Is Stress Really a Big Deal?

“I am so stressed!”  

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How many times have you said this? If you are like most people, it’s a lot. In fact, we say it so often, it has become as common as saying, “I’m going to the store to pick up some milk.” It no longer evokes a sense that something is out of sorts in our life.

When did being stressed become the “norm?” And why do we accept it as part of our daily life? Is Stress Really a Big Deal?

The answer my friend, is YES. Stress is a big deal.

There are times when stress is good. Giving a presentation at work, participating in an athletic event, or interviewing for a job, are examples of when stress can be a positive motivator. It pushes you to do and be your best.

However, long-term, chronic stress is a different story. When you are constantly worried about an impending work deadline, a relationship, caring for an elderly parent, or financial issues, stress becomes a negative force. Unfortunately, in today’s world, we find ourselves in a constant state of stress and the impact to our health is devastating.

A normal stress response

Your body is a miraculous machine that is built for survival. In fact, its sole purpose to protect and keep you alive. A normal stress response for our ancestors was triggered when they were trying to protect themselves from predators or other threats. This is known as the “fight or flight” response. Today, a normal response is triggered when you slam on your brakes in traffic to avoid hitting someone who pulls out in front of you. It’s an automatic response requiring your body to kick into high gear. Your heart rate increases, your blood pressure elevates and your body releases hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) to boost energy so that you can respond to the impending threat. In this scenario, you react quickly and slam on your brakes. Once the threat has gone, your heart rate, blood pressure and hormone levels return to normal.

The Body’s Response to Chronic Stress

With chronic stress, there is no returning to normal. Your “fight or flight” response stays turned on keeping your stress hormones such as cortisol elevated. The body responds to chronic stress in many different ways.

  • Weight gain – belly fat
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Digestive issues
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Memory issues
  • Skin issues – acne or psoriasis
  • Irritability
  • Lack of focus and concentration

How to Get Your Stress Under Control

Stress is a part of modern day life. No one escapes it. You may not be able to change the situations in your life that are causing your stress, but you can learn how to manage it.

First step is to identify the stressors. Simply being aware of what triggers your stress puts you in the driver’s seat to take control of it. Second step is to have a plan for how to manage your stress. Here are eight techniques that work.

  1. Breathe. Sounds too simple, but it is so powerful, especially in stressful moments. You can do it anywhere – in your car or at your desk.   You will feel the stress leave your body with just a few minutes of conscious, slow, and steady deep breathing.
  2. Meditate. Mediating for as few as 10 minutes a day has a calming effect on the body. There is no right or wrong way to meditate and there are many different methods to explore. Find something that feels comfortable and right for you.
  3. Sleep. Often stress interferes with getting a good night’s rest. But sleep is vital to your overall health, as the body needs this time to rest and repair. Before going to bed, practice relaxation techniques (breathing, yoga, meditation), take a warm bath, or drink a cup of calming tea.
  4. Laugh. “Laughter is the best medicine.” Not sure who said that, but what great advice. Watch a funny TV show or movie. Laughter triggers the release of endorphins (your feel good chemicals). It also relaxes the body and boosts your immune system.
  5. Exercise. This is key to long-term stress management. Exercise not only puts you in a better mood, it makes you feel strong physically and mentally. You will have a more optimistic view of your life.
  6. Support. Let friends and family know what’s going on with you and ask for their help. Just knowing you have supportive people in your corner helps lowers stress levels.
  7. Gratitude. Often we are stressed about something in the past or in the future. When you are feeling stressed, write down three things you’re a grateful for. It will bring your focus to the present and put you in a more positive mindset.
  8. Professional help. If all else fails, get help. There is nothing wrong with seeking professional help if you are having a difficult time.

To truly reap the benefits of these techniques requires thoughtful effort and consistent practice. It may take a little time, but the payoff for learning to manage your stress is substantial to your short and long – term health.