A new year can bring a lot of promises that you don’t end up keeping by February. If you stick with any resolution this year, though, make it one that benefits every aspect of your life—from your family, friends, career, and health: reducing your stress can have a giant impact on your overall well-being.
It seems that everyone’s stressed these days—all the time. We can’t avoid stressors in our lives or bad things happening to us, but luckily we can create ways of dealing and coping with these situations so that they don’t have a lasting effect on our families, careers, or health.
What is stress?
Stress is not only a state of mind, but a physical response to a challenge. When you’re stressed, your body assumes you are under attack and releases a complex mix of hormones and chemicals to prepare your body for instant action. Through the release of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, your body can help you survive dangerous situations like slamming on your brakes when driving or stopping a child from walking into the path of a fast-moving car—without you having to consciously think about doing so.
What happens to your body when you’re stressed?
Preparing your body for “fight or flight” is your brain’s only priority during these times. It slows blood flow to other areas of your body, including digestion, and reroutes them to the systems important for protection—muscles, heart and lungs. The problem lies in those instances where you’re performing ordinary daily tasks, like sitting at your desk, cooking dinner or brushing your teeth, and behind the scenes your body is rerouting energy to prepare to react to an attack or challenge that isn’t there. This is called chronic stress.
If kept in a state of stress for long periods of time, our bodies can stop functioning normally. Consistently high cortisol levels (sometimes called the “stress hormone), can lead to an increase in blood sugar and blood pressure. Even short-term spikes in your blood pressure may put you at risk for developing high blood pressure over time.
I feel tense, but I’m not stressed. How do I know for sure?
Stress is a condition and therefore comes with symptoms. They vary from person to person, but generally chronic stress is signaled by a short temper or irritability, a significant change in appetite (eating too much or not eating at all,) lack of focus at tasks that were once easy, poor memory, upset stomach and trouble sleeping.
Reducing stress is more complicated than “just relax!”
Lots of people give the advice to relax when you’re stressed, but sometimes it isn’t that simple. The best way to reduce your stress is to get to know yourself better. In the same way that you know what things upset you, know what things make you feel better and focus on those during times of anxiety.
Get enough sleep, eat well, and move your body: There’s a reason that these three things are almost always given as advice in blogs like these—because they work. An adequate night’s rest cannot be understated and can go a long way in improving your overall health, well-being, and attitude. Poor sleep has been linked to weight gain, depression, heart disease and high blood pressure. Eat balanced, nutritious, and delicious meals. Be kind to yourself when you don’t eat “perfectly” one day and try again the next day. Drink plenty of water and enjoy how the food you eat makes you feel and the energy it gives you. A simple walk around the block and simple exposure to sunlight can make a difference if you are feeling particularly stressed. A leisurely bike ride around your neighborhood can help you become more familiar with your city and can reduce stress by “burning off” some of the adrenaline your body is keeping cooped up.
Reach out to others: A little-known but effective way to reduce stress is to actually forget about yourself for a few hours. Volunteering for a cause you care about and helping out others in need can give you an endorphin rush at the same time you’re donating your time to a worthy cause. Even cleaning out your closet for gently used clothes to donate can give you a sense of something bigger than yourself and might take the pressure off for a few hours. Get help from a professional if you need it, though—he or she can provide you with mental tools and other coping skills to help you manage your emotions and your reactions to your emotions. Several sites now offer online therapy services, where you can chat with a licensed counselor without an appointment. Find out what mental health means to you and strive for it every day. Do not be afraid to ask for help.
Try to cope with your stressors in healthy ways: A lot of the health problems that stem from stress, in addition to the physical effects stress has on your body, come from the poor choices we make to try to deal with these tense situations. Drinking heavily, smoking, overeating and using drugs are coping mechanisms that may look and feel like the right decision at the time, but have disastrous consequences for us down the road. Remember that when your body is in stress mode, blood is rerouted away from your brain and toward your heart, muscles and lungs. Your brain is not operating at the full capacity it normally is and you may reach for a second glass of wine to calm your nerves. Try to keep in mind that overuse of things like alcohol or drugs may put you in a cyclical pattern of stress and coping that you may never return from.
Make a list of things that bring you happiness or joy, no matter how small, and when you’re feeling down, do one of the things on the list. Do as many of the things on the list that you need to do in order to feel relaxed. Soon enough you may find yourself in a healthy pattern of coping with stress that will carry you through 2018.