National Stress Awareness Day falls on the first Wednesday of November every year – November 2nd this year. It’s a great opportunity to identify stressors in your life and reflect on how you manage them.
If you’re human, you’ve experienced stress. It’s an inevitable part of life that happens whenever we encounter change, real or potential threats, and illness. Stress doesn’t result solely from negative shifts, positive events in our lives can also be stressful. Our body’s stress response, also known as fight-or-flight, has been fundamental to our survival allowing us to react quickly to dangerous situations. Some stressors are short-lived, and we recover quickly from the effects. Other stressors are chronic, keeping our alert system activated.
When we’re exposed to long-term or repeated stressors our physical and mental health are impacted. Struggling to manage stress in effective ways can worsen pre-existing conditions and puts us at higher risk for experiencing depression, anxiety, heart disease, Type II diabetes, arthritis, addiction, and other diseases.
We can’t avoid stressful situations, however understanding our reactions to stress and learning more effective ways in building resilience to stress can help us better navigate the pressures, worries, and changes that life brings.
Stress Response System
When we experience stress, a complex response occurs in our brain and body preparing us to react or retreat. There are 3 main actors in the stress response system:
- Amygdalae: Located under each half of our brain, they detect stressors. The amygdalae play a role in emotions, decision-making, and memory. They might signal us to feel fear and helps us access memories of similar situations and their outcome. If the amygdalae determine distress, they activate a response in the hypothalamus.
- Hypothalamus: Plays a role in temperature regulation, sleep patterns, and hunger. When we’re stressed, it uses our nervous system to communicate with the rest of the body and tells the pituitary gland to get to work.
- Pituitary Gland: Manages other glands in the body. If a threat is perceived, it signals the adrenal gland to release hormones like epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol which helps prepare our muscles to fight or run. Once we feel safe or the stressors have resolved, our nervous system regulates, hormone levels drop, and we return to pre-stress functioning.
This process helps us get through dangerous or stressful situations. Unfortunately, many of us face daily stressors that we can’t easily escape. When we’ve experienced trauma, high levels of stress during early development, or struggling to cope with everyday stressors in healthy ways, it’s hard for our system to regulate. Our body struggles to get out of alert mode, stress hormones build up, and the effects can have a long-term impact on our emotional, physical, and behavioral health.
Poverty, racism, discrimination, long-term illness, and interpersonal conflicts create significant stress for people. The American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America Survey highlights current stress statistics and stressors our population is facing. This year’s survey showed that Americans are stressed about money more so than in the past, and 87% of adults feel like there have been relentless crises during the past two years. With multiple, repeated sources of stress, it’s safe to say we’re all experiencing some level of it regularly.
Chronic stress doesn’t just affect adults. Children and adolescents face chronic emotional and psychological stressors intensified by the pandemic, unlike those experienced in previous generations.
Most stressors we can manage and bounce back from. How do we know when it’s reached a harmful level? Here are some signs that you or a loved one might be experiencing chronic stress:
- Feeling more aches and pains
- Changes in health
- Trouble sleeping or feeling tired all the time
- Isolating yourself from friends and family
- Difficulty concentrating
- Change in appetite
- Increased alcohol or drug use
- Change in emotional responses to others or emotional withdrawal
- Increased irritability
The International Stress Management Association offers an online stress screening which you can access here.
Reducing the Impact of Stress
Understanding the benefits of stress management and implementing stress reduction methods can decrease symptoms and the overall impact on health and wellness. Here are some strategies and tips to better manage stress regulation:
- Identify your stressors and triggers — Look at what you have control over and make changes, where possible, that could help decrease your stress levels.
- Manage your time — It will help you feel more in control. Make lists, prioritize, ask for help completing tasks, and break down complicated tasks into smaller action steps.
- Take care of yourself — This is often the first thing that gets dismissed when we feel overwhelmed. Getting enough sleep, moving our bodies regularly, eating healthy foods, and consistently taking any prescribed medications – all impact our ability to manage stress effectively.
- Practice self-compassion — Unrealistic expectations we place on ourselves or speaking negatively to ourselves when we don’t meet those expectations influence stress.
- Practice mindfulness — Focusing our attention on the present moment can provide a quick break from daily pressures and never-ending to-do lists. Take a walk and notice the sights, sounds, smells, and sensations. Or spend a few moments simply breathing in and out slowly, noticing how it feels.
- Create relaxation — Aromatherapy, getting a message, breathing techniques, coloring, taking a hot bath, cuddling with a pet- whatever feels relaxing for you. Create space for pleasure and joy in your routines.
- Medication — Chronic or unmanaged stress can lead to feelings of anxiety and/or depression. Medication may be an option to address secondary symptoms of stress.
- Talk to someone — Reach out to people in your support system. Share your worries or how you’re feeling. Ask for extra support, advice, or help with problem-solving.
If you’re feeling completely overwhelmed or that your stress is unmanageable, it might be time to consult with a mental health professional. While there are some stressors we can’t control, we can control our reactions to them. Therapy can help us learn to do that in effective and beneficial ways.
Written by: Carol Briggs, LPC, NCC
At Clarity Clinic, we have highly trained staff who specialize in therapy and psychiatry services. To learn more about how we can support your mental health, call Clarity Clinic at (312) 815-9660 or schedule an appointment today.