Stress. On a day-to-day basis, we are generally able to undergo various amounts of stress that doesn’t appear to influence our daily functioning. However, the feeling of being overwhelmed over and over again, from everyone, in every direction, is another story (especially amongst COVID-19). Toxic stress can appear unmanageable. Whether it is your work life, family life, relationship life or just plain life, we can all understand the impact of how being pulled in twenty different directions at once, can feel. Stress tends to have an impact not only on our personal lives, but our productivity, physical health, spiritual health and mental health. Thus, many people will find that prolonged periods of stress gone untreated, will result in anxiety symptoms, physical ailments, problems between work-home balance, and one’s overall spiritual well-being. With just a bit of knowledge in identifying, understanding and managing stress, we can avoid a plethora of issues.
What is stress? According to Mental Health America, stress is difficult to define. It can mean something different to everyone. Let us group stress into two categories: eustress, and distress. Eustress is the type of stress we experience that is necessary in our life in order to push our bodies, minds and abilities to reach our potential. For example, one may experience eustress when preparing for a final exam in school, or an important presentation at work. This type of stress allows us to identify that we need to prepare, study and practice for a special moment in our lives, in order to accomplish the task(s) well. Eustress may also be present the night before your wedding, “the cold feet nerves,” or when preparing to ride the world’s tallest roller coaster. Generally, eustress may lead us to find motivation, feel exciting, short-term, and feels well within our ability to cope with it. Distress, on the other hand, can be long-term or short-term, cause us to have decreased performance and sense of hope in our abilities, and can lead to more concerning mental health issues, let alone generalized anxiety symptoms. It may even cause you feel you, “cannot handle,” what is about to happen, and thus, you may retreat; never giving yourself an opportunity to prove yourself wrong! Distress causes us to generally have negative consequences. Other consequences you may recognize include, decreased productivity, withdrawal from social/personal relationships, lack of motivation, physical ailments, or general irritability.
What is anxiety? According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “anxiety is persistent, excessive fear or worry in situations that are not threatening.” This is a very basic, generalized statement to start, as there are many different forms of anxiety disorders that result from a variety of ongoing issues such as emotional, physical, verbal or sexual trauma, fear of a specific object/situation (i.e., spiders, the dark, public speaking), financial concerns, alcohol and other substance abuse consumption, and most importantly in this discussion, prolongated periods of stress due to work, personal relationships, school, and the like. The type of anxiety we are trying to resolve before it starts here, is directly related to the later.
Overwhelming stress that can lead to anxiety symptoms may look familiar in your home environment. For starters, have you ever felt so overwhelmed by the amount of work you must complete by a certain deadline, that you forget to take care of yourself and all of a sudden you find yourself snapping at your husband or wife, children or friends? It may also look familiar in your work environment. For example, having an unresolved issue within your personal relationships that causes you distress, may look like decreased productivity at work, more frequent time spent worrying about the text message that hasn’t come through your phone yet, or even worse, irritability aimed toward your boss in the wrong place, at the wrong time. At it’s worst, it may even manifest during your big presentation, that results in forgetting half of what you intended on saying and dropping your notecards halfway through.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Unmanaged stress can also have detrimental effects on our mind, body and spiritual health. We have already discussed how stress can lead to anxiety symptoms, which have a direct impact on our mental health. This stress can also result in difficulties with concentration, inability to regulate emotions that we have on a day-to-day basis (mood swings), and can increase the severity of already present mental health issues, such as schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, and the like. Unmanaged stress can also lead to many physical issues. Stress causes our body to release higher than needed levels of the hormone cortisol. This causes our brain and body to become inflamed and more exposed to potential illnesses if not regulated. You may notice that folks appear to become more ill during the winter months, with the stress of the holidays. It is possible that stress is a primary factor! Prolonged and untreated mental health issues resulting from long-term exposure to stress, can result in inflammatory issues such as irritable bowel syndrome, eczema and other skin disorders, acid reflux, chronic headaches, chronic pain, and trouble sleeping. Improper sleep impacts our body’s ability to regulate emotions, let alone contributes to physical issues (and the stress-sleep-mental and physical health issues cycle begins!). To think, this is all just the beginning. Finally, stress can have an impact on our spiritual well-being. Spiritual wellness is important in order to feel a sense of purpose, identity and community to start. When we are under immense amounts of stress, it can become difficult to want to focus on your higher power, your values and your belief systems. Have you ever felt so stressed out that you have neglected attending yoga, or church, walking in nature, or spending time with friends whom you share the same beliefs with? Even worse, have you ever felt so stressed that you begin to believe that your higher power has given up on you? It is easy to see how unmanaged stress can impact our whole well-being!
