues that must be addressed simultaneously. It is a vicious cycle that can result in difficulty in functioning daily.
What to do about minimizing the impact of stress?
As mentioned earlier, stress is not entirely avoidable. However, there are certainly ways to bolster stress management and create a buffer to avoid the intensity of which we experience the repercussions of stress within our daily lives.
Self care is a trendy term that is oftentimes misinterpreted as materialistic experiences or purchases to manage difficult emotions. However, self care can be simple behaviors or habits implemented to manage stress and reduce symptoms that result due to chronic stress. Self care includes meditation, regular exercise, journaling, nourishment through nutrition, and proper hydration. Mindfulness, meditation, and deep breathing are especially useful in activating the body’s relaxation response. The previous examples are not an exhaustive list of the options to practice self care and are foundational, daily habits that support both physical and mental health.
Similarly, we can take time to examine where the greatest sources of stress are and what we can do about them. For example, consider: which relationships are causing me the most stress? How is my work environment contributing to my stress? Do my lifestyle habits support my stress levels? Sometimes, it takes a step back to look at the bigger picture of our lives to truly recognize the areas in which bring us the most stress. By fully understanding the role that stress plays on our mental and physical health, we are more equipped to take action in reducing it wherever possible.
What else can I do?
Therapy! Therapy (for yourself, your relationship, your child, or your family) is one of the best ways to learn to manage stress more effectively. The therapeutic space allows the opportunity to process difficult emotions associated with stress that infiltrates our daily lives. At Awakened Path specifically, we firmly believe in the need for self care and stress management skills to help support a more vibrant life. Our clinicians can help you identify different self care strategies that are specific to you and work towards creating a routine that brings you greater peace and diminished stress. Consider our approach to stress management at Awakened Path and how we can best support your wellness.
Check out this blog series on PLEASE, an effective stress management tool: https://www.awakenedpathcounseling.com/p-l-e-a-s-e-stress-management-skills-part-5/
Check out this article on the influence of chronic stress on anxiety and depression: https://www.jscimedcentral.com/Psychiatry/psychiatry-5-1091.pdf