Stress is an ever-increasing demon of the modern world. We all suffer from high-stress to one degree or another, and according to the American Psychological Association, those levels are fast on the rise1. Finding ways to prevent and combat stress are more important than ever.
The vagueness of stress makes talking about it difficult. People have different views on stress factors, their usefulness, and what constitutes a harmful level of stress. We see more and more the dangers of unchecked stress on our bodies: weight struggles, sleep problems, emotional issues, even hypertension, and blood sugar issues. Too much of life's stressors can cut your life short. Still, you have the power to prevent this by identifying and dealing with harmful stress while taking advantage of positive pressure.
Like all intangible aspects of human health, stress can be hard to pin down. Nearly every culture on Earth has a word for it, which signifies it's pervasiveness across all walks of life. Yet you can't touch stress. You can't see it. It can be hard to identify at what point a situation becomes physically and mentally stressful. One dangerous aspect is that when people operate at high levels of stress for a long time, they can become almost blind to its effects.
Make no mistake, though. Stress is a physiological phenomenon, and its effects on the brain and body are genuine. We've come a long way from the days where we could only vaguely describe stress as a combination of responsive feelings. Nowadays, we understand much more clearly the connections between brain chemistry and emotions.
Stress is the brain's response to perceived threats, both real and imagined. When your brain detects a threat, it throws your mind and body into a "fight or flight" mode. That may sound extreme, but it's your brain's primitive defense against dangers that were vital to human survival.
Your brain initiates a flood of various chemicals and hormones, like cortisol, to increase your survival odds. This survival instinct causes your heart rate and blood sugar to rise, giving you a temporary boost of energy (so you can quickly escape or fight the oncoming threat). Your brain will also send signals to dilate your pupils to let more light into your eyes (so you can see the danger more clearly)2. This last part is one of the reasons why stress can cause sun sensitivity and headaches.
All this sounds very helpful should you ever stumble upon a hungry wolf or an armed intruder. Unfortunately, your brain cannot differentiate between an approaching predator and an overdrawn bank account. Your mind and body employ the same reaction for each. Mundane stressors like work and finances may not have the same extreme effects that you would associate with imminent danger. That said, your brain is going through the same motions, just on a smaller level.
Stress comes in a lot of different packages. There are many different ways to break down levels of stress, and most psychological studies use unique methodologies. The basics, however, boil down to this: stress can be chronic or acute.
Acute stress is sudden, brutal, and short-lived. Stress maintained over an extended period of time is chronic. Examples of acute stress may be car trouble, a financial hit, or a death in the family. Chronic stress is years of high pressure from work or a complicated relationship.
At first glance, it may seem like acute stress is more dangerous since this type of stress tends to bring higher levels of cortisol and other physiological reactions. However, studies have found that chronic stress can leave lasting negative impacts on the brain, especially if that stress happens during a person's formative years3. Growing up in poverty or living in a dangerous environment can all bring lifelong consequences that last well beyond the initial situation.
Plus, a chronically stressful situation will often culminate in one or more acute stress attacks. Perhaps all those years of working at a high-pressure job result in a mistake that costs someone their employment. Maybe a two-decade-long stressful relationship finally ends in a painful breakup with a devastating financial fallout.
As mentioned earlier, stress seems to be the one thing that unites us all. Across nationalities, genders, ages, and occupations, we all seem to suffer from many of the same stressors. Web MD mentions the following as the most common causes of stress in adults:
We've all heard at some point in our lives that a little stress is good for us. A standard description of stress is that it can be motivational or even necessary. Is there any truth to this? The answer is yes; some stress is helpful. Healthy pressures can provide the required motivation for you to go the extra mile. It may also be the reason you push yourself to complete a big project, or it could motivate you to make positive changes in your life.
Stress can have compounding adverse effects on the mind and body. The body's responses to stressors (raised heart rate, blood pressure, etc.) do not bode well for long term health. If the body's stress response does not cool down, then health problems can set in.
Repeated or chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure, which is a dangerous health condition4. Stress can also affect your ability to get a good night's rest and lower your overall motivation. Some of these effects can have compounding results. Stress-induced sleep loss, for example, will, in turn, put you at risk for all the health problems that result from sleep loss5. Developing these health conditions can then give you more reasons to be stressed, and so the cycle continues.
It is crucial to fight stress at the source. If stress is losing you sleep, then forcing yourself to sleep will not fix the problem if the root of the issue is unhealthy tension. You need to address these foundational stressors in your life if you want to take full control of your health and wellness.
There are many simple ways to bring yourself back down from that dangerous "high" that stress causes.
When you begin to feel overwhelmed by stress, the most important thing is to calm yourself down. Meditation is a great way to accomplish this. A relaxing bath, a calming game or activity, or even a quality phone call with an old friend can all bring down your cortisol levels, lower your blood pressure, and calm your mind and body.
