Stressing. Everybody’s doing it, but not everybody’s dealing with it—especially during this time of uncertainty. More than half of Americans say they’re more stressed since the pandemic started. There are ways to identify and accept your stress so that you can make it work for you, instead of the other way around.
Yes, stressed is desserts spelled backwards. But its definition can be misunderstood. To get a handle on managing stress, it’s helpful to get to the root: its meaning, types, and your triggers.
What exactly is stress?
A physiological response to an external factor, or your body and mind saying ‘halp’ after something happens. It can trigger more of a physical response than worry but it’s less persistent than anxiety. Stress is provoked by, yup, stressors, aka those external factors.
How do you identify your stressors?
Ask yourself ‘what would stressed out me do?” In other words, imagine how you’d react to the below common stress categories to start calling out your triggers.
Life changes...as in anything major you’d mention when someone asks “what’s new?” These can be positive or negative (think: new spouse or job, a breakup or a layoff).
Work...as in your 9-to-5 can become your 9-to-500 reasons why you can’t sleep. Late-night emails, a demanding boss, and projects that won’t quit are a few standard workplace stressors.
Social...as in meeting new people means new impressions means new chances to eff up. If you tense up when thinking about meeting new people or dealing with social conflicts, social stress is one of your triggers.
Environment...How do you react to a sudden dog bark? Your phone ringing? A super bright room? Take inventory of how you respond to sudden changes in your environment to help figure out the best way to make your space reflect your less stressed self.
What are the different types of stress?
Acute...The one that’s an immediate collision. This is the “fight-or-flight” response, or your physiological response to a particular challenge, threat, or scare. It’s short term. Think: job interview, getting a speeding ticket, giving a presentation. Our bodies are usually good at recovering from acute stress—and it can actually be a motivator.
Chronic...The one that’s a pile up. Chronic stress happens when stressors compound and build, leading to long term stress. It can lead to a whole list of fun health problems.
A little stress can go a long way towards getting sh*t done. But a lot of stress can go a long way towards giving you health issues.
What kinds of health issues?
Everything from insomnia, headaches, and stomach problems, to heartburn, high blood pressure, and increased risk of heart attack.
Well, that escalated quickly. How does that happen?
When you’re stressed, your amygdala (your brain’s HQ for emotion and fear) sends a distress signal to your hypothalamus—the part of your brain that controls your hormones. This prompts the release of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which increase your heartbeat, quicken your breathing, and release more blood sugar for energy. Think of it like a 911 response. When the event is over (after you’ve nailed that presentation or discovered that the shadow is a coat rack, not an intruder), your hypothalamus should tell your system to go back to normal. But with chronic stress, that fight or flight response won’t back down. And when you’re working in overdrive, your health eventually takes a nosedive.
Okay, so you’re stressed. Welcome. The difference between those who own their stress and those who get owned by stress is first recognizing it.
How does saying ‘I’m stressed’ help?
It’s science. When you consciously point out your stress, your neural activity can move from your amygdala to your prefrontal cortex, which is in charge of decision making and planning. Basically, when you say ‘I see you, stress,’ it moves from a reactive, scared place, to a more centered spot of thoughtful deliberation.
Can I make this a habit?
Yup. Break out your old Harriet the Spy notebook and start journaling. Taking five to ten minutes a day to write down what’s stressing you out, plus what you’re grateful for (minus a hashtag blessed or an inspirational quote in bridesmaid font). This might feel cheesy, but taking a moment to label your stress and reflect on the good things in your life can have a meaningful impact.
I’ve tried all of this. I’m still stressed AF.
You’re not alone—in both feeling stressed and not knowing whether to seek help. A survey found that more than half of Americans don’t seek out help from healthcare professionals for stress issues. If you’re so stressed that you can’t concentrate, or it’s interfering with your eating, sleeping, and relationships, it’s probably time to get a professional involved. If you have health insurance, start on your provider’s website to find the right person. And check out our anxiety guide for more information on treatment. Stress, after all, is a symptom of anxiety and can lead to longer term health issues.
Stress is so common that many people think its negative effects are just part of life. Recognizing your stress and incorporating destress tactics into your everyday routine can help you literally and metaphorically exhale.
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