Everybody experiences stress from time to time; as unpleasant as it is, stress is just a fact of the human experience. In fact, it’s so common to experience stress at home, at work, and at school, that our Facebook feeds are literally flooded with relatable memes about our stress! Being able to occasionally laugh at our stress can be helpful— and even therapeutic— but if you’re experiencing severe symptoms of stress on a daily basis, you may need more help than.a funny meme can provide. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at stress, the impact it can have on your physical and mental health, and the steps you can take to alleviate your stress.
What Is Stress?
To put it very simply, stress is a reaction to pressure. Our minds and bodies can experience stress as a result of mental, physical, or emotional pressure. Stress can manifest in a variety of different ways and common symptoms include:
How Does Stress Affect Your Body?
These are just a few of the common symptoms associated with stress. Stress can also manifest in other, indirect ways such as unhealthy coping mechanisms. Everyone needs a way to cope with their stress and people who are under high levels of stress may feel as though they need to seek intense forms of relief. For example, many people enjoy a glass of wine after work as they attempt to wind down and relax after a long day. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying a drink— or even a few drinks— if it helps you to have fun and relax. But, depending on your mental state and the effect alcohol has on you, this habit can cross the line of substance misuse.
When thinking about unhealthy coping mechanisms, it’s important to remember that everyone’s body is different, and so are our responses to substances. Everyone has a different level of tolerance for alcohol; what constitutes an unhealthy amount of alcohol for one person may not be the same for another. But if you frequently find yourself drinking to excess, going beyond your limits, experiencing difficulties in your mental and physical health as a result, and your ability to perform daily tasks is affected, these are solid indicators that you are misusing substances. Sadly, many people turn to substance misuse as a coping mechanism for stress and these choices— combined with the mental and physical affects of stress— can have a significant and detrimental impact on a person’s quality of life.
People can experience intense levels of stress for a short period of time, moderate levels of stress for a prolonged period of time, or— in extreme and very unhealthy cases— intense levels of stress for a long period of time. For example, let’s imagine a high school student who is cheating on a test. They don’t know the answers and they are very aware that they will fail this test as a result. So, they conspire to cheat in some way, and this effectively replaces one source of stress with another. Now, instead of worrying that they will fail the test, they’re worried that they might get caught and experience life-altering repercussions as a result.
Undoubtedly, that student will experience very high levels of stress in the moments leading up to the test and in the period of time while the test is being taken. But, assuming that they don’t get caught— and that they are not plagued by the effects of a guilty conscience afterwards— their stress will likely dissipate once that stressful event is over. By contrast, however, someone who works a very stressful job— for example, a doctor or nurse who works in an Emergency Room— may experience high levels of stress for a prolonged period of time.
Likewise, parents who work and attempt to raise a family at the same time may also feel that they are constantly being pulled in multiple directions with no reprieve in sight. Many parents— especially working mothers with high-powered careers— have reported feeling as though there are never enough hours in the day and that they are always failing at something, no matter how hard they try. Sadly, these feelings of intense stress are all too common for far too many people. A recent study conducted by the American Psychological Association (commonly abbreviated as the APA) found that America is “facing a national mental health crisis that could yield serious health and social consequences for years to come” as a result of stress.
The study also reported that “when considering the physical and emotional toll of increased stress, nearly half of adults (49%) report their behavior has been negatively affected. Most commonly, they report increased tension in their bodies (21%), “snapping” or getting angry very quickly (20%), unexpected mood swings (20%), or screaming or yelling at a loved one (17%).” And when we consider the impact of the recent COVID-19 pandemic on our stress levels, the study’s findings are even more bleak. Researchers found that, “despite several months of acclimating to a new reality and societal upheaval spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans are struggling to cope with the disruptions it has caused. Nearly 8 in 10 adults (78%) say the coronavirus pandemic is a significant source of stress in their life. And, 2 in 3 adults (67%) say they have experienced increased stress over the course of the pandemic.”
All of these statistics are very sobering indeed. But because stress is something that we all experience, unfortunately, it has been normalised. This normalisation has created the impression that stress is just something everyone goes through and, therefore, not something that is serious enough to warrant seeking help. But, as we can see from the results of the aforementioned study and the list of symptoms caused by stress, it’s clear that stress is not something to be taken lightly. While it’s true that stress is indeed a common aspect of the human experience, that doesn’t mean that it’s okay to go through life experiencing high levels of untreated and unmitigated stress.
Getting Help For Stress
So, what can we do about the stress crisis in America? How can we reduce stress on an individual and national scale? In this section, we’ll take a look at a few convenient tips that can help anyone reduce stress.
There’s no doubt about it: we live in a busy, fast-paced world that places increasingly intense— and conflicting— demands on the average person every day. Whether you’re a student, a parent, a working professional— or all of the above— it’s easy to feel as though you’re being pulled in a million different directions all the time. As a result, many people have created campaigns to raise awareness about the importance of self-care and prioritising your mental health. In fact, these campaigns are now so common that it’s sometimes easy to brush them off as trite and cliche; we all know that self-care is important but many people rarely make the choice to prioritise themselves or their mental health.
