Stress is your body’s natural and necessary physical reaction to changes in its environment or circumstances where your brain perceives a response is required for your protection.
When stressed, your heart beats faster, your pupils dilate, your muscles tense, your breathing increases, more blood is pumped to your muscles, and adrenaline and other hormones are secreted into the bloodstream to prepare you to fight for your life or flee. Your breathing increases to oxygenate all that extra blood. Back when our caveman ancestors were predators and prey, stress was absolutely essential for their survival.
Not All Stress Is Bad
Even though you don’t usually have to run for your life these days, stress can still be a positive thing, called eustress, providing motivation, energy, and focus, helping you perform at your best, and even increasing productivity. The jitters a person feels before making a presentation, the drive to achieve a goal, or the thrill of a roller coaster would be examples of eustress. Many things in life, such as planning a wedding, working in a challenging job, or even moving to a bigger house are considered good yet still cause a person to experience lots of stress. Eustress actually helps keep us happy, healthy, and gives life meaning. Without it, life would be dull and flat, but even too much eustress can tax your system.
Stress is a normal bodily response and is neither good nor bad by itself. The problem arises when your body has a stress reaction to every little thing that happens: a snide comment by your partner, running late for a meeting, or the growing credit card bill. When stress becomes an almost constant state and chronic condition, it has negative, lasting consequences for your mind and body.
In Calming Your Brain And Body, I wrote:
Back when most humans died around middle age, the benefits of such [stress] activation outweighed the long-term costs. But today, with people living well beyond, the cumulative damage of chronically over stimulating this system leads to gastrointestinal, immune, cardiovascular, and endocrine problems with the greatest impact usually being seen on psychological well-being as increased anxiety and depressed mood.
The key word here is chronic.
Anxiety Is More Prevalent Than Depression
Anxiety isn’t the same as stress and is one adverse effect of stress. Whereas stress usually comes and goes with identifiable causes, anxiety becomes a persistent feeling of worry, unease, and fear with no real identifiable cause. Anxiety is also typically associated with the future where a person is anticipating coping with upcoming negative events. In other words, stress can be seen as an emotional reaction to something happening now, while anxiety is a feeling about something that may happen at a future date or may not actually ever happen at all. (See: What’s The Difference Between Feelings And Emotions)
Anxiety can turn into phobia, social anxiety, obsessions and compulsions, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Although anxiety starts in the mind, it can manifest with physical symptoms such as heart palpitations, muscle pain, dizziness, tiredness, head aches, and insomnia.
Anxiety is a big problem in today’s culture, and according to the Anxiety And Depression Association Of America:
- Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older.
- It’s not uncommon for someone with an anxiety disorder to also suffer from depression or vice versa. Nearly one-half of those diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.
- Anxiety disorders cost the U.S. more than $42 billion a year, almost one-third of the country’s $148 billion total mental health bill, according to “The Economic Burden of Anxiety Disorders,” a study commissioned by ADAA (The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry,60(7), July 1999).
- People with an anxiety disorder are three to five times more likely to go to the doctor and six times more likely to be hospitalized for psychiatric disorders than those who do not suffer from anxiety disorders.
There are many effective treatments for anxiety, including psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, mind-body practices, and medication. Although treatment is highly individualized, the vast majority of people with an anxiety disorder can be helped with professional care.
Breaking The Cycle Of Stress
If you are under stress and don’t find ways to release the stress after the event has passed or learn techniques to cope when under stress, you carry around a constant current of worry that can become ingrained as anxiety. And then if you suffer from anxiety for too long, chances are that you could slip into depression. This sets up a vicious cycle that is hard to break out of.
In an article on MindBodyGreen, Dr. Robin Berzin states that “stress is possibly the most dangerous toxin your body faces every day” because it changes your gene expression, causes brain damage, shuts down your immune system, increases inflammation, causes belly fat, and more.
Stressors can be real or perceived and sometimes you can’t do much about real threats. It doesn’t really matter which because when you perceive something as stressful, it creates the same stress response in your body. Real or imagined, the solution is to learn to manage, release, and de-escalate stress before it snowballs into anxiety and depression.
Fortunately, there are plenty of techniques and tools that can help you effectively manage and decrease stress. Some are:
1. Address possible biological causes of stress – Clean up your diet by eating more fruits and vegetables, preferably organic, reduce processed foods, artificial sweeteners, additives, and coloring. Eliminate the ingestion of toxins and exposure to them in your environments.
2. Take a breather – That may mean taking a deep breath and counting to five in a stressful moment or taking a walk at lunch during a busy day at work, or finding a hobby or activity that actively relaxes you.
3. Come into the present moment – Bring your mind to the right here and now. Become aware of your thoughts and reframe them to decrease anxiety. Scan your body for tension and consciously relax tense areas.
4. Meditate – If you don’t already have a practice, start one. Research shows that daily meditation alters the brain’s neural pathways making you more resilient to stress, strengthens your immune system, and increases serotonin, the happy neurochemical, production.
5. Visualize – Use your mind to calm your body by imaging yourself in any setting in which you feel calm and relaxed. Visualize your body and mind letting go of tension. You can also use guided imagery exercises to help you.
6. Connect with others – Lean on your social network. Talk to friends, and share what’s going on. You can get a fresh perspective, support, and tactical help.
7. Melt the stress away – Get a professional massage or use a tennis ball or foam roller to massage away tension. Take a bath using essential oils for aromatherapy relaxation.
8. Laugh out loud – A good belly laugh doesn’t just lighten the load mentally. It lowers cortisol, the stress hormone, and boosts brain chemicals called endorphins, which brighten your mood. Watch your favorite comedy, read a funny book, or spend time with someone who makes you smile.
9. Crank up the tunes – Research shows that listening to soothing music can lower blood pressure, heart rate, and anxiety. You can create a soothing playlist or blow off steam by rocking out to more upbeat tunes.
10. Get moving – All forms of exercise, including yoga and walking, can ease depression and anxiety by helping the brain release feel-good chemicals and by giving your body a chance to release stress. Even everyday activities such as housecleaning or yard work can reduce stress.
11. Sleep more – Lack of sleep increases stress hormones. Get your eight hours no matter what and take a nap if you missed sleep. Prioritize it.