Feeling stressed? Here's what you can do about it

Stressed woman sitting at laptop covered with sticky notes

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The lazy days of summer are coming to an end, and the hustle and bustle of the back-to-school season is right around the corner. Longer "to do" lists and tighter schedules can create added stress to your day.

Stress is a natural part of life. And in small doses, it's a good thing. Stress energizes and motivates you to deal with challenges. But prolonged and excessive stress can have a negative impact on both your psychological and physical health. Stress can be physical, such as when you've had too little sleep, haven't eaten properly, been ill, or have too much to do. Stress can also be emotional. There are three types:

  • Routine stress that is caused by the daily pressures of work, school, family, and other responsibilities
  • Stress brought on by a sudden change such as job loss, divorce, or a loved one's illness
  • Traumatic stress, such as that experienced in a major accident, war, or natural disaster

How your body responds

The body reacts to various types of stress in similar ways, but its response can differ from person to person. Some people experience headaches, insomnia, fatigue, or mood swings. Others have digestive upsets, grind their teeth, or find their heart pounding.

Exposure to chronic stress causes long-term activation of the stress response system. This can result in your body producing too much cortisol (a primary stress hormone), which is necessary for the body to react in stressful situations because it enhances the brain's functions. But in order to give the brain extra energy, cortisol suppresses the digestive system and alters the immune system.

Chronic stress puts you at increased risk of more frequent and severe viral infections, heart disease, high blood pressure, sleep problems, depression, obesity, memory impairment, and worsening of skin conditions such as eczema.

Know your triggers

Causes of stress vary. They can be as simple and short-term as watching a scary movie or getting stuck in traffic. Routine stress can be triggered by day-to-day activities such as getting the kids off to school, commuting to and from work, and the pressures of a day at work.

Stress can be brought on by a sudden negative experience such as divorce, change in economic status, or serious illness. Other changes, though not negative, can still be extremely stressful, such as children leaving home or going off to college, switching jobs, or preparing for a wedding.

An example of a traumatic stress incident could be the death of a loved one or being involved in a major accident or physical assault.

One of the most important ways of dealing with stress is to know what causes it. A trigger may not be as obvious as having to give a speech in public or drive in a snowstorm. It could be having to help a child who is struggling in school. It could be financial worries. Or the pressure of trying to succeed at work and family life and just "getting it all done." Try to be more specific. Is it a particular assignment or project at work? Is it the morning routine of getting everyone out the door on time?

If you know exactly what it is that you are stressed about, you can attempt to fix that stress and call on others for help. If the morning rush is the issue, try prepping lunches, backpacks, or briefcases the night before. Although it feels like an added chore at night, it makes a world of difference in the morning. One of the best ways to deal with work stress is to learn to better manage your time and prioritize your tasks. Be realistic about what you can accomplish. Talk with a trusted colleague about the issue you are facing. Sometimes getting another point of view or just confiding in another person can be helpful.

Coping with stress

There are many unhealthy ways to deal with stress. Drinking, smoking, and eating a diet high in sugar and fat are some of them. They will only add to your stress in the long run. Learn to avoid these quick fixes and instead focus on more positive changes.

Some suggestions for healthy ways to deal with stress triggers you cannot eliminate are:

  • Eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly. A nutritious and well-balanced diet and exercise can keep your body fit and able to resist disease. Exercise in any form, whether you are an athlete or downright out of shape, is a great, simple way to boost your mood because it triggers endorphins—your brain's feel-good neurotransmitters. Regular exercise can increase self-confidence and lower symptoms associated with anxiety and stress.
  • Remember that no one can do it all alone; ask family, friends, or co-workers for help.
  • Talk to someone you trust about your stressful situation.
  • Use relaxation techniques to calm your mind and body. A simple technique you can do in your chair is to focus on breathing regularly and say a word such as "relax" or "peace" aloud or silently until your muscles and mind are relaxed. There are also muscle relaxation techniques you can try. Focus on a muscle group such as your face, clench your muscles, furrow your brow, and hold for five seconds then relax. Continue with muscle groups all the way down your body to your toes.
  • Get professional help if you need it.

Stress is part of life; it's how you handle it that will keep you healthy. Johns Hopkins offers several wellness programs that can help. Take time in your day to enjoy a 15-minute seated massage or join a mindfulness meditation class or yoga session.

Posted in Health+Wellness

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