But that’s exactly why it’s important to remember that self-care is not simply about face masks, bubble baths, or treating yourself to a relaxing glass of wine. All of those things can be helpful and relaxing but they are not the long-lasting, rejuvenating self-care solutions your mind and body really need. In reality, self-care may look very different. It may even be difficult to implement. For example, going to bed and waking up at the same times every day is a crucial step for everyone’s mental and physical health. Getting a healthy amount of good quality sleep is vital for reducing stress and improving our mental clarity.
But in today’s hectic, fast-paced world, that may be more easily said than done. If you have deadlines at work, children to care for, or tests to study for, it’s easy to try and stretch the limits of your time by staying up late, pulling all-nighters, and generally getting a minimal amount of sleep. But this is absolutely not healthy and can directly contribute to your stress levels. So, some people may need to practice self-care by improving the quality of their sleep, reducing the demands on their time, and delegating their responsibilities where possible.
These lifestyle changes can sometimes be difficult to implement but if you’re experiencing high levels of stress that are having a detrimental impact on your life, these forms of self-care may literally save your life!
Connecting With a Therapist
When we consider the mental and physical symptoms of stress, it’s easy to see how stress can quickly cause depression and anxiety. Battling your mental health while juggling the pressures of your daily life is a gruelling task for anyone and it’s likely to create a toxic cycle of stress that only makes your symptoms worse. So, if you’re struggling with your mental health as a result of stress, you should know that you do not have to go through this alone.
There are a number of common misconceptions about seeking therapy for stress; people sometimes believe that doing so makes them “weak” or that they should be able to “get over it” and simply handle their stress without difficulty. But the reality is that this is simply not true. The social norms of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations meant that they often felt pressured to struggle in silence and live with undiagnosed mental health disorders, but the social and medical advances of recent years ensure that no one has to feel that way today.
Today, the average person has a wide variety of resources that are available to help them with their mental and physical health. So, if you are struggling with symptoms of stress, it’s important to remember that you can reach out at any time and take advantage of these resources. Therapy is one of the most valuable— and most effective— resources for combatting stress, anxiety, and depression. When you connect with a licensed mental health professional, you can work together to create a personalised treatment plan that will address your specific needs.
Together, you and your therapist can unpack the symptoms that are affecting you. You can talk about the stresses in your life in a safe space that is free from judgment and you can learn more about your mental health. From there, your therapist can help you understand why stress affects you in the way that it does and what you can do about it. The appropriate next steps will vary depending on your treatment plan but they may involve a combination of therapeutic exercises and medication. For example, some people may benefit from using stress worksheets like these to evaluate and work through their symptoms.
Your therapist may recommend stress worksheets in addition to using a therapeutic technique such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to help you manage your symptoms and combat them using positive coping mechanisms. If you’re not familiar with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (commonly abbreviated as CBT), the simplest definition is that CBT is a type of talk therapy. This form of therapy is designed to reduce anxiety by reframing our thoughts and providing a positive alternative to the stories we tell ourselves.
For example, if you are someone who experiences high levels of anxiety on a daily basis, you may often think, “I’m so nervous” or “Everyone is staring at me” or “Everything is going to go wrong!” These are common fears that people with anxiety experience and these fears inform our behavior and, consequently, our perceptions of situations. But CBT aims to alter this internal monologue by reframing your thoughts in a more positive and rational context so you can go through life without being paralysed by these fears.
For example, CBT often encourages people to avoid a practice known as “black and white thinking.” This type of thought process is common for people who live with anxiety because the anxious brain tends to think in extremes as a result of the fear signals that are flooding the brain. In practice, this might cause someone to think, “Everything is going to go wrong!” But CBT encourages people to reframe that thought by making a conscious effort to tell yourself something like, “I’m experiencing feelings of anxiety right now. My brain is causing me to worry that the worst possible outcome will occur.”
This might sound quite simplistic but, in reality, reframing your thought processes can be extremely beneficial! When we re-write our internal script, we can remember that thoughts and feelings are not facts; our brains may send us these signals but that doesn’t mean that these signals are accurate representations of reality. Re-training your brain in this manner can be incredibly beneficial for someone who is struggling with stress and feeling constantly overwhelmed by fear signals in the brain.
Your therapist can work with you as you unpack your feelings and, together, understand your specific experience with stress and it’s impact on your life. From there, you can work together to develop a treatment plan and assemble an arsenal of positive tools and coping mechanisms that will help you address your symptoms. Whether this includes CBT, medication, or a combination of both, your therapeutic treatment plan can empower you to fight back, reclaim your peace of mind, and begin your healing journey.
So, if you feel ready to reach out and seek hope and healing through therapy, you may want to consider BetterHelp! BetterHelp is an online mental health provider run by licensed counselors and therapists who are passionate about making mental health care accessible to all. With the advances in modern technology, many people have gravitated toward online therapy because this format is more convenient in our hectic, fast-paced world. Rather than needing to amend your schedule to attend an in-person therapy appointment, online therapy is literally right at your fingertips; you can chat with your therapist from the comfort of your own phone any time you want! So, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help. Hope is only a click away!