Stress is a common struggle experienced by millions of people each day. Most people experience an event, circumstance, or situation at some point in their lives that leads to significant stress.
Depending on the circumstances surrounding stress, the experience can be positive or negative. There are many reasons we experience stress, including positive stressors like starting a new school, a new relationship, preparing for a big test, starting a new job, or even preparing to move into a new apartment. But not all stressors are happy.
More often than not, life challenges that lead to stress are negative or worrisome. In these cases, the body and mind react, producing a series of physical and emotional responses. For some, these responses can lead to worsening struggles.
What is Stress?
Stress is a normal human reaction to specific events or circumstances that may be “out of the norm” for you. Stress happens to everyone at some point. That is why the human body is designed to react to stress in specific ways. The responses you feel, physically and emotionally, after a stressful event are wired into your body and brain from birth. Although sometimes uncomfortable, they are designed to keep you safe from potential harm.
Under normal circumstances, a little bit of stress is ok. It can help you avoid a potentially dangerous situation or prepare for an important life event. However, when you experience ongoing stressors without relaxation or periods of relief, stress can become a problem that may lead to mental and physical health challenges.
What Happens to Your Body When You Experience Stress?
Your nervous system is broken up into several parts. Each part plays a specific role in sending messages throughout your body. Those messages can be pain or pleasure signals, messages that indicate you feel cold or hot, or messages that indicate something is wrong. One part of your nervous system is the autonomic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system is further separated into three distinct divisions: sympathetic, parasympathetic, and enteric. The autonomic nervous system is responsible for controlling your heart rate, vision, breathing, and many more essential body functions. It is also responsible for triggering the fight or flight response that helps you react to stressful or potentially harmful situations.
When you experience chronic stress, the stress response system (fight or flight response) is continually activated. This can cause emotional exhaustion and physical wear on the body, leading to a range of medical and mental health conditions. Some of these may require medical treatment or help from a mental health treatment center like Beachside to help safely manage and overcome your symptoms.
Signs and Symptoms of Stress
Stress manifests in physical and emotional ways. Some of the most common physical symptoms of stress include chest pains, racing heart, sleeping problems, elevated blood pressure, headaches, tense muscles, stomach problems, body aches and pains, and reduced immunity. Stress also causes emotional and mental health problems like depression, panic attacks, anxiety, sadness, and irritability.
As with other mental health challenges, people who experience chronic stress may turn to harmful forms of coping to manage their symptoms. These may include self-medicating by using drugs or alcohol, gambling, participating in unhealthy or reckless behaviors, smoking, or even engaging in disordered eating.
Stress vs. Anxiety
While the words stress and anxiety are often used in the same sentence and frequently used interchangeably, it is important to note that they mean slightly different things. Understanding whether the symptoms you or a loved one have are those of stress or of a potential anxiety disorder can be an essential first step in knowing when to seek help at a treatment center like Beachside.
Stress itself is the human body’s physical and emotional response to particular external stimuli. This can include anything from being ill to having too much homework to complete in the evening. Stressors can vary in severity and in duration. They may be one-time occurrences or repeatedly happen over a long time. The feelings and emotions associated with stress generally resolve soon after the circumstance that caused it are resolved.
Anxiety is your body’s reaction to those stressors. However, anxiety can also occur even without a source of perceived threat. When someone struggles with an anxiety disorder, they may experience anxiety symptoms for what seems like no apparent reason. When you experience anxiety, the feelings do not go away. They are always there, at differing levels, even if the stressor that first brought about your symptoms has long since resolved.
Stress and anxiety can lead to significant physical and emotional health symptoms. These can include varying degrees of tension, body pains, elevated blood pressure, sleeping problems, excessive worry, and unease. In time, these feelings can start to interfere with most vital body systems leading to an increased risk for developing a mental or physical illness.
5 Tips for Managing Stress
Although stress and anxiety are two different things, they can be managed in similar ways. There are several healthy things you can do to reduce stress levels. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for people to turn to substances like drugs or alcohol to dull the pain and displeasure associated with their symptoms. This practice, known as self-medication, is not a healthy, helpful, or effective way to manage stressors and potential anxiety development in the long term.
While it is true that substances do provide a temporary sense of relief, it is essential to remember that the comfort provided by drug or alcohol use is short-lived, but the physical and mental health detriment related to developing a substance use disorder can be life-long. Once the effects of alcohol or a particular drug wear off, the feelings related to your associated stressor will return and could lead to rapidly worsening challenges. In addition to seeking help to manage your symptoms, there are other things you can do at home to reduce the severity and influence of your symptoms.
Eat a healthy, balanced diet and focus on your sleep
In today’s busy and hectic society, both are notably easier to talk about than to physically accomplish. That said, diet and proper rest are essential to maintaining your physical and emotional health. When you suffer from chronic fatigue, your body and mind cannot function as it needs to. It will struggle to carry out vital functions without adequate energy.
The same applies to diet. If your diet lacks critical nutrients, your body cannot achieve optimal performance because it lacks the essential building blocks it needs to do so. When you are feeling exhausted and worn out, it is easier for stress and potentially anxiety disorders to take over. You can help self-manage stress by maintaining a healthy sleep schedule and choosing healthy foods.
Learn about and incorporate mindfulness into your routine
Mindfulness skills such as mindfulness meditation and yoga have been part of our lives for centuries. They have been used as a way to help people improve focus and relaxation. Mindfulness techniques like the above and others are a safe and healthy way to reduce stress while focusing your mind on the environment around you right now. Mindfulness helps take your mind off the outside circumstances that lead to ongoing stressors. Also, incorporating these practices into your daily routine is a great way to improve health, flexibility and incorporate low-impact exercise into your daily practice.
Avoid known stressors
If you are aware of particular circumstances (including people, places, or events) that often trigger a stress response, it is important to attempt to avoid them if possible. Again, this may be easier said than done as some of these stressors may be a part of your daily life, such as a toxic co-worker, demanding teacher, or challenging morning commute. However, it is essential to remember that if something causes stress, actively engaging in it each day will only increase your stress and possibly lead to worsening mental health complications in the long term. If you can, try to avoid these situations but if you must engage in them, do so at a time when your mind and body are in a healthy space.
Anticipating stress or a stressful event will inevitably increase your level of worry and apprehension about that situation. It is important to remember that feeling worried or tense about the unknown or even known situations that lead to emotional challenges is ok. But, it is also vital to manage how that worry and concern impacts your ability to function and manage your day-to-day obligations. Instead of allowing the knowledge that you may contact a stressor today or tomorrow to inhibit your ability to get things done, consider the source of your stressor and the potential positives that can come from those encounters.
Stress reduction and associated self-care practices are excellent excuses for returning to old hobbies that once brought you pleasure and relaxation. Self-care is also an excellent reason to consider a new hobby or pastime you have always wanted to try. Either way, hobbies provide the opportunity to focus your attention on things that are positive and healthy rather than on things that may increase stress.
When stress begins to interfere with your day-to-day life or limit your ability to engage in family, work, or academic obligations, it can lead to more significant mental health challenges. Choosing a treatment center like Beachside can help you overcome your symptoms and learn how to manage future stressors in safer, healthier, and more effective ways. Without help and support, stress can be challenging to handle but, it can also lead to other challenges, including anxiety disorders. At Beachside, our team of caring and supportive treatment providers will work with you to help you understand your stress and begin the journey towards lasting health and wellness.