Stress Awareness Day, the first Wednesday each November, is such an important day for our total wellbeing and quality of life. Chronic stress is a problem worldwide, impacting millions of people and wreaking havoc on mental health and physical health. Awareness is key, for when we’re aware of our stressors and the effects they’re having on our bodymind, we can begin to change our relationship with ourselves and our world so we can remain calm and healthy despite ongoing challenges. In honor of Stress Awareness Day, learn more about the signs of chronic stress and what to do about it for your own peace of mind and body.
Know the Signs of Chronic Stress
Not all stress is negative, of course. Some stress is a good thing, keeping us alert and motivated to live our lives well. Feeling a bit of stress about something is a sign that you care about it. Healthy stress waxes and wanes. It’s when stress becomes constant and intense, invading multiple aspects of our lives and never really dissipating, that it can become devastating.
Chronic stress can damage both physical and mental health. Stress itself can’t kill you directly, but the effects of it can absolutely shorten life as well as reduce its quality. Knowing the signs that you body and brain are chronically overstressed is an important first step in taking back your life.
While each person is unique and manifests stress differently, general signs that your body’s stress reaction (the sympathetic nervous system’s fight-flight-or-freeze response) has been activated too long include:
- Anxiety (the subjective experience of worry as well as diagnosable anxiety disorders)
- Nighttime anxiety
- Mood swings
- Strong emotions, especially feeling easily on the verge of tears and/or irritable, angry
- Frequently feeling overwhelmed
- Difficulty concentrating
- Restlessness/agitation or listlessness (or both)
- Lack of motivation
- Difficulty sleeping
- Digestive troubles
- Heart palpitations
- High blood pressure
- Chronic pain
- Autoimmune disorders
- Frequent colds or other illness
If you are experiencing any of these signs of chronic stress, a visit with your doctor may be in order to assess and treat any physical damage. Working with a mental health therapist can be extremely effective in helping you deal with stress positively and loosen its grip on your life. You can also take steps on your own to break free from chronic stress.
What to Do About Chronic Stress
The bad news about chronic stress is that it can be extremely damaging to your wellbeing and quality of life. The good news is that you’re not doomed to be stuck in stress indefinitely. You can take steps, beginning now–in this moment and every moment–to reclaim yourself and your life.
1. Practice Mindfulness and Meditation
Now that you’re increasing your awareness of the symptoms of chronic stress, the effects they’re having on your life, pay attention also to situations that increase your stress. Living mindfully boosts nonjudgmental awareness of what is happening around you and within you, and it gently encourages you to pay full attention to what is happening right now, in each moment. Stress has a way of pulling you into your thoughts and feelings and even stress about a current situation is muddled by thoughts of the past and future. Mindfulness helps calm and center you so you can deal with problems intentionally rather than reacting emotionally. Try this 30-day mindfulness challenge (a month’s worth of daily mindfulness activities) to start or continue to deepen your mindfulness practice.
Meditation is the formal practice of settling into a position (often seated or lying down, but sometimes using movement like yoga, tai chi, or walking) and focusing your concentration on something specific, such as your breath or a focus object. Meditation has been found to change the brain itself so you can remain calm in the face of stress, and it encourages your body to deactivate the sympathetic nervous system and activate its calmer counterpart, the parasympathetic nervous system.
2. Hone Your Emotional Regulation Skills
The brain’s amygdala, a major player in the brain’s emotion system, is what activates the fight-or-flight reaction in the first place. Perhaps you’ve heard of the infamous H-P-A axis, the rapid-fire communication between the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands that sends our body into fight-or-flight mode and floods our body with stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Traditionally, it was believed that a stressor set this chain reaction into motion. Researchers have discovered, though, that it is the amygdala that sets this off. It is our emotional reaction to stressors that perpetuate stress and contribute to its chronic nature. (Learn more in the outstanding documentary Mismatched, produced by the American Institute of Stress.)
In addition to mindfulness and meditation, mentioned above, some ways to balance your emotions include:
- Pausing frequently throughout your day to check in with yourself, breathe deeply, and doing something short and sweet to reset (such as stretching or stepping outside to enjoy nature).
- Practicing acceptance–rather than trying to avoid stress or struggling against it, acknowledge that it exists, allow it to be there, and expand your attention to other things.
- Distancing yourself from stressful emotions and thoughts–in acceptance and commitment therapy, this is known as defusion. It means becoming aware of your thoughts and feelings and recognizing that they aren’t absolute truths, nor are they the essence of who you are. Reminding yourself that you are experiencing thoughts and emotions puts much-needed space between you and them so you have room to decide what to do about them.
- Replacing your stress with something else–this important step is often overlooked when we’re caught in the tangle of stress. After you’ve become mindfully aware, paused, accepted, and defused, you are now free to ask yourself, “And what else?” Stress isn’t the only thing in life. What else can you turn your attention to, in this moment, to broaden your perspective and calm your mind and body?
While stress is unpleasant and we often don’t want to acknowledge it, days like Stress Awareness Day bring it to the forefront of our attention. It is only when we are cognizant of chronic stress and its damaging effects that we can choose to do something about it. What will you do in this moment to reclaim your quality life?
Learn more about stress and how to deal positively with it in my webinar with the American Institute of Stress.