April has been Stress Awareness Month since 1992 but it doesn’t have to be April to identify diverse ways to cope with stress. Stress is a very important topic since it’s a condition of strain that everyone experiences from time to time. However, stress is not a general condition – it’s subjective. What stresses one person doesn’t necessarily affect someone else. Perception plays a big role in stress. You react to a stressor according to how you perceive it. If you perceive an event as the worst thing that ever happened to you, you’ll experience it in that manner and will react more negatively towards it. Stress not only affects you emotionally and psychologically, but it also has a direct impact on your physical health. This is why is extremely important to learn how to cope with stress.
Effects of Stress
Stress affects your physiology in different ways according to the type of stress that you experience. Acute stress results from specific events or unpredictable situations. This is when you feel some kind of threat and your body releases hormones to help you confront those circumstances. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, contributes to many physiological changes in your body and helps set in motion the fight-or-flight response. Your heart beats faster than normal, pushing blood to your extremities, heart, and vital organs. Your pulse rate and blood pressure go up, your breathing accelerates, your airways open wide, blood glucose is released into the bloodstream to energize you, your senses (sight, hearing, etc.) sharpen, and nonessential functions for this response get suppressed (immunity, digestion, reproduction, etc.). The hormone epinephrine (adrenaline) is, also, involved in the stress response to help pump you up. Experiencing acute stress consistently can lead to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Examples of acute stress are being in combat, almost getting into a car accident, learning that a loved one is in the hospital, or finding yourself in a dark alley with two suspicious individuals behind you.
On the other hand, chronic stress results from repeated exposure to situations where your stress response system is constantly activated. This recurrent activation of stress hormones contributes to the breakdown of bodily systems. Under prolonged stress, immune cells become insensitive to cortisol’s regulatory effect causing chronic inflammation and an array of dysfunctions. Chronic stress has numerous negative effects and can wreak havoc on your body and mind. Chronic stress lowers your immune function and increases the risk of conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, anxiety, gastrointestinal problems, obesity, Alzheimer’s, asthma, sexual dysfunction, and sleep disorders among others. Examples of chronic stress are being in an abusive relationship, experiencing financial hardship, having a demanding job, or feel under constant pressure about a particular issue.
How to Cope with Stress in Healthy Ways
The American Psychological Association cites money, work, relationships, and the future of our nation as major stressors (agents that cause stress). Stressors, however, are not the main issue in relation to stress. Stressors and stress become a problem when left unattended or are managed improperly. Many people use drugs and alcohol, misdirect anger, overeat, go on shopping sprees, gamble compulsively, or use gaming as a way to relieve stress. Escapism through these unhealthy coping mechanisms only relieves tension and discomfort temporarily but, at the same time, creates vicious cycles of negative emotions and behaviors. Taking this into consideration, it’s imperative to learn how to cope with stress in healthy ways. The following are some tips to help you stay calm and manage stress appropriately.
- Identify Your Stressors: Pinpoint the exact factor, person, or situation that’s stressing you.
- Adjust Your Mindset: Challenge cognitive distortions (unhelpful thinking patterns) and address situations objectively and rationally in other to avoid negative emotions and behaviors.
- Evaluate Your Level of Control: Assess if there is anything that you can do about the situation that’s stressing you. If so, brainstorm, start problem-solving, devise a plan, and create a shift. If you have no control over the stressor, accept that, let it go, and find an outlet for your stress.
- Communicate: If there is a person who is the source of your stress, set healthy boundaries and have an open conversation to identify issues, clarify expectations, and solve problems.
- Foster a Healthy Body: Sleep enough, have an organic, nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory diet in order to keep your immune system working properly, and more apt to deal with stressors.
- Stay Active: Exercise (do cardio and strength-training) most days out of the week. Research shows that working out improves the way your body handles stress by affecting hormonal responses and neurotransmitters (dopamine and serotonin) that influence mood and behavior. Exercise, also, serves as a break from stressors and provides a calming effect.
- Find Pleasurable Outlets: Engage in activities that you enjoy – spend time with loved ones, socialize, listen to music or podcasts, dance, paint, go to concerts, theater, or the movies, play games, workout, read, or write. When feeling stressed, avoid activities that you find pleasurable (drinking, using drugs, eating, shopping, gambling, gaming) but can create problems in the long term.
- Relax: Schedule time to unwind and recharge – get a massage, do breathing exercises, practice yoga, and/or meditate.
- Get Support: Reach out to your social network, join a support group, use untapped resources, and/or find a therapist to talk to if you feel too overwhelmed.
Stress is part of life and expecting to always live a stress-free life is unrealistic. When experiencing stress, a better approach is to take a moment to breathe and center yourself, acknowledge your feelings, adjust your perception and thinking, and implement strategies to cope with stress in a healthy way. By addressing stress holistically (your thoughts, emotions, body, and interactions), you feel more at peace, are more productive, prevent physical ailments and premature aging, foster healthier relationships, and allow your body to thrive.
To a Healthier Fitter You,
The Fitness Wellness Mentor