Stress–my old frenemy. You’ve made rush hour commutes to work disastrous, packed schedules exhausting, and raising a rambunctious toddler feel nearly impossible. It seems all bad, I know. And many of you are probably scoffing at the suggestion that stress is both friend and foe. The very definition of stress is “an individual’s response to any demand or change”. Yes, stress can be good. If you were completely relaxed and in “recliner mode” while taking a driving test, you likely wouldn’t do too well. Stress can keep us alert and performing at our best when we need to bring our A-game. But, when stress becomes too intense or is present for long periods of time, it can have detrimental effects on our physical and psychological well-being.
Stress is very subjective–everyone responds to it differently–so it’s important to discover your own cues. When faced with a demand like having to swerve to avoid an oncoming car, the body begins releasing several hormones that help us react quickly, allowing us to (hopefully) stay safe. There are many physical responses to these hormones–especially when stress has become a chronic problem. Paying attention to these symptoms may give you some clues that you’re simply facing too many demands right now. People may notice skin and hair conditions, like:
- hair loss
- nerve twitches
- gastrointestinal complications
- headaches and other unexplained pains
- increased heart rate
- high blood pressure
- frequent colds
- flare-ups of chronic illnesses
If you’ve noticed some changes in your physical well-being, it may be important to rule out stress as the culprit. A physician may need to help you with this.
When our bodies are frequently in a state of having to meet demands, those stress hormones don’t just influence us physically. Have you ever found yourself unreasonably irritated by the mess your children leave behind? Does traffic make you want to pull your hair out? How about an unexplained and always-present feeling of being on edge? Stress can make us irritable, frustrated, lacking in patience, forgetful, and angry. It’s also not unusual to see depression and intense anxiety while going through stressful situations like bereavement, job loss, or any or major life change.
Despite whether the symptoms of stress manifest physically, psychologically, or some combination of the two, the remedies typically overlap greatly. Make changes where you are able, to reduce stress. Every opportunity counts.
- Outsource and find support by getting help from friends, family, or even businesses when money allows.
- Give up unnecessary commitments, even if only temporarily.
- Be as practical as you can, and rearrange your schedule so that it works for you.
- Even just having someone to vent to can relieve some of the pressure.
Taking care of yourself is crucial to buffering the negative effects of stress. It doesn’t change circumstances, but self-care activities and positive ways of living can help you cope when you simply can’t make changes. Schedule fun activities just for yourself, or include friends and family. Listen to guided relaxation exercises to help your brain turn off the response to stress, and work this into your weekly schedule to make sure you have some guilt-free time to refuel. Physical exercise helps to flush out those stress hormones mentioned earlier. A nutritious diet provides the fuel we need to physically and mentally cope with stress. (Have you ever tried to work overtime after eating nothing but junk food for a week? It probably didn’t feel too good.)
Along with self-care and making changes, self-compassion is a huge part in dealing with stress. Remember, stress can feel like an enemy when that is not always the case. The symptoms of stress are typically unpleasant, but they are warning signs that something isn’t quite right–like your body responding to a cold with a fever. Don’t be angry or frustrated with your mind and body for being stressed out. Instead, use your voice to acknowledge that the stress is trying to help and protect, and then commit to making a change or getting through it. A little self-compassion can go a long way.
This article is intended for general education purposes only, and is not intended to be a substitute for professional counseling or medical care. If you are interested in seeking professional counseling, please call The Stone Foundation at 410-296-2004.
Lauren Greenberg, MS, LGPC is a graduate of Loyola’s Counseling Practitioner Program. For three years, Lauren provided hotline crisis intervention to residents of Baltimore City. She also has experience providing counseling to students at a local college for issues including grief and loss, depression, substance abuse, self-harm, anxiety, and trauma. Her professional interests and areas of study include positive psychology, promoting social and emotional competence, and women’s issues.