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What is Stress?

Stress is the emotional, mental, and/or physical tension you may feel in response to a real or perceived threat or demand. Stress may also occur when you are facing a significant change or experiencing something new.

Everyone has experienced stress at one time or another. In fact, in today’s fast paced world, we often experience stressors weekly or even daily. Some examples include work demands, helping kids with last minute school projects, getting stuck in a traffic jam, economic and social worries, and so on.

Not all stress is bad. Planning a vacation or a wedding, for example, may be stressful at times, but is also something that brings you joy. Likewise, the stress you feel right before a performance or presentation at work may increase tension in the moment but may be beneficial by pushing you to perform at a higher level.

From an evolutionary perspective, our bodies have developed the stress response, also known as the “fight or flight” reaction, as a survival mechanism. When faced with a threat, your body’s nervous system kicks into gear – providing a shot of adrenaline, increasing your breathing, heart rate, and other physical changes to help you temporarily combat that “threat” to stay safe. When working properly, this stress response helps you by increasing your energy and making you more alert. For example, stress stimulates your reflexes so you can quickly step on the brake of your car to avoid a collision. Stress is beneficial in this scenario and our bodies are designed to utilize this type of acute stress.

The problem today is that more and more of our daily lives are experienced as stressful and our bodies cannot distinguish between physical and emotional threats. Our flight or fight system is being triggered by events that are not actually a life and death threat because all stress is experienced the same by the body. Thus, work stress sets off the same cascade of physical reactions in your body as a person physically threatening your life. Over time, this chronic stress has detrimental effects on our physical, emotional, and mental well-being. It can lead to depression, anxiety, and can greatly reduce your quality of life.

Negative Consequences of Chronic Stress

Physical consequences

  • Suppressed immune system
  • Digestive system issues
  • Reproductive system issues
  • Lower libido
  • Accelerated aging process
  • Increased risk for heart attack and heart disease
  • Increased risk for stroke
  • Increased aches and pains (tension headaches, muscle tension)
  • Chronic fatigue/lack of energy
  • Change of appetite; weight gain or loss

Emotional and mental health consequences

  • Increased risk for depression
  • Increased risk for anxiety
  • Increased irritability
  • Increased risk for substance abuse
  • Sleep problems

Cognitive impacts

  • Increased forgetfulness
  • Concentration difficulties
  • Poorer judgement and decision making
  • Slower processing (thinking) speed
Stress Image

How Do I Know I Am Stressed?

Most people will experience some combination of physical, emotional, or cognitive symptoms. Some symptoms include:

  • Physical symptoms: muscle tension, fatigue, upset stomach, change in appetite
  • Emotional symptoms: anxious, sad/depressed, worrying, irritable, sleep disturbance
  • Cognitive symptoms: negative thinking (catastrophizing), difficulty concentrating or making decisions, more forgetful
  • Behavioral symptoms: impulsivity, snapping at others, withdrawal, increased substance use

What Causes Stress?

The most common reported sources of stress include:

  • Work stress
  • Relationship stress (marital and others)
  • Divorce or the ending of a relationship
  • Significant losses (loss of loved one)
  • Significant life changes (move, new job, promotion)
  • Financial stress
  • Loss of a job
  • Health concerns (injury, chronic illness)
  • Caring for others (elderly or sick family members; sometimes called Caregiver Stress or Caregiver burden)

How Do I Cope with and Reduce My Stress?

The first step to working with high stress levels is to become aware of when you are experiencing stress! Sometimes, we get so used to feeling stressed that we do not even realize our shoulders are up in our ears, our heart is racing, and we are tightly wound. The second step is identifying your personal stressors. Stress impacts us all differently, so taking the time to recognize your individual stress responses generates greater awareness, which helps us identify our patterns and responses. A third step involves developing healthy coping skills. Strong coping skills build your resilience allowing you to successfully navigate life’s challenges.

Oftentimes, we do not think to tap into the coping skills we already have at our disposal. Take time to consider what positive coping skills you already use and use them. Does listening to music help? Going for a walk? Calling a loved one or friend? Cooking? Baking? Cleaning? Reading? Journaling?

In addition to tapping into your current coping skills, research has identified a number of additional effective stress management interventions. These include:

  • Practicing formal relaxation and mindfulness techniques
  • Addressing negative automatic thoughts and worry
  • Practicing gratitude and self-compassion
  • Increasing your social network and support
  • Increasing healthy habits (e.g. improved sleep, eating habits, and physical activity)

Can a Therapist Help Me?

If you are feeling overwhelmed by stress, or experiencing depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues associated with stress, working with a therapist can help. When working with a therapist, they will help you identify your personal sources of stress and help you learn ways to address these stressors more effectively. They may use a variety of different therapeutic approaches and techniques to help you learn to both reduce stress and learn to navigate those stressors that are an inevitable part of life.

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