Now, stress is necessary in our lives. Without the feeling of a possible stressful situation, we might not be able to protect ourselves from sensing trouble as we walk by a dark alley. Therefore, stress is necessary to protect ourselves, in addition to allowing us to reach our potentials, as explained alongside eustress earlier. We’ve already discussed a few signs of stress that you may recognize in your life, so you may be asking, “how can I better prepare myself to manage stress?” First things first; identify stress. The following are some common signs and symptoms of difficulties occurring due to the inability to properly manage stress: Poor sleep patterns (trouble getting to sleep, staying asleep, not waking up feeling refreshed) Poor appetite (over or under eating) Increase in irritability and/or mood swings Decrease in productivity at home and/or work Decreased pleasure in things you once enjoyed Withdrawal from family/social supports Increase in body tension, headaches or jaw/shoulder/back pain Inability to work through generalized feelings of stress such as, a new move, new job, death of a loved one, having a child or getting married Increase in illness frequency and length Feeling as though, “I can’t shut my mind off,” “this is too much for me to handle,” “I have no time for myself.” Increase in consumption of alcohol or other substances, and/or start of or increase in suicidal ideations (for both issues please seek professional help right away by contacting 911, or visiting your local emergency room). Withdrawal from use of your spiritual coping mechanisms (yoga, physical activity, meditation, church, prayer, etc.) If you have identified with one or more of these issues, it may be beneficial to seek professional help via your local therapist, medical doctor or emergency room. If stress has moved on to causing physical and mental health ailments, you will want a team of supports to help you through it; they are on your side! Learning to manage stress can be your way out of experiencing distress so detrimental that it results in one or more severe mental or medical health issues. Some helpful ways to manage stress are as follows: Accepting you for who you are, including accepting your triggers and emotions, allowing yourself to feel when you need to, and knowing what makes you feel physically or mentally agitated. Scheduling regular time for solitude: “time to sit with self, time with my higher power, time with nature, etc.” Developing a proper sleep hygiene technique to improve sleep quality and length Creating a routine to manage your daily tasks at work, home and for your self-care Engaging in physical activity for at least 30-60 minutes 3-5 days per week Seek regular social support and professional support as needed Setting boundaries: knowing when to say no, understanding that you are just as important as your children, family, friends and work. Taking breaks at work; when it’s lunch time, it’s lunch time. Taking regular inventory of your well-being; checking in with yourself – how have I been feeling, treating myself, treating others? Eating a nutritious diet, 3-6 times daily; avoiding unhealthy foods, caffeine and sugar-filled items; drinking 8-12 glasses of water per day (more if needed) Practicing regular relaxation time (even 5-15 minutes daily could help!); meditation, deep breathing, self-affirmations, progressive muscle relaxation, etc. Becoming mindful and finding a health balance for your well-being (see, themindfullcup.com to learn more about mindfulness, wellness and balance as I grow this blog!)
Being stressed, doesn’t have to be so stressful! Remember, stress can be a GOOD thing. In fact, we need it in our lives in order to function! Our mind, body and soul depend on it in order to reach our greatest potential, go beyond our perceived limits, and to keep ourselves safe. If you enjoyed this article, I am running a limited two-part workshop entitled, “Take Back Your Health,” focusing on stress and anxiety management at in May/June 2020. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information and to enroll! -Jennifer Ljungquist-DeMayo, NCC, LMHC, LPC