Did you know that 77% of people experience physical symptoms such as fatigue/headache because of stress?1
And 73% experience psychological symptoms such as irritability, nervousness, or lack of energy?2
People tend to feel stress at some point in time in their lives. It’s an instinctive response that we’re born with. Stress affects people of all ages, genders, and circumstances. It also looks different for everyone—you may feel overwhelmed, worried, run-down, or just experience physical symptoms of stress.
Many anticipatory experiences cause short-term stress; getting ready for a job interview, a date, or waiting for results. In addition to that, there are various life events that can cause long-term, or chronic, stress.
We’re going to share with you what stress is, what causes stress, our body’s response to it, and how to combat it.
What Is Stress?
Stress is a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.
It’s typically triggered by something that causes strong feelings of worry or anxiety. Not all stress is bad, though.
Good Stress (eustress) vs Bad Stress (distress)
Eustress is what we call “good” stress. This is the type of stress that keeps you motivated to keep working, or provides a sort of incentive to get the job done. People typically need some level of stress to keep working and improving their lives. This stress keeps people happy, motivated, challenged, and productive.
Distress, also known as “bad” stress, comes up when the stress felt during eustress is no longer helpful or productive. It’s when the ‘good’ stress becomes difficult to handle and tension begins to rise. You may no longer feel that a certain challenge you used to find joy in is fun, or you feel there is no end in sight.
Acute vs Chronic
Acute stress is stress that doesn’t last over a long period of time. It’s caused by the fight or flight response, which prepares the body to “fight” or “run away” from a perceived threat. Chemicals like adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol are released into our bloodstream when our fight or flight response is activated. Since typically our acute stressors are not something we can physically “fight” or run away from, it causes us to feel agitation, aggression, and over-react to situations.3
Chronic Stress is a stressor that is felt over a long period of time, typically lasting 30 days or more. Acute stressors can add up to create chronic stress if situations are poorly managed or not dealt with. Being exposed to traumatic events can cause chronic stress, which may result in depression or anxiety.4
How Both Kinds of Stress Can Affect Your Physical Health
Chronic stress, if left untreated, can cause serious health problems. Chronic stress can contribute to anxiety, muscle pain, high blood pressure, and a weakened immune system.5
Acute stress can cause an increase in blood pressure, rapid breathing, and overall muscle tension.6
What Causes Stress?
Common causes of stress in the U.S. are money, the economy, and work. People can also feel stress due to their health, emotional problems, major life changes, family, and conflicts with beliefs and values.7 Other common causes are your surroundings, such as living in an area with crime or pollution, your social situation, your job, or unemployment.
In the United States, 69% of individuals see money as a top stressor, the second is 65%, and third is the economy at 61%.
Circles of influence and concern
When identifying causes of stress, it can help to be familiar with the circle of influence and circle of concern. This diagram, created by Stephen Covey, encompasses concerns that we can and can’t do something about.
The circle of influence contains concerns that we have some sort of control over. These include things like being prepared, exercising, or interacting with others.
The circle of concern has things we have less control over such as what others think of us, what could happen, and the weather. Here is a great post on the topic with accompanying diagrams.
Find the source
Another effective way to know what causes stress is to find the sources. We all have internal and external sources of stress. Some stressors happen to us, and other stressors are self-induced. This is called internal vs. external stress. Internal stressors are self-induced stress or worries, and external stress is caused by the things that happen to us.
Some internal sources of stress can include fears, uncertainty, a lack of control, attitudes, opinions, or expectations. External sources of stress can be major life changes such as a marriage, our environment, unpredictable events, the workplace, and meeting new people.8
The Nutrition and Stress Connection
Stress can also be influenced by our nutrition. For example, caffeine can have negative effects on our bodies if we consume high quantities of it. Caffeine can increase our heart rate, blood pressure, and blood flow, which are all symptoms of our bodies’ physical response to stress.
Focusing on getting the right amount of nutrients in our diet is a good way to help reduce stress levels. Reducing intake of alcohol, sugar, and salt will also help fend off any extra stress. According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, eating low-fat, high-fiber, carbohydrate-rich meals with plenty of fruits and vegetables will help soothe stress without taking away extra energy. They also state to avoid high-fat foods, caffeine, and sugar.9
The Body’s Stress Response
Every person reacts differently to stress.
There are two different types of stress response: physical and emotional.
Some potential physical responses to stress are an increase in blood pressure, heart rate increase, faster breathing, and overall tension throughout the body. Some individuals experience headaches or muscle aches.
Our body also has an emotional response to stress. Stress can lead to feelings of anxiety, depression, doubt, or fear. Some individuals cope with stress by emotional overeating as well. According to Varvogli and Darviri, stress fuels approximately 50% of depression cases.10
Since stress can impact our health and wellbeing, it’s important to know how to cope with it. Coping is how we respond to stress and what methods we use to resolve the perceived threats. It’s also important to keep in mind what works for one person to manage and resolve stress may not work for you. Each person perceives situations and handles stress differently.
Time Out. Do an activity that clears your head. It could be anything ranging from practicing yoga, getting a massage, reading a book, or listening to your favorite music.
