No matter how small or severe the stressor, your body responds in the same way.
This response doesn’t directly result in death, but it can have serious health consequences over a length of time.
Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to help you stay on top of events in your life.
Firstly, it’s important to understand there are two different types of stress: the good kind and the bad kind.
This leads to a rise in heart rate and blood pressure and, in turn, changes to almost every bodily system. This includes the immune system, digestive system, and brain.
Cortisol “can be beneficial in some circumstances, such as when it motivates you to complete your work on time,” notes Dr. Patricia Celan, a psychiatry resident at Canada’s Dalhousie University.
Similarly, a 2013 animal study found a short-term, moderate level of stress improved memory and increased alertness and performance in rats.
Researchers believe the same effect occurs in humans, though this requires further examination.
But long-term — also known as chronic — stress doesn’t have the same motivational effects.
“Cortisol gets toxic in high doses over a chronic period of time,” Celan explains, adding that this is what leads to serious health issues.
Stress itself can’t kill you.
But, “over time, [it] can cause damage that leads to premature death,” Celan says.
This damage can be anything from cardiovascular issues to encouraging unhealthy habits, like smoking and alcohol misuse.
“You could live longer if you had less stress in your life,” Celan says. “That’s why taking control over your stress is important.”
As stress can affect your physical, mental, and emotional health, it can show up in a number of ways.
Physical signs include:
- muscle aches
- chest pain
You may also experience digestive issues ranging from simple stomach discomfort to indigestion and diarrhea.
Some people who feel stressed also notice an impact on their sex life, whether it’s a lack of libido or a tendency to get distracted in the moment.
Behavioral changes are common, too. You may find it hard to concentrate or make decisions in your day-to-day life.
You may become irritable with those around you, and find yourself constantly worrying or feeling depressed.
People who smoke or drink may find themselves turning to cigarettes or alcohol more often than usual.
And, of course, stress can affect your bedtime routine. That can mean struggling to sleep at night, or finding that you’re sleeping too much.
It may be impossible to change the situation that’s causing you to feel stressed. But you can learn to manage the effects stress has.
Whether you’re looking for a way to immediately calm your mind or a more long-term plan, here are a few coping strategies to try.
In the moment
- Deep breathing. One of the easiest ways to manage stress, no matter where you are or what time it is. Breathe in deeply through your nose and out through your mouth, holding each inward and outward breath for 5 seconds. Repeat for 3 to 5 minutes.
- Listen to a mindfulness routine. There are so many apps and videos to guide you. Try Calm or The Mindfulness App to start.
Over time, if it’s something you have a say in
- Try meditation or breathing techniques. Set achievable goals, whether it’s 5 minutes of meditation morning and night, or deep breathing three times a day.
- Exercise at your own pace. Thirty minutes of exercise a day is good for mood and overall health. If that feels like too much right now, aim to go for a walk every other day, or stretch for a few minutes each morning.
- Get into positive journaling. Each evening, write down three positive things that happened over the course of the day.
- Use your support network. Communicating with partners, friends, or family can help you stay on track.
Over time, if it’s something you don’t have a say in
If the cause of your stress is something you can’t easily alter — workplace issues, for example — there are still coping mechanisms you can put in place:
- Accept that you can’t change everything. Instead, focus on the things you do have power over.
- Prioritize the most important tasks. Don’t worry if you don’t get around to finishing them all in one day. You can carry on tomorrow.
- Make time for yourself. That can be as simple as going for a walk during your lunch break or setting aside time to watch an episode of your favorite show each evening.
- Plan ahead. If you’re approaching a difficult day or busy event, make a to-do list and organize a backup plan to help you feel more in control.
If you’re struggling with coronavirus anxiety in particular
The current pandemic is an example of another situation that you can’t control.
But know that you can help move things in the right direction by sticking to government guidelines and by focusing on your physical and mental health.
- Set a daily schedule. Incorporate everything from meal plans to regular relaxation breaks.
- Don’t worry about being overly productive. You don’t have to use the time indoors to overhaul your life or learn a new hobby. Focus on the simple things, like getting fresh air or reading a book.
- Socialize responsibly. Schedule in some virtual dates with friends and family.
- Consider volunteering. Helping others is a positive way to put things in perspective.
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“When the mind becomes focused on a creative task, worrisome thoughts tend to fade away,” explains clinical psychologist Dr. Carla Marie Manly.
“Feel-good neurochemicals, such as serotonin and dopamine, activate positive feelings of wellness and serenity,” she says.
Exercise and meditation have a similar effect.
Not pushing yourself is also important.
“A reduction in adrenaline and cortisol occurs when an individual isn’t trying to please everyone and accomplish too much,” Manly says.
Long-term stress can have a detrimental impact on both your physical and mental health.
The exact effects, though, can vary from person to person due to factors like
genetics and personality type.
Celan explains that high levels of cortisol can damage the body in many ways over time.
“[It] affects our mental functions, such as memory, [and] weakens the immune system so that fighting off an infection is more difficult,” she says.
Plus, Celan adds, it can increase a person’s risk for mental illnesses like depression.
Chronic stress may even contribute to heart disease, though more research is needed.
However, it can cause high blood pressure, which is a risk factor of the disease.
Sometimes, self-help strategies aren’t enough to control or significantly reduce your stress levels.
If that’s the case, there are several routes you can take.
If you have the means, schedule an appointment with a primary healthcare provider or mental health professional.
Tell them about the stress you’re experiencing and how it’s affecting your life.
They may recommend a form of therapy or prescribe medication to help relieve some of the symptoms you’ve described.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a common recommendation.
It can help you understand exactly what causes you to feel stressed and works to reduce those feelings with new coping mechanisms.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression, or finding it difficult to sleep, your healthcare provider may prescribe medication to help.
They can also prescribe medication for high blood pressure and other physical symptoms of stress.
Alternative treatments designed to relax the mind, like acupuncture or massage, may also be recommended.
If you’re looking for a specialist in mental health or stress, a primary healthcare provider can point you in the right direction.
Free options are available, too. Find your local community clinic via the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
If you’d rather chat to someone over the phone or through text, you can with a therapy app.
Specialist apps exist, too. For example, Pride Counseling is designed to help members of the LGBTQ+ community.
When you’ve found the right provider or therapist, you may find it helpful to use the following template to ask for support:
- I’m experiencing physical/emotional/behavioral symptoms. Describe your exact symptoms, whether it’s irritability, fatigue, or unwanted alcohol consumption.
- This is how my symptoms are affecting my everyday life. Are they affecting your ability to work or socialize, for example?
- I believe they’re caused by stress. Detail stressful situations that you regularly experience, or events that have happened in the past.
- Here’s my medical information. Include medications you’re currently taking, including supplements and over-the-counter drugs, and previous medical history.
- I have a few questions. These could be about treatments your specialist has suggested, or your diagnosis.
Stress can be a powerful thing. But with the right coping strategies, it’s possible to manage.
Sometimes you can learn to cope by yourself — but you don’t have to do it alone. If you feel that professional help could be beneficial, don’t hesitate to reach out.
Lauren Sharkey is a journalist and author specializing in women’s issues. When she isn’t trying to discover a way to banish migraines, she can be found uncovering the answers to your lurking health questions. She has also written a book profiling young female activists across the globe and is currently building a community of such resisters. Catch her on Twitter.