Picture this: it’s Sunday night, and you have a big presentation tomorrow that you’ve been working on for months. You’re anxiety-ridden because you want it to go perfectly. You can’t fall asleep, but alas, your goal is achieved. Monday morning rolls around, your alarm clock didn’t go off, and now you’re late. Now, your immediate reaction is stress and to jump out of bed. Stress is an extremely common reaction to things that happen in life, and if you’ve been in this situation, you know that stress ruined your entire day. You feel terrible because you rocketed out of bed, and now you have to put together this presentation without feeling your best. This is all too common, and you’re not the only one who experiences stress.
While stress has always been a common theme in our society, it was worsened by the global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Many people with underlying mental health problems dealt with a significant rise in their symptoms due to lockdowns. Being trapped at home without an outlet was harsh for many people. Those in recovery had it even harder as they could not attend 12-step meetings in person. The stress led to relapses, suicide, and record amounts of drug overdose deaths. Again, stress is a natural part of our life. A long day that didn’t go your way can be stressful; traffic on the way to work and a host of other things can cause it, but how can we reduce it?
Unfortunately, as we get our lives back on track, we face unique challenges in reducing our stress. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the COVID-19 pandemic caused Americans to struggle to cope with its disruptions. An estimated eight in 10 adults (78 percent) said the pandemic is a significant source of stress, while two out of three adults (67 percent) said their stress increased exponentially as a result of the pandemic. These unique circumstances have caused a shift in how we’re leading our lives.
Stress is often referred to as the “silent killer” because of the emotional and physical toll it has on our bodies. The same study found that 49 percent of adults reported their behavior was adversely affected by stress. The most common increased tension consisted of snapping, getting angry quickly, screaming or yelling at a loved one for no reason, and unexpected mood swings. While these might have been exacerbated by the pandemic, stress has always been around. None of this is new, and societal stressors contribute greatly as well.
While the past few years have caused a new source of stress, trauma and stress come from elsewhere. For example, in 2019, 66 percent of adults said that health care was a primary source of stress. Mass shootings, climate change/global warming, suicide rates, immigration, sexual assaults in the news, and the opioid epidemic were other topics at the forefront prior to the pandemic. Unfortunately, these issues have led to a significant rise in drug and alcohol abuse. In 2021, the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released data showing the United States experienced 100,306 overdose deaths, the highest recorded in its history.
Another 65 percent of adults say the current levels of uncertainty in the world are causing them further stress. The cost of goods is rising while wages remain the same, putting an additional financial burden on top of an already stressed-out society. The sheer volume of crises we’re facing is overwhelming and only seems to be getting worse. Not to mention, many of us lost loved ones in the past few years, which was traumatic, and another issue they’re looking to overcome. Around 77 percent of those surveyed said their source of stress is up significantly from 2019. This figure was 66 percent in 2019, for perspective.
As you can see, there are different kinds of stress. Some stem from normal anxiety about a presentation you have tomorrow, while others are caused by trauma. As was mentioned above, stress is often referred to as the silent killer, so determining what kind of stress you have and how to reduce it can save your life. Below, we’ll delve into the topic and help you find solutions to these issues.
What Is Stress?
The term “stress” is thrown around all the time, but have you ever stopped to think about what it means? Well, it’s defined by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health as a physical and emotional reaction individuals experience when they’re introduced to challenges. When we experience stress, our bodies release hormones that cause a “fight-or-flight” response. As a result, your blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing rate increase. You’ll also notice you’re sweating more and that the muscles in your body become tenser.
When you’re on the road and someone abruptly merges in front of you without a signal, it’s considered a normal coping mechanism. The fight-or-flight response allows you to slow down and avoid the accident. However, chronic stress will cause a host of health issues. These include headaches, trouble sleeping, digestive problems, and other symptoms. If you have asthma, stress can also cause worse symptoms. Stress is also linked to anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses.
While drugs like Xanax or benzodiazepines can help manage your stress in the short term, there is no cure. Fortunately, there is something called the “stress reset button” in our bodies, known as the relaxation response. It helps lower your blood pressure, slow your heart rate, and decrease oxygen consumption. Others use a combination of yoga, mindfulness, or other relaxation techniques to counteract their stress.
Why Is Stress Called the Silent Killer?
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that stress has the power to destroy your emotional well-being. However, chronic stress is having a field day with your physical health and shaving years off your life. Prolonged stress can make you physically sick. Without treatment, the effects can be life-threatening.
As was mentioned above, stress is a healthy response to external stimuli. It’s evolved to a point where it can protect you from life or death as it’s a physical response to a potential threat. It prepares your body to defend itself. While some stress is normal, it can have detrimental effects, even in the short term. If you let it persist without intervention, chronic stress can lead to disastrous consequences.
