Stress is primarily a physical response to a trigger and is generally a short-term experience. When stressed, the body thinks it is under attack and switches to ‘fight or flight’ mode, releasing a complex mix of hormones and chemicals such as adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine to prepare the body for physical action. This causes a number of reactions, from blood being diverted to muscles to shutting down unnecessary bodily functions such as digestion.
Stress can in fact be be positive or negative. When stress kicks in and helps you pull off that deadline you thought was a lost cause, it’s positive (who doesn’t love that?). But when stress results in insomnia, poor concentration, and impaired ability to do the things you normally do, it’s negative. Stress is a response to a threat in any given situation.
Symptoms of Stress
There are a number of emotional and physical disorders linked to stress, including depression, anxiety, heart attacks, strokes, gastrointestinal distress, obesity, and hypertension, to name a few. High levels of stress can wreak havoc on the mind and the body. While stress can manifest in many ways, it helps to know a few common symptoms:
- Low energy
- Upset stomach, including diarrhea, constipation, and nausea
- Aches, pains, and tense muscles
- Chest pain and rapid heartbeat
- Frequent colds and infections
- Loss of sexual desire and/or ability
- Nervousness and shaking, ringing in the ear, cold or sweaty hands and feet
- Dry mouth and difficulty swallowing
- Clenched jaw and grinding teeth, including at night
Symptoms of stress can vary and change over time. Tuning into your own responses to stress can help you increase awareness of how stress manifests itself. Knowing this vital information will help you learn to use stress reduction techniques at the first signs of stress to avoid long-term repercussions.
Coping with Stress
Learning to cope with stress can require some trial and error. What works for someone else might not work for you. It’s important to build your own stress reduction toolkit so that you have more than one strategy to implement when stress kicks in.
- Relaxation breathing: The single best thing you can do when under stress is to engage in deep breathing. Practice this strategy when you’re calm so that you know how to use it when you’re under pressure. Inhale for a count of four, hold for four, and exhale for four. Repeat.
- Practice mindfulness: Sure, there’s an app for that, but the best way to practice mindfulness is to disconnect from your digital world and reconnect with your natural world for a specific period of time each day. Take a walk outside and use the opportunity to notice your surroundings using all of your senses.
- Move your body: Daily exercise releases feel-good chemicals in your brain. Making exercise a daily habit can buffer you from negative reactions to stressful events.
- Write things down in a journal: Keeping track of your best and worst parts of the day helps you sort through the obstacles and focus on what went right. It’s normal to experience ups and downs on any given day.
- Get creative: There’s a reason adult colouring books are so popular – they work. Whether you’re drawing, colouring, writing poetry, or throwing paint on a wall, engaging in a creative hobby gives your mind a chance to relax.
- Turn up the radio: Listening to slow, relaxing music decreases your stress response (just as fast-paced music pumps you up for a run.)
When to Seek Help
If you have difficulty managing stress and it impedes your ability to carry out your normal daily activities (like getting to work on time), talk therapy can help. It’s important to learn to identify your triggers and responses and find strategies that work for you.