Accept You Can’t Control It All. There’s no point in worrying over the things we have no control over. When you feel stressed, try changing your perspective regarding the perceived threat. Is there anything you can learn from the experience? Is there anything you can do differently when confronted with this stressor in the future? Try to understand what situations make you experience the most stress, and find a positive way to work around that.
Talk to Someone You Trust. It’s important to have a close circle of family members or friends that you can trust and speak openly with. When you experience stress or are going through a stressful time, confide in friends or family. Let them know how they can help you, and ask for their advice. Speaking with someone else is a good way to get a different perspective and can help you figure out a new way to cope with the stress.
Eat Nutritious and Balanced Meals. Make sure you don’t skip any meals and pack smart snacks. Easy, healthy snacks include things like apple slices, almonds, string cheese, or our MySmart™ Bars. Eating frequently throughout the day will keep your energy levels stable, so you may be less likely to feel a slump or an increase of nervous energy when faced with stress.
Limit Alcohol and Caffeine. Alcohol and caffeine can increase stress and anxiety levels, so it’s recommended to drink in moderation.
Sleep Well. It is recommended that adults get seven to eight hours of sleep per night. Sleeping will help keep you feeling refreshed and prepared for the day ahead.
Yoga. Yoga is a great tool for stress management since it is all about the mind-body connection. Physical postures and breathing techniques in yoga help improve muscle strength, flexibility, blood circulation, and oxygen uptake. One study found that “the relaxation induced by meditation helps to stabilize the autonomic nervous system with a tendency towards parasympathetic dominance. Physiological benefits which follow, help yoga practitioners become more resilient to stressful conditions and reduce a variety of important risk factors for various diseases, especially cardio-respiratory diseases.”11
Time Management. Learning to manage time better may help with acute stress we experience day-to-day. If you repeatedly find yourself scrambling to get things done or meet deadlines, this is a good option to try. The time management tips that work for me are: keeping my calendar updated on my phone and making to-do lists. I try to organize my list so that the first item is the one that I’m most likely to procrastinate (or the one that takes the most work). I find that when I get the biggest part of my list out of the way during the morning, the rest of my to-do list is easy to complete in the afternoon and evening.
Another time management technique is the POMODORO technique. The POMODORO technique challenges you to work uninterrupted on a task for 25 minutes, and then take a five-minute break. It’s a great way to keep yourself motivated and focused.
Breathing. This is also known as ‘diaphragmatic breathing’ and is a common practice in yoga. You should notice an expansion of the abdomen rather than your chest when you are taking deep breaths. Try focusing on your breathing—breathe in for five seconds and then exhale for five seconds.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR). Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a stress management technique where you alternate tensing and relaxing different muscles. The theory behind it is simple: since stress causes muscle tension, you can learn to reduce stress by learning how to relax muscular tension. The best way to practice PMR is to lay on a comfortable surface, close your eyes, and be guided through the technique. You can find great walk-throughs on YouTube (example). One study found that PMR long-term benefits include reduction of generalized anxiety, decreased blood pressure and heart rate, and decreased headaches.12
Meditation. Meditation can be practiced anywhere, for any amount of time. One type of meditation commonly used as a stress management technique is called Transcendental Meditation. It’s simple to do. It’s recommended that you practice for 20 minutes, two times a day. You sit with your eyes closed and repeat a mantra of your choice. (Related: The Only 100 Positive Affirmations You Will Ever Need)
Practice Resilience. According to the American Psychology Academy, resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress such as family or relationship problems, health problems, or problems in the workplace.13 Resilience involves behaviors, thoughts, and actions. It can be taught or practiced by anyone. Being resilient can help you make realistic plans, solve problems, manage strong feelings, keep a positive view of yourself and others, and take steps to solve problems.
Practicing resilience can help us cope better and smarter when it comes to stress in life. Ways to build resilience and practice include: accepting change is a part of life, taking decisive action, maintaining a hopeful outlook, taking care of yourself, positive self-talk, connecting with others, and always moving towards realistic goals. (Related: Setting achievable goals).
I know we included a great deal of information here, so time for a short recap!
- We have good stress and bad stress in our lives, and having both is imperative to our growth as individuals.
- Acute stress includes everyday things like waiting for a phone call, giving a presentation, or going to an interview. Chronic stress can be the result of an acute stress handled poorly.
- Both have physical and mental implications on our health, but luckily there are ways we can fight stress.
Stress Management Infographic
Check out this handy infographic for our quick overview of 7 tips for stress management.
Share this post (or infographic) with someone you know who is dealing with stress. Click on the image to save it to Pinterest.
What’s one technique we discussed that you’ll try out today? What’s your favorite way to help manage your stress?
5 Baum, A. & Polsusnzy, D. (1999). “Health Psychology: Mapping Biobehavioral Contributions to Health and Illness.” Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 50, pp. 137-163.
11 Department of Basic Medical Sciences, The University of the West Indies, Kingston 7, Jamaica, West Indies. 2004, 53(3):191-194. http://europepmc.org/abstract/med/15352751
12 Pawlow L. A., Jones, G. E.The impact of abbreviated progressive muscle relaxation on salivary cortisol. Biological Psychology, 2002; 60 (1), 1-16.
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