Stress can also lead to substance abuse, causing the individual to receive a dual diagnosis. As dangerous as stress is alone, adding substances can increase the chances of damage to your body or an overdose. It’s important to never rely on drugs or alcohol to manage your stress. You will need professional addiction treatment to overcome substance abuse.
The most common short-term physical effects caused by stress include the following:
- Headaches and pain in your body: Chronic stress will cause alterations in your circulatory system. This can put your body in distress, leading to muscle tension, headaches, and other pains throughout your body.
- Digestive issues: Studies have found that stress changes how our gastrointestinal system processes food. Chronic stress also causes shifts in our appetite. When you become stressed enough to trigger the fight-or-flight response, digestion slows to divert energy to fight the threat. This can lead to abdominal pain and other gastro issues.
- Insomnia: Since stress levels are up across the board, insomnia and other sleep problems are at the highest they’ve ever been. An estimated ten to 30 percent of people currently live with insomnia. Sleep is one of the most important functions for a human. When we sleep, our body repairs itself. Without rest, we have a weakened immune system, and we’re prone to getting sick.
- Fatigue: It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that if you aren’t sleeping well, you’re likely to be fatigued throughout the day.
- Changes in sex drive: It’s hard to “get in the mood” when we’re stressed. A healthy sex life is important, and changes to it can further intensify your stress symptoms.
- Susceptible to getting sick: In addition to not sleeping, stress also impedes our immune system, increasing the odds you’ll catch a cold or other infections.
As you live with stress, the effects will have profound effects on your body and develop into chronic conditions. These include the following:
- Heart attacks, heart disease, or stroke
- High blood pressure
- Impotence or other sexual dysfunctions
- Obesity, diabetes, or eating disorders
- Crohn’s disease or other inflammatory bowel diseases
- Ulcerative colitis or other gastrointestinal conditions
Stress can also cause problems in your brain. Stress clears a path for mental and emotional conditions like depression, anxiety, and irritability. It also impairs cognitive functions because of the alterations it makes in the structure of your brain. It’s unfortunate something so common that we all battle can have such profound effects, but all we can do is manage it and make sure we’re doing our best to keep it at bay.
Other brain-related effects you’ll encounter with stress include the following:
- Learning disability: Stress causes changes in your hippocampus and amygdala, resulting in decreased processing and decision-making abilities. It can also make you susceptible to behavioral and mood disorders and cause learning disabilities.
- Problems with your memory: Chronic stress makes your hippocampus and amygdala less efficient, meaning you cannot produce new nerve tissue. Stress can also reduce the size of your hippocampus, which can cause memory problems.
Stress isn’t as harmless as we might think, but is there such a thing as “good stress?”
What Is Good Stress?
According to Wendy Berry Mendes, Ph.D., “not all stress is necessarily bad for you.” While that might sound like the complete opposite of what we described above, there is something to be learned from stress, and we can take advantage of its benefits. This is known as “eustress.” We’ve made it clear that stress can lead to headaches, insomnia, gastro issues, heart attack, and heart disease, but there is more to it than that. Simply speaking, stress is a basic process that occurs to protect you. Your body releases the hormones to make you more alert.
Good stress refers to the type of stress you feel when you get excited. Your hormones surge, and your pulse speeds up, but there is no threat – you’re not in fear. You’ll feel this way when you go on a first date, when you’re getting married, go on a roller coaster, or compete in a game. Good stress is temporary, but it motivates and inspires you, allowing you to focus your energy and enhance your performance. If an athlete took drugs for something like this, they’d likely be disqualified for the substance. However, this good stress helps you meet your daily challenge and motivates you to reach your goal. It’s essential for a healthy life.
Now that we’ve gone over the difference between good stress and bad stress, what are the other types of stress?
What Are the Different Types of Stress?
There are four different categories that stress falls into – psychological stress, physical stress, psychosocial stress, and psychospiritual stress. It’s important to understand the specific type of stress that’s affecting you. This will help you find a solution.
- Emotional stress
- Information overload
- A sense you’re not in control
- A sense you’re out of control
- Perceptual stress
- Unworkable perfectionism
- Panic attacks
- Trauma after an injury
- Intense physical labor
- Environmental pollution (pesticides, toxins, heavy metals, radiation)
- Hormonal imbalance
- Dietary stress
- Food allergies
- Unhealthy eating habits
- Substance abuse
- Relationship or marriage challenges
- Problems at work
- No social support
- Lack of resources to survive
- Losing your job
- Loss of investments
- Loss of savings
- Loss of a loved one
- Losing your home
- A crisis of values
- Losing your purpose
- Not finding joy in life anymore
- No fulfillment from work
- No fulfillment from life
- Misalignment with core spiritual beliefs
The wrong kind of stress is bad enough on your body, and it takes its toll. However, when you don’t have a means of relieving the stress in a healthy manner, it can lead to headaches, heart palpitations, clammy palms, fatigue, nausea, anxiety, depression, and even suicidal thoughts. Fortunately, you’re never at a point of no return, but how do you reduce bad stress?