Exercise is another fantastic way of fending off stress. The endorphins released during a workout act as a natural painkiller and counteract the effects of stress. These endorphins are why so many people feel better after physical activity.
Not to worry. You don't have to hit the treadmill or get extreme on weight machines to get this kind of effect. A brisk walk, a couple's dance, or even an hour weeding the garden can all have similar results. Find the exercise that works best for you and commit to taking small steps to make regular exercise one of life's habits.
Knowing how to deal with stress when it occurs is a vital survival tool, akin to understanding CPR. Yet like how we try to avoid heart attacks or drownings that might necessitate CPR, so too should you strive to prevent harmful stress.
We cannot control everything in our lives, and so some stress is inevitable. However, you can lessen your stress loads by identifying and eliminating as many stressors in your life as you can. Some of the most common sources of preventable stress are the following.
1.) Prevent Procrastination
A lot of stress comes from the situations and choices we make. You've had all week to get ready for company, but you haven't cleaned a thing. Now the in-laws are thirty minutes outside of town, and you're in a panic, scrambling to sweep, dust, mop, and vacuum.
Procrastination can be a challenging yet satisfying habit to break, and it's not an uncommon problem. The world is full of advice on ending your procrastinating ways once and for all. Needing help with procrastination is so common there's even a WikiHow on the subject6.
2.) Terminate Toxic Relationships
Sometimes a person is the cause of your stress. If you can, you should try to avoid stressful people. Sometimes it's not possible (you can't exactly tell your boss to go away because they are stressing you out). Make an effort to surround yourself with positive people who will encourage and challenge you without causing unnecessary stress.
3.) Oust Overworking
You may have bitten off more than you can chew, and it's okay to admit that. If you can lessen your workload without risking your personal or financial wellbeing, then it's worth investing the time and energy into improving your work-life balance. Take that vacation you've been postponing. And, according to MBA professor, Chris Haroun, the first thing you should do when you get back from vacation, is to book your next vacation7.
Stress is the brain's way of trying to push you into acting. Sometimes, a certain amount of stress can be the final nudge you need to make a positive change in your life. Stress can make sure you don't miss that deadline, help you finish that project, or even push you to do something creative.
There are also stressful events that most people would describe as positive. Marriages, promotions, or moving into a new home all come with a certain level of stress. Yet that stress is inexorably tied to happy emotions for most people. In these situations, the stress typically bolsters excitement and leads to a positive outcome.
This "happy" stress may not even be called stress by most people who experience it. In psychological circles, this phenomenon is called "eustress," and it is not harmful in the same way that damaging stressors can be. One study from the University of Tulsa found that eustress did not correlate to high levels of fatigue8. In contrast, stress and distress were linked to exhaustion in the morning and throughout the day.
Unfortunately, you don't always have control over the utilization of stress for good in your life. The same stressor may be favorable for one person and harmful to another. For example, intense pressure from a dead-end office job may motivate you to quit, instead of embarking on an entrepreneurial adventure that leads you to your dream career. Of course, this only works for those of us who have the means to make that leap of faith. Many less fortunate people could never risk leaving the job that they have, no matter how stressful.
So it is crucial to not compartmentalize healthy stress as being defined by what is causing the stress. Instead, look at your circumstances. Is there a way you can use this stress to make positive changes in your life? Then the stress may have a net positive effect on your life, after all. If there is no way for the stress to push you to better yourself, or if it becomes too all-consuming, then it is unhealthy. In this case, you should employ as many defense mechanisms as you can.
Remember that just because stress may be motivational doesn't mean you shouldn't try to lessen it. The tipping point between eustress and harmful stress seems to be the moment where we begin to feel overwhelmed. Meditation, exercise, and all the other tips we've discussed can still help you maintain control over even healthy levels of stress. Never let these stressors get away from you. You should strive to find your ideal balance between protecting yourself from stress now while also utilizing its motivation for future growth.
Stress happens to all of us, but we don't have to let it win. Invest in your self-care and take control of your wellness. Take time each day to relax you and remind yourself to be grateful for all the good in your life. Positivity is yet another powerful tool for combating stress.
(1) American Physiological Association (2011 Jan) Stressed in America
(2) Web MD; Reviewed by Chang, MD (2018 Dec) What Is Cortisol?
(3) Feldhausen, T (2015 Sept) Childhood Stress Can Leave Changes in the Adult Brain
(4) Kulkarni S, O'Farrell I, Erasi M, Kochar MS (1998 Dec) Stress and Hypertension
(5) Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School (2007 Dec) Consequences of Insufficient Sleep
(6) wikiHow; Co-authored by Griffin T, LPC (Nov 2019) How to Stop Procrastinating
(7) Haroun C (2016 Feb) 3 Easy Ways to Avoid Daily Stress (and Long-Term Burnout)
(8) Parker KN, Ragsdale JM (2015 Nov) Effects of Distress and Eustress on Changes in Fatigue from Waking to Working