Everyone experiences stress from time to time. We can become stressed by various things — work, relationships, school, finances, illness, natural disasters, or dealing with the death of a loved one — all of which can make you feel frazzled and overwhelmed.
April is National Stress Awareness Month, making it the perfect time to learn about stress, how it affects us, and ways to manage stress better.
What Is Stress?
According to the National Institutes of Health, “stress is a physical and emotional reaction that people experience as they encounter challenges in life.” Stress isn’t inherently bad for you. Instead, it’s your body’s way of guarding you. It can help you stay energetic and alert. In an emergency, stress can give you additional strength to defend yourself.
For example, stress can cause you to run when someone’s chasing you or slam on your breaks to avoid a car accident. In addition, stress can also help you rise to meet challenges, like sharpening your focus when playing sports or making an important presentation at work.
The stress response activates the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones can have short- and long-term effects on your body and brain, including changes in metabolism, immune function, and brain structure and function.
Common Negative Effects of Stress
The American Psychological Association states, “Stress is a normal part of life that can help us learn and grow.” However, chronic or excessive stress can negatively affect a person’s physical and mental health. Here are some common effects of stress:
- Physical Health Problems
Chronic stress can increase the risk of developing health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity. Stress can also weaken the immune system, making it harder for the body to fight infections and illnesses.
- Mental Health Issues
Stress can also contribute to the development of mental health conditions like anxiety disorders and depression. In addition, it can exacerbate existing mental health issues, making them more challenging to manage.
- Cognitive Difficulties
Stress can impair cognitive function, making concentration, remembering information, and making decisions harder.
- Sleep Problems
Stress can disrupt sleep, leading to difficulty falling and staying asleep. Not getting enough restful sleep can cause fatigue and other physical and mental health issues.
- Behavioral Changes
Stress can cause changes in behavior, like overeating or undereating, smoking tobacco, and substance abuse. It can also lead to social withdrawal and isolation.
5 Tips To Manage Stress
Stress is a natural response to challenging situations, but excessive and long-term stress can significantly impact a person’s well-being. It’s essential to learn healthy ways to manage stress. For example, exercise, relaxation techniques, and seeking support from friends and family can be helpful. In some cases, professional help may be necessary. Here are five evidence-based ways to manage stress:
Physical activity can help reduce stress and improve mood by releasing endorphins, hormones your body releases when it feels pain or stress to block or minimize such sensations. Exercise also promotes better sleep, which is essential for managing stress.
- Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness meditation can help reduce stress and anxiety by training the mind to focus on the present. A systematic review of 47 randomized controlled trials found that mindfulness meditation can improve symptoms of stress.
- Sleep Hygiene
Getting enough restful sleep is crucial for managing stress. Good sleep hygiene includes establishing a consistent sleep schedule, avoiding caffeine and alcohol before bedtime, and creating a sleep-conducive environment.
- Time Management
Poor time management can also lead to stress, so it’s important to prioritize tasks and manage time effectively. For example, breaking tasks into manageable chunks, using a planner or calendar, and setting realistic goals can significantly improve time management.
- Social Support
A strong social support network can help reduce stress by providing emotional and practical help. A study published by the National Institutes of Health found that social support can buffer the negative effects of stress.
Don’t Let Stress Prevent You From Enjoying Life
If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms above due to stress, please visit Colorado Mountain Medical’s website to find a therapist for stress management support.
If stress is disrupting your sleep, contact your primary health provider (PCP) to ask about a noninvasive sleep study. Along with your provider, the Vail Health Sleep Disorder Center can determine an effective treatment plan.
Finally, if you suspect that stress is affecting your cardiovascular health, your PCP can also determine whether a referral to the Vail Health Cardiovascular Center & Pulmonology is indicated. This team provides comprehensive diagnostic testing and medical management.
This article was reviewed by Suzanne Torris, MS, RN, FNP.