Whether it is your heart racing during a big test at school, the tightness in your chest in anticipation of a hard conversation, your leg shaking while you wait for test results, or feeling overloaded and overwhelmed with the week’s to-do list, everyone has experienced some form of stress in their lifetime. Without understanding stress, its effects, and how to best navigate it, encountering feelings of stress can leave a person feeling isolated and have lasting impacts on your physical and mental health. April is Stress Awareness Month and staff at Windom Area Health want to provide education on the matter and how we can help.
What is it? – Not all stress is bad stress
According to The American Institute of Stress, stress does not have one definition because the experience of stress is different from person to person. However, they share the most common definition of stress is “physical, mental, or emotional strain or tension.” The Stress Management Society considers stress “a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.”
Stress often produces physical reactions when the body feels it is under attack. According to the Stress Management Society, when stress is felt our bodies release hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine to prepare our bodies to react to the potential dangers ahead. The release of these hormones changes the way our bodies act such as increasing our heart rate, endorsing heavy breathing, providing increased energy, and diverting energy and blood supply from areas of our bodies that are not needed during the stressor event. For example, during a stressful event our bodies will decrease digestion so the body is able to focus on the parts of our bodies needed for ‘battle.’ All of these sensations occur to increase our focus and ability to respond to the stressor is ahead of us.
Despite its affects, not all stress is bad stress. Stress helped our ancestors survive and warned them of potential danger allowing humans to evolve and stay alive for centuries. ‘Good’ stress, or eustress as it is often referred to, often occurs during feelings of excitement such as when you’re on a roller coaster, going on a first date, or are competing in family game night. This type of stress also helps us stay alive and excited about our lives.
Small doses of stress, or acute stress, often does not take a lasting negative toll on our bodies. Stress can negatively impact daily life when our body goes into ‘stress mode’ at inappropriate times, such as during a big presentation. While presenting in front of a group of people might certainly be stressful, it often does not warrant a full-body response. Should it happen, heart rate could increase, blood flow would be directed to essential organs, and brain function would be reduced, thus making it difficult to focus and continue a presentation. Similarly, stress can cause clinical complications when our bodies get ‘stuck’ in a cycle of prolonged stress, which can cause lasting negative impacts on our health. The visuals provided by The Stress Management Society provide a deeper look into the full-body impacts of stress.
Ways to Help Manage Stress
Stress impacts all of us. While we are not always responsible for the reasons we encounter stress, we are responsible for how we react. This can include making ourselves feel better by doing the following:
- Taking care of yourself: Eat foods that fill your body with needed nutrients, give yourself plenty of sleep, allow breaks
- Take breaks from social media use
- Move your body
- Connect with others: Share when you’re feeling stressed or when things are “too much”
- Expand your knowledge: Read books and listen to podcasts that expand your knowledge of how your mind and body work and can best be supported
- Avoid using drugs or alcohol to help manage stress
- Recognize when it’s time to reach out for help
What You Could Do for Stress Awareness Month
To honor yourself during Stress Awareness Month, allow yourself to be a little selfish. Create space to the things that make you feel good, whether that’s taking your dog for a walk, watching an episode of your favorite show, reaching out to a friend to plan that lunch date you keep talking about, or indulging in the occasional chips and queso. Make time to relax and say no to things that are too much for you. Remember to be kind to yourself and others and feel empowered to discuss your stressors and things that help you feel better. If you find that things are not improving, reach out to Windom Area Health at 507-831-2400 to start feeling better.
By Brianna Jonason, LGSW, Mental Health Therapist