Living with Stress: What You Need to Know

It is no coincidence that National Stress Awareness Month happens to be during tax month. Nevertheless, stress is not necessarily all bad; it is the thing that often motivates us, helps us meet deadlines, sharpens our attention and keeps us out of danger. Many of us face stress in our daily routine and are accustomed to functioning with a high level of stress.  While we may be managing and functioning in this state, I’d like to take this month of awareness as an opportunity to help you learn more about stress, it’s effects and ways to combat against it.

Basic Physiology of Stress

In order to understand the effects of stress, we must first understand the role of the Autonomic Nervous System, which has two branches: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system. When we are in a stressful or threatening situation, our sympathetic nervous system becomes activated, meaning our brain goes into fight, flight or freeze response. This stress response initiates a series of actions, such as increased heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure and a flooding of hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol.

However, our bodies are built to adapt and re-balance with the help of the parasympathetic nervous system, which decreases our heart rate and relaxes the blood vessels.

While these two branches of the nervous system are built to maintain balance, many of us are living with chronic stress, meaning our sympathetic nervous system remains activated and on guard. Living in a heightened state of stress, whether it’s due to work, school, relationships or other circumstances, can have detrimental and long-term effects on the body’s health and immune system.

Long-Term Effects (include but not limited to)

  1. Heart problems
  2. High blood-pressure
  3. Weakened immune system- more susceptible to infection, slower recovery rate and exacerbation of pre-existing illnesses.
  4. Skin problems
  5. Pain- prolonged stress can increase muscle tension, which increases neck and back pain, headaches and more.

Responding to Stress

1. Recognize stress

Due to our fast-paced lives, demanding work, and multi-tasking made easy technology, we often don’t realize when stress sneaks up on us. The first and most important part of responding to stress is learning to recognize when you are stressed before it gets out of control.

Stress Warning Signs and Symptoms

Cognitive Symptoms

Emotional Symptoms

  • Memory problems
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Poor judgment
  • Seeing only the negative
  • Anxious or racing thoughts
  • Constant worrying
  • Moodiness
  • Irritability or short temper
  • Agitation, inability to relax
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Sense of loneliness and isolation
  • Depression or general unhappiness

Physical Symptoms

Behavioral Symptoms

  • Aches and pains
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Nausea, dizziness
  • Chest pain, rapid heartbeat
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Frequent colds
  • Eating more or less
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Isolating yourself from others
  • Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
  • Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax
  • Nervous habits (e.g. nail biting, pacing)

(Symptoms may be caused by other medical & psychological concerns. Consult a physician and/or psychotherapist if problems persist).

2. Know Your Limits

It is important to honor your own red flags of becoming stressed by knowing your limits. When we are in a heightened state of stress and overload our plates, daily tasks can become a juggling act and interactions with others may become strained. Honoring your own productivity, sanity and body may consist of learning to say “no,” asking for help, delegating, etc.

3. Control the Controllable: Your Response

I often collaborate with my clients in creating an individual stress management plan, which is comprised of tools they can use in the short and long-term to reduce their stress symptoms. Each of us has varying stressors, interests and personalities and therefore responds differently to certain methods. Below is a list of possible tools to add to your toolbox.

Social support– Talk with friends, co-workers, family & community members. The power of social support is not only in sharing, venting and commiserating, but also in laughter, which has been shown to lower stress.

Positive self- talk: The way we communicate with ourselves can help us manage in tough times. Positive self-talk helps us develop an inner dialogue that can help lower our stress level by talking ourselves down, so to speak, rather than spiraling into anxious or worrying thoughts. When we get wrapped up in “what if’s” and become all doom and gloom, we perpetuate our stress and further decrease efficiency and focus.

Mindfulness & Meditation– Research studies have demonstrated that mindfulness can help us reduce stress and be more productive in the workplace. Such studies also point to the efficacy of mindfulness for a number of physical and mental problems, including chronic pain, skin conditions, cancer treatment, immunity, depression, anxiety, ADHD, bipolar, panic disorders, personality disorders, and other stress related disorders. It is no wonder that corporations, like Google, Apple & Yahoo have begun bringing mindfulness training in the workplace.

Other de-stressing activities include journaling, yoga, listening to music, going for a walk, art/drawing, exercise, or reading a book.

Deniz’s tip: While we don’t always have time to fit in a full gym workout or even a 5-10 minute meditation, try to avoid an all-or-nothing attitude when it comes to your tools. Even small doses can be effective.

The person who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones. ~Chinese proverb.

References & Resources

Carlson N. R. (2004). Physiology of behavior, 8th ed. New York: Allyn & Bacon.

The Different Kinds of Stress – Describes the different types of stress, including each one’s symptoms and how to treat them. (American Psychological Association)

Signs and Symptoms of Stress – Learn about the physical, psychological, behavioral, and work-related signs and symptoms of stress. (Stress Management for Health Course)

Insightla – classes for meditation and mindfulness in the Los Angeles area Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA; Classes and Podcasts; ADHD

Teen Mindfulness Therapy Group

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