The Impact of Stress

October 8th, 2020 – National Mental Illness Awareness Week continues!

Today our focus is on stress, often known as the ‘silent killer.’

First, let’s make a distinction. There’s two types of stress most people know: regular stress which can be triggered by everyday responsibilities in work and life, serious life changes like chronic diseases and diagnosis, the death of a loved one, etc. Then there’s eustress, which can come from taking on a new project at work that requires you to hone a skill or learn a new one.

Our focus will be on regular stress, which some define as plain ol’ distress.

In its 13th annual Stress in AmericaTM survey, the American Psychological Association (APA) finds that while overall stress levels have not changed significantly over the past few years, the proportion of Americans who say they are experiencing stress about specific issues has risen over the past year.

The Harris Poll conducted this year’s survey on behalf of APA from Aug. 1 to Sept. 3, 2019; the onlinesurvey included 3,617 adults ages 18 and older living in the U.S.

What are people stressed about?

The same survey conducted by the APA finds sources of stress on the macro-level:

  • Healthcare
    • Among adults who report that they feel stress about health care at least sometimes, 64% say the cost of health care is a cause of stress, with those who are privately insured being more likely than those with public insurance to say so (71% vs. 53%)
    • Furthermore, almost two in five adults say their family has struggled to pay for health care services (38%) or that they personally have experienced this struggle (38%)
  • Great tragedies
    • While more than six in 10 adults (62%) stated that mass shootings were a significant source of stress in 2018, this figure increased to more than seven in 10 adults (71%) in 2019
  • Global events
    • The proportion of adults who cite climate change/global warming as a significant source of stress has increased significantly since last year’s survey, from 51% in 2018 to 56% in 2019

On the micro-level, everyone has their own stressors that mentally affect them differently, but in the body, we see time and time again that chronic stress is not good for you. It takes a toll on your central nervous and endocrine systems, which deal with your ability to run away if you’re in danger and control your hormones, which are crucial for maintaining homeostasis and a functioning body.

Take a look at the image below and see if you can identify with any of the symptoms of chronic stress.

Your cardiovascular system can be affected, leading to an overworked heart and increased blood pressure, which further leads to being vulnerable to stroke or heart attacks. Your digestive system is also affected – you may have higher rates of acid reflux and heartburn. Constipation, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting are also common. Your muscles may be constantly tensed, resulting in back and shoulder pain and other body aches. There can be a drop in interest in partners and for women, chronic stress can lead to menstrual irregularities and worsen the symptoms of menopause. Consequently, chronic stress takes a toll on the immune system which leaves you vulnerable to viral illnesses and other infections, and can lead to longer recovery time.

It’s not all bleak!

Learning to manage stress is key to correcting a lot of the symptoms stated above.

NAMI offers strategies to manage your stress levels:

  • Be observant. Recognize the signs of your body’s response to stress, such as difficulty sleeping, increased alcohol and other substance use, being easily angered, feeling depressed, and having low energy.
  • Talk to your health care provider or a health professional. Don’t wait for your health care provider to ask about your stress. Start the conversation and get proper health care for existing or new health problems. Effective treatments can help if your stress is affecting your relationships or ability to work. Don’t know where to start? Read NAMI’s Tips for Talking With Your Health Care Provider.
  • Get regular exercise. Just 30 minutes per day of walking can help boost your mood and improve your health.
  • Try a relaxing activity. Explore relaxation or wellness programs, which may incorporate meditation, muscle relaxation, or breathing exercises. Schedule regular times for these and other healthy and relaxing activities.

Set goals and priorities. Decide what must get done now and what can wait. Learn to say “no” to new tasks if you start to feel like you’re taking on too much. Try to be mindful of what you have accomplished at the end of the day, not what you have been unable to do.

Stay connected. You are not alone. Keep in touch with people who can provide emotional support and practical help. To reduce stress, ask for help from friends, family, and community or religious organizations.

Consider a clinical trial. Researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and other research facilities across the country are studying the causes and effects of psychological stress as well as stress management techniques. You can learn more about studies that are recruiting by visiting Join a Study or ClinicalTrials.gov (keyword: stress).

The Mayo Clinic advises to “monitor your stress” by first identifying your triggers and then “think about strategies for dealing with them. Identifying what you can control is a good starting point. For example, if stress keeps you up at night, the solution may be as easy as removing the TV and computer from your bedroom and letting your mind wind down before bed.”

They further stress that, “stress won’t disappear from your life. And stress management needs to be ongoing. But by paying attention to what causes your stress and practicing ways to relax, you can counter some of the bad effects of stress and increase your ability to cope with challenges.”

Consider these other stress management skills from WebMD:

  • Keep a positive attitude.
  • Accept that there are events that you cannot control.
  • Be assertive instead of aggressive. Assert your feelings, opinions, or beliefs instead of becoming angry, defensive, or passive.
  • Exercise regularly. Your body can fight stress better when it is fit.
  • Eat healthy, well-balanced meals.
  • Learn to manage your time more effectively.
  • Set limits appropriately and learn to say no to requests that would create excessive stress in your life.
  • Make time for hobbies, interests, and relaxation.
  • Get enough rest and sleep. Your body needs time to recover from stressful events.
  • Don’t rely on alcohol, drugs, or compulsive behaviors to reduce stress.
  • Seek out social support. Spend enough time with those you enjoy.
  • Seek treatment with a psychologist or other mental health professional trained in stress management or biofeedback techniques to learn healthy ways of dealing with the stress in your life.

Stay stress-free and I’ll see you tomorrow!

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