Stress, Substance Abuse, and Dual Diagnosis Treatment
It’s common for people to turn to drugs or alcohol to alleviate their stress. After a long day at work, many people will head home or go to the bar for a few drinks to unwind. It’s not healthy, but doing this occasionally isn’t considered dangerous. However, the more you depend on drugs or alcohol as a means of stress relief, the higher the odds are of developing a substance use disorder. If you have a pre-existing mental health disorder and develop a drug or alcohol addiction, you will need dual diagnosis treatment.
The link between stress and addiction is strong. Everyone copes with stress in their own way, but some of us lean heavily on substances for chemical relief. In the short term, you will experience stress relief. However, the longer you use these substances, the more you’ll need for stress relief. Eventually, addiction will occur, meaning you’ll need dual diagnosis treatment. Dual diagnosis treatment will manage mental health disorders while treating a substance use disorder. The most common drugs of abuse to manage stress are alcohol and opioids. Stimulants are less commonly used as they often cause more anxiety and undesirable side effects.
Tips for Reducing Bad Stress
Good and bad stress cause our bodies to release hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. While we’ve learned that not all stress is bad, high levels of adrenaline and cortisol in our bodies aren’t good. Common signs of stress include sweaty palms, a racing heart, and butterflies in the stomach. However, what distinguishes between good and bad stress is how you feel about the experience.
If you’re walking away feeling bad, what are some tips for reducing bad stress?
Eliminate Stress When Possible
Yes, that’s easier said than done. However, learning to say “no” more often can help reduce the unwanted stress you take on. Usually, we take on tasks we don’t need because we can’t say no, but you can start by avoiding people that cause stress and ask you to do things for them you don’t want to do. Once you manage your time more effectively, you’ll notice your stress levels decrease dramatically.
You Can’t Control Everything, So Stop Trying
For a lot of us with high stress levels, it’s because we try to control every aspect of our lives. It’s great to follow a schedule and be organized, but once you realize you can’t control each section of your life, you’ll start reducing some of your stress. Other things you can’t control are other people’s behavior. Instead of trying to change how someone else is, let them be and focus your time elsewhere, even if it means not spending time with them anymore.
Yes, it’s that simple. Positive thoughts bring more positivity. If you live with a negative mindset, chances are your life will be negative. However, being positive and finding the silver lining can offset challenging situations. Look at the upside in every situation. It can help you learn from mistakes and use these challenges to grow spiritually. Being positive will help you appreciate what you have and change your perspective on life.
Ask for Help
Your friends and family will be happy if you come to them for help. We’re so fixated on trying to fix our own problems that we overlook the importance of support from others. Expressing how you feel isn’t easy, but it’s much better than bottling them up. If you shake a bottle of soda, the carbonation causes the bottle to get hard and filled with pressure. The same can be said of stress. Release that pressure, and you’ll feel much better.
Include Relaxation Techniques in Your Daily Routine
We all have a routine, whether it’s waking up, having a coffee, eating breakfast, brushing our teeth, and heading off to work. We all have a way in which we do things. Adding a relaxation technique into your routine, even if it’s for 15 minutes a day in the morning before a long day, can help you clear your head and prepare for the day. It doesn’t need to be a significant commitment, but investing time into yourself will pay off in the end. Meditation, breathing exercises, and yoga will help you find inner peace.
Join a Gym and Start Exercising
The importance of exercise on our mental health is often overlooked. Yes, a proper diet and exercise can lead to us looking at ourselves in the mirror more often than we used to, but exercise is a healthy release of stress. Staying active almost ensures that our bodies are well prepared to fight off stress. Going to the gym and exercising also relaxes our mind and body, improving our mood in the process. Physical exercise also fights off other conditions like heart disease that stress exacerbates. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by getting active!
A Regular Sleep Schedule Can Pay Off in the End
We understand that stress can cause disruptions in your sleep pattern. Whether you can’t fall asleep at night or have trouble staying asleep, getting into a good routine can negate this. Going to bed at the same time each night, waking up at the same time each day, and turning off screens 30 minutes before bed can help improve your sleep schedule. Getting enough rest is important for many reasons, as it enables you to stay healthy, fight off disease, and recover from stressful events the day before. A good night’s rest also prepares you to fight the new challenges you face tomorrow.
It’s crucial to determine the difference between good stress and bad stress. If it’s not chronic, stress isn’t as bad as you might think. However, if you encounter chronic stress, reducing it will help you immensely. Add activities that promote positive stress to create a healthy balance and a better quality of life.