Understanding and Coping with Stress
April 04, 2022
As the old saying goes, the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. Given the complexities and challenges of modern life, perhaps a third certainty should be added to the list: stress.
We all experience stress of some kind — none of us are immune. Sometimes, it can be just a fleeting feeling. It can also get much worse, hampering our ability to function day-to-day or even aggravating health problems.
April is National Stress Awareness Month, so it’s a perfect time to talk about this complex feeling, what it does to us and how we can better manage our own stress.
It might seem easy to describe stress simply as something you can just feel in your own head. In order to talk about stress and how to cope, it helps to have a set definition of what stress is and what it isn’t.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), stress is “the physical or mental response to an external cause.” The causes can be anything really — getting sick, having a large workload, experiencing a traumatic event or a major life change. These stressors can be temporary or one-off events where the stress goes away somewhat quickly. Or they can exist for long periods of time and be things we deal with often over the course of life.
Stress differs in definition from anxiety in that anxiety is internal, meaning it’s how you react to the stress, according to the NIH. Anxiety tends to be more constant than stress.
Stress and anxiety can exist together, too, resulting in symptoms like uneasiness, sleep loss and excessive worrying, according to the NIH.
What Stress Does to Our Bodies and Minds
The ways in which stress impacts our bodies are more complex. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) list the following symptoms that stress may cause:
- Feeling fearful, angry, sad, worried, numb or frustrated
- Appetite, energy, desire and interests changing
- Having a difficult time concentrating or making decisions
- Problems sleeping or nightmares
- Physical reactions including headaches, bodily pain, stomach issues and rashes
- Stress may worsen chronic health issues, both physical and mental
- Increased use of substances including tobacco and alcohol
Stress has been especially prevalent in the United States since the COVID-19 pandemic began. A poll from the American Psychological Association last year found that the majority of all adults in the country reported stress — more than 8 in 10 reported feeling stressed in the last two weeks.
How You Can Manage Stress
Given how common and severe stress can be, it’s critical that we find ways to manage it for ourselves and others. Here are some ways to keep stress under control at home:
- Meditate: Practicing meditation may be a bit difficult to begin, but the rewards are major: It can help you center yourself, calm and silence your mind, and focus. The mental health resource Verywell Mind has a list of apps to help you get started on your meditation journey.
- Exercise: Regularly exercising does more than keep your body fit. According to Harvard Health, aerobic exercise (think walking, running, swimming) reduces stress hormones in the brain and boosts production of endorphins, which boost our mood.
- Rest: Not only is sleeping at night good for your brain, but it’s important to take time to unwind during the day, too. Make time for yourself to unwind and do something you enjoy, even if it’s as simple as going outside for some fresh air after a day at work.
- Eat right: Similar to getting good rest, eating regular, healthy meals can help your brain and body function at their best. And part of eating right means cutting back on caffeine, which can affect stress levels and interfere with sleep.
- Connect: It may sound simple, but talking with trusted people about your feelings and thoughts is a critical stress-coping mechanism. That can be chatting with a long-distance family member over Zoom or a friend in your faith community or even a trusted neighbor who’ll lend an ear.
For parents, helping kids with their stress can be anxiety-inducing in itself. Fortunately, the experts at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital have put together these tips to help families be at their best:
- Stick to a routine: Keeping regular sleep, school, work and eating schedules helps kids and parents alike feel normal.
- Take breaks from the news and the internet: Social media and the daily feed of bleak news are stressful. Make space for a daily timeout with friends or family.
- Find a new hobby and involve your kids: As spring rolls around, perhaps this is the year you try gardening or something else that your kids can join occasionally.
- Practice self-care: Whether it’s watching a movie, getting a massage or doing a skin-care routine, make time for taking care of yourself so you can be better for those around you.
Watch our Facebook Live: Take a Deep Breath to Help Destress featuring Sameet Kumar, PhD, and Ashwin Mehta, MD
Getting More Help
Sometimes, at-home methods for coping with stress aren’t enough. If stress or anxiety symptoms won’t go away, it may be time to seek help from a professional.
The common treatments are medication, talk therapy or a combination of the two. At Memorial Healthcare System, we offer those and more, including peer support, parent education groups, crisis support and intervention, and psychiatric evaluations.
If you find yourself in crisis, here are resources for immediate help: