Stress comes in many forms - from work to parenting, to chronic disease, to political and social uncertainty. (Sound familiar?) And while we tend to associate stress with negative situations, some stress is even derived from positive experiences - hello, skydiving!
For some, an act such as planning a party may trigger the same physical and emotional stress response - which becomes even more intense later in life. "As we age, our immune systems are less efficient, and adding stress to that can lead to disease progression or the onset of disease," says Dr. Ann Webster, a health psychologist at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.
The Stress Response
Stressful situations trigger a physical reaction known as the stress response. During this response, your brain relays warnings to your muscles, which tighten. Signals are also sent to your adrenal glands, which release stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones are what cause the 'fight or flight' feelings we've all experienced: your heart pounds, blood pressure rises, blood flow increases to your brain and muscles; your breathing quickens to oxygenation of your blood, and your body releases sugars and fats into the blood to increase your energy levels.
In the short term, the stress response can help you navigate a difficult situation. However, chronic stress can lead to serious health issues down the road. "Stress increases blood sugar and can make diabetes worse. It can create high blood pressure and cause insomnia. It can also make people become anxious, worried, depressed, or frustrated," says Dr. Webster. Chronic stress also increases the risk of heart disease, heartburn, and many other health problems.
Symptoms of stress can take many forms. Stress may cause physical complaints, such as tension headaches, back pain, indigestion, or heart palpitations. It may appear as cognitive problems, such as poor concentration and indecisiveness. Emotional symptoms of stress include crying, irritability, and edginess. And stress can also show up as negative behaviors. "Driving a car too fast, overeating or smoking can all be behavioral symptoms of stress," says Dr. Webster.
The first step toward reducing stress is learning what your triggers are. "If you know what pushes your buttons, then avoid it. But there are stresses we have to accept, so we must change our reactions to them," explains Dr. Webster. She offers the following ways to reduce or manage stress:
Relaxation techniques. These are activities that trigger the relaxation response, a physiological change that can help lower your blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate, oxygen consumption, and stress hormones. You can achieve this with activities such as meditation, guided imagery, yoga, and deep breathing exercises.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is based on the idea that changing unhealthy thinking can change your emotions. A CBT therapist will help you identify negative thinking and learn to automatically replace it with healthy or positive thoughts.
Goal setting. "When people set goals for themselves, they have a positive sense of commitment, feel they're in control and are optimistic," says Dr. Webster. She recommends setting goals in your career, relationships, creativity, play, and health.
While we're all human, it's important to do what we can to manage our stress response - especially during times of economic and social unrest! Although we're unable to change our current social climate, we can at least be aware of how we are reacting to it, and take steps toward conditioning better stress responses within ourselves.
Do you have a tip for managing stress not covered here? We'd love to hear it in the comments below!