On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19—the coronavirus disease—a worldwide pandemic. Overnight, life as we knew it changed. Restrictions were placed on travel and in-person gatherings, face masks became mandatory, and business operations came to a halt. Fear and uncertainty gripped the country as the world shut down to prevent the spread of the newly identified coronavirus.
Since its appearance, the coronavirus has left a path of destruction around the globe. It has caused hardship in all aspects of life and though its grip on the world seems to be loosening, the impact of the virus, both at the individual and societal level, continues to be felt.
In a February press release from the American Psychological Association (APA), chief executive officer Arthur C. Evans Jr. remarked,
Without question, recovery from the coronavirus is underway. More effective treatments are now available for COVID-19, vaccines are being administered to help prevent further spread of the virus, and new ways of life are being adopted in an effort to rebuild the economy. Even so, there is still much work to be done to ensure that a full recovery is possible.
As has been noted, many of us are still feeling added stress from the hardships caused by the pandemic. We have been forced into a new way of life that doesn’t seem to be returning to “normal” anytime soon; if ever. Coming to terms with the change and finding a new sense of normal has, and will continue, to cause tension in our lives. For this reason, it is important that we find ways to manage our stress so that it doesn’t interfere with our ability to live a happy, healthy life.
With Stress Awareness Month upon us, it is the perfect time to address this topic. During the month of April, Dr. Morton C. Orman, M.D., founder and director of the Health Resources Network (HRN), is inviting healthcare organizations to develop educational materials that will inform people about the dangers of stress and provide successful coping strategies.
At 4Life, it is our goal to help people optimize their health, which is why we are taking part in this initiative. We recognize that stress is a normal and largely unavoidable part of life, but when left unmanaged can be disruptive to one’s health. As such, we’ve compiled some valuable information on the topic of stress management for you to consider.
Stress is defined as a state of tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances. Mentally, it is the feeling of anxiety, anticipation, anger, worry, fear, or any combination of these emotions. Physically, it is the sensation of a racing heart, clammy skin, rapid breathing, and jitteriness.
But what is stress exactly and where does it come from? To answer these questions, we must take a journey inside the body.
If you were to sit quietly, it probably wouldn’t seem like there is much going on inside of you. You might feel a muscle twitch or your stomach gurgle but beyond that there would be stillness, no sign of movement. Yet, there is a bustling world beneath your skin. The trillions of cells that make up your body are in a constant state of motion, all working together to keep conditions stable underneath the surface.
This state of stable internal conditions is called homeostasis and is required for optimal body function. To ensure these conditions are maintained, your body continuously monitors certain physiological parameters, such as blood pressure, temperature, and nutrient levels. Each parameter has a specific set point (e.g. normal human body temperature is around 98.6°F or 37°C) and fluctuates within a normal range above and below this point.
As you interact with the world around you, demands are placed on your body that force these parameters to move outside of their normal range. This is stress, at least as it appears on the inside of your body; it is the movement away from optimal internal conditions.
As you go about daily life, you encounter many stressors that disrupt your internal conditions. Though each stressor looks different on the outside (e.g., exercise, emotional strain caused by major life changes, injury, etc.) the effect on the inside of your body looks the same; physiological parameters are pushed beyond their set point, which triggers a chain of events that work to restore optimal conditions.
For example, when you exercise, the heat generated by your muscles causes your body temperature to rise. In this case, exercise is the source of stress (i.e., the stressor) and the excess heat generated by your muscles is the stress. To return to optimal conditions, your body must counteract the rise in temperature caused by the activity of your muscles. To do so, it triggers various mechanisms that remove heat from your body, such as sweating.
The elicited response to stress is referred to as the fight-or-flight response. It describes the physiological reaction that occurs in response to a disruption in homeostasis. The body-wide response prepares the system to take action; to deal with the stressor head on (fight) or to run away from it (flight).
As long as the response is efficient, getting your body back to a balanced state without too much effort, stress isn’t a problem. It becomes an issue, however, when the response is inadequate and internal conditions remain less than ideal. This causes the stress response system to go into overdrive as it works to correct the imbalance.
Though your body has an extraordinary ability to handle stress, too much strain wears down the systems responsible for establishing balance. Long term exposure to the chemical messengers (e.g., adrenaline and cortisol) produced during the stress response causes further disruptions in homeostasis, making it harder for the system to restore optimal conditions. Eventually, the disruption inside of your body rises to the level of awareness as your health begins to suffer.
To ensure that stress doesn’t interfere with your health, it’s important to find ways to keep it in check. Here are six tips for managing stress:
It’s simple, but simple deep breathing exercises can lower your stress levels. Take five minutes for meditation or just some deep breaths. When you think about your breathing, you focus on the present, so you don’t worry as much about the past or future.
Identify your “stress triggers” or the things that cause you stress. If certain situations or people cause unnecessary stress, consider limiting your time with them. If you can’t identify triggers, keep a stress journal and mark when you feel stressed.
Talk to someone about what is worrying you. Confide in a family member, close friend, or therapist. Discussing your worries can take a load off your mind and help you feel like you’re not facing things alone.
Take time for yourself. Recharge your batteries by reading, playing a musical instrument, exercising, or painting. You get a break from worry and feel accomplished at the same time!
You’re probably your own harshest critic. Instead of being critical or judgmental, treat yourself as a friend and speak encouragingly. Instead of, “Why can’t I do anything right?” try, “I’m doing my best. Look at all I’ve accomplished!”
Counting your blessings helps you realize all the good in your life. By creating a “gratitude list,” you will become aware of other resources you have to lower stress like friends, family, or talents you can use to feel better.
Stress management is an important practice to include as part of your daily routine. Find ways to incorporate the strategies listed above or check out resources offered by other health institutions, such as the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the American Heart Association (AHA), the American Institute of Stress (AIS), for more useful tips on managing stress.
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