There seems to be a lot of talk about stress and how it can negatively impact your well-being, productivity and quality of life. But how aware are you about how serious these repercussions can be for your general health? Regardless of how much potential damage it can do, the truth about stress is that it is completely manageable. We tend to look at internal and external stressors as uncontrollable hurdles of life that we are forced to tolerate, but that’s not the case. With the right information and consistent practices you have the full capability to keep stress in check so you can move on with thriving. By the end of this article you should feel fully empowered to significantly lower your stress levels.
What is stress?
Stress is your body’s response to a trigger or any external or internal change that can influence your body to react physically, mentally, cognitively and / or emotionally. Stress can happen because of events in your environment, like moving to a new home or going through a break up, or it can develop simply from your own thoughts. This is why maintaining a strong mental health regimen is so important. However, stress is an unavoidable normal part of life, but you can develop strategies to better deal with stress so that it does not develop into a chronic issue.
There are 3 main types of stress: Acute, Episodic, and Chronic.
Acute stress is the most common of all stress types and usually results from what’s known as “reactive thinking” where an individual will make a rapid judgement or assumption of a situation. If acute stress occurs, it is normally from reactive thinking that is negative in nature. For example an intense argument can leave you with negative thoughts about how you feel disrespected, unable to control the situation or clueless how to get back in the good graces of whoever you argued with. Your stress levels spike, which can be felt differently in different people. Some may experience an elevated heart rate, racing thoughts, anxious sensations in the body or other sensations that communicate to you that you are feeling stressed. But as soon as that reactive thinking stops (maybe you realize that the argument wasn’t a big deal, or you decided to apologize which diffuses the tension) your stress symptoms will cease as well.
Episodic stress is really repetitive acute stress. People with episodic stress routinely experience acute stress. Anyone can experience this but typical personality types that exhibit this level of stress tend to be type-A personalities who have perfectionistic or competitive ideals or people who are prone to constant worry. Their stress is resolved the same way that acute stress is resolved, however their personality or penchant towards negative thinking can cause that acute stress to occur somewhat regularly. In other words, these people can be overloaded with acute stress. Because episodic stress stems from such a deeply ingrained facet of their personality it can be hard for them to recognize how their way of thinking is self-destructive. Instead they can perceive their stress as purely an external issue and these personalities may have a difficult time realizing they need to seek out help to manage their stress levels.
Chronic stress is the most dangerous of all the stress types. Chronic stress is when an individual experiences continuous elevated stress levels due to long-term situations that are not easily remedied. For example being in a long-term abusive relationship, financial hardships, not fully completing the grieving process, living in marginalized communities can all result in chronic stress. If left unchecked this level of stress can result in permanent physical and mental damage. Worst of all it can lead to complete hopeless where the individual sees no way out. People who experience chronic stress live with it for so long that they are prone to being unaware of how much stress they are experiencing. High levels of chronic stress becomes their new normal which makes it difficult for the individual to realize how serious their condition may be.
Stress, especially episodic and chronic stress can result in or exacerbate serious life threatening illnesses including:
This makes it imperative for everyone to learn the coping mechanisms and self-soothing skills to keep stress in check. In fact, stress is such a major player in people’s lives that it is currently being encouraged to teach stress coping skills to children as young as pre-school age so we can build a society that grows up knowing how to recognize the signs and what to do when stress threatens our quality of life.
So you’ve ascertained that you’re stressed as f**k. What do you do?
1) Implement healthy lifestyle changes:
If you’re not getting enough sleep, reliant on processed foods and live a sedentary lifestyle, then it’s time to consider some major lifestyle changes. The irony is, chronic stress may be the very reason why you’re living this way, but the truth is, it’s only making your symptoms worse. Start building healthy habits but do it slowly. Rushing into being a whole new you overnight is only going to increase the likelihood that you’ll stay stressed and it will discourage you from maintaining these changes long-term. A great way to start is choose one bad habit and replace it with a new good habit for 28 consecutive days which is the average time it takes to implement a new habit. You can start with something small like trading your morning social media session for 20 minutes of routine meditation, or something a little more challenging like going to the gym and working out for 30 minutes every day after work. When that new habit has been formed you can move on to another habit and keep going. A year from now you will have an entire new lifestyle that will help lower your stress and improve your quality of life.
The ultimate goal is to live a life consuming very little to no refine sugar, processed carbohydrates or alcohol. You want to make sure you are getting enough water every day. Sleep is incredibly important and most people require 7-8 hours per night so implement some good sleep hygiene. Exercise is paramount for stress management. A regular exercise habit has a whole list of benefits which include lowering your stress levels which can be especially helpful for those experiencing episodic and chronic stress.
2) Practice Mindfulness:
Implementing habits that keep your mind in the present moment can keep you from focusing on negative internal thoughts that can exacerbate stress. Meditation has not only been shown to be a powerful stress reducer but it also increases the grey matter in your brain which helps to regulate your emotions more efficiently. Other mindful practices like daily journaling, taking calm walks, practicing yoga can all put your mind in a state of peace helping to reduce those stressful responses.
3) Seek Help:
There is no shame in seeking help from a knowledgeable professional. Therapists, counselors and medical practitioners can all give you the support and advice you need especially if your stress is lingering. For those suffering from chronic stress working with a cognitive behavioral therapist is one of the most effective ways of dealing with the root cause of your stress. With this support you can feel safe to start making slow changes to start regaining control of your life and well-being.
If talking to a professional seems to intimidating to you right now, that’s okay. Open up to a trusted friend or a loved one. Sometimes having a sympathetic ear can help to ease the intensity of stress symptoms and having an outside opinion can help put your situation into perspective. The important thing is to not become hyper self-reliant if you are experiencing intense emotions. Knowing that support is there can be the boost you need to start making the changes that you need to get your stress levels under control so you can start living your best life.