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Stressed Out? You’re Not Alone

Thousands of years ago, our natural fight-or-flight instinct protected us from threats such as other humans, animals and extreme weather.

Feel like a sabre tooth tiger is chasing you?

That instinct triggered hormones that caused our heart to race, breath to quicken and muscles to tense so that we were ready for action. Today, humans haven’t lost that stress response. We no longer run from wild animals out to eat us for dinner. But we respond to everyday worries as if they were such threats. We worry about money, work, family, the state of the world and health. These are certainly serious things to be concerned about. But we also have stress reactions to meeting deadlines, conflict with our loved ones, getting the kids out the door in the morning or driving in traffic.

Too much unmanaged stress hurts our mental, emotional and physical health. Eight in 10 Americans feel at least one health symptom every day as a result of stress, says the American Psychological Association. About one-third of high school students feel sad or hopeless nearly daily, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

If it feels bad, it could be stress

What causes stress is as different as the ways it shows up: headaches, fatigue, digestive problems, mood fluctuations and brain fog. More serious effects include heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer, anxiety disorders and depression.

“Anything that affects our body affects our mind – thoughts and feelings – and vice versa,” says Dr. Ryan M. Niemiec, education director and psychologist with the VIA Institute on Character and a fellow with the International Positive Psychology Association.

Stress is a great deceiver at hiding what’s really going on. “It’s safe to assume that most things aren’t directly caused by stress, but that stress will make anything that might be a little bit wrong in your body much worse,” says Dr. Heidi Hanna, executive director of the American Institute of Stress.

To top it all off, we stress about our stress, spending some $10 billion on stress remedies that include articles, books, gadgets and podcasts . And technology now bombards us in ways that directly impact our stress levels. People who constantly check email, for example, report significantly higher levels of stress than those who don’t.

Humans aren’t going to escape stress; it’s in our DNA. But how stress affects us and how we manage it isn’t predetermined. “For some people, this same energy experience can be positive, exciting, passionate and invigorating, while for others it can be overwhelming, anxiety producing, or even exhausting or depressing,” Dr. Hanna says.

How do we chill out?

Some stress is good. Too much is bad. And balance is tricky. What can you do?

Number 1Recognize different stress. Stress is internal (feeling guilty about unhealthy habits, lack of time) and external (world events), Dr. Hanna says. There’s also acute stress – of the moment, such as when you dodge a car – and chronic. “This is when we have nagging, everyday worries, like not having enough time to get it all done, or dealing with difficult relationships or conflicts that we don’t take action on,” Dr. Hanna says. Those cause stress hormones to negatively impact the body and brain.

Number 2Accept a certain level of stress. “Stress can be good for you,” Dr. Niemiec says. “Think of any goal you've achieved, award you have won, promotion you have received. Did you attain them without any stress or obstacles along the way? We’ve all heard the phrase ‘No pain, no gain.’ Simply substitute the word ‘stress’ for ‘pain’ and you’ll see what I mean. This will help you take a new lens at the positives of stress.”

Number 3Use your strengths. Your personal strengths, Dr. Niemiec says, can help you positively confront and manage stress. “Think about a stressor you have coming up. What character strengths might you deliberately bring forth to prepare?” he says. “If you have a challenging meeting, use your judgment to be prepared for different scenarios, your kindness to be thoughtful, and your hope to set some goals.”

Number 4Maximize your healthy internal stress responses. Eating well, resting as much as you can, and exercising – even a little – can help your body and mind better manage stress.

Number 5Ask for help. If you have a particularly busy week with kids and work, ordering takeout can relieve the stress of cooking – and it doesn’t make you a bad parent. “Stress is fuel for positive change, as long as we have the capacity to cope with the challenges of life,” Dr. Hanna says. “A lot of the time we can’t change our circumstances, but we can grow stronger and rely on the support of others around us to help us through these challenges, and benefit from the experience as a result.”

Take a moment to renew yourself

podcast iconTry our guided meditation and get started on the way to clear your mind of clutter. All you need is five minutes.

If you need help managing stress, contact HAP's Coordinated Behavioral Health Management Department at (800) 444-5755.

Categories: Get Healthy