Stress is an unpleasant fact of life. We all experience it for various reasons, and we all try to come up with ways of coping with it—some with more success than others. So what exactly is stress doing to your mind (and body) when you're staring down a deadline? And what can you do to power through it?
The real problem with stress is that, for such a well understood and universally experienced condition, as a society we deal with it so poorly that it leads to many of our most lethal illnesses and long-term health problems. High blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, stroke, obesity, and insomnia are all medical conditions across the spectrum that can be related to or directly influenced by high stress as an environmental condition.
In order to cut through some of that fog, let's take a brief look at what stress is, how it impacts us on a physical and mental level, and finally what we can do about it, with the help of some experts. Photo by bottled_void.
Defining Stress: Acute and Chronic
Everyone experiences stress in some way, shape, or form. We all recognize when we're in stressful situations, and we all know when we're stressed. At the same time, stress is more than just a feeling that we have a lot to deal with. For the purposes of our explainer, we're focusing on so-called "bad stress," as opposed to "good stress," like the kind of you experience on a roller coaster (if you went on willingly), when you get a big promotion, or kiss someone for the first time. Aside from good stress, there are primarily two types of stress: Acute (short-term) stress that's usually a response to a specific influence (called a stressor), and chronic (long-term) stress that sticks with you and could either have sprung from a short-term stress that stuck with you, or a constant state of stress that you're under due to persistent stressors and conditions. Photo by Becky Wetherington.
Acute Stress: Acute stress is the type of stress you experience when you have an immediate reaction to something you're presented with. This is the "in the moment" kind of fight or flight response that you have when you have to speak in a meeting, your boss just asked you to stay late, you're startled by a sudden noise, or someone on the internet makes a ill-informed comment about your favorite smartphone platform/operating system/hardware manufacturer. (How could they!?)
Acute stress is defined by the fact that it's immediate and short term. In most cases, once the stressor has been removed, your body and mind return to a normal state.
Chronic Stress: Chronic stress is entirely different, and is characterized by its long-term nature. This is the type of stress that you feel that you're under every day, with no reprieve from the things that make you feel stressed. Most chronic stressors are situations, for example, in which you dislike your job and detest going every day, being there all day, and thinking about it when you leave. Living paycheck-to-paycheck and struggling with financial security issues is another common source of chronic stress that many people are familiar with.
Its these types of chronic stress situations that are the most dangerous. They keep your body's defenses activated and heightened longer than is generally healthy, and unfortunately more and more of us are living under constant conditions that create stress. Add to this the fact that "coping with stress" isn't exactly a topic you learn in school and you have a recipe for a lot of very unhappy people.
What's Actually Happening When You're Stressed
Your body shows signs of stress in two ways: first, the rush of hormones that elevate your heart rate, boost your blood pressure, and stop your digestion, and then second the symptoms that you experience and are aware of, like clenched teeth, headaches, and emotional upset.
Most of us can tell when we're stressed momentarily, or are just feeling stressed out generally, but there's a lot going on inside our bodies when we're stressed that play a role in our health.
Symptoms: The most common and recognizable symptoms of stress are the ones most of us know all too well: insomnia, headaches, jaw pain, back and neck pain, stuttering, heartburn and nausea, nervousness and anxiety, fidgeting, nail-biting, lateness and trouble focusing, and a lack of interest in work or activities that are normally interesting. The American Institute of Stress (AIS) has a list of 50 common signs and symptoms of stress that include these, but also note a number of other symptoms that you may not have immediately associated with stress and not another condition like depression.
For example, behavioral changes that lead to other conditions can also be signs of stress, like addictive tendencies, a sudden interest in smoking, alcohol, excessive eating, or gambling, or any other addictive behavior that can be interpreted as an escape from chronic stressors. Often, even subconsciously, many of us try to escape stressful situations or conditions by blocking them out or escaping by way of anything that makes us feel better. Even if it's fleeting, it's common to search out an escape so you can relax for a while. Photo by The American Institute of Stress.
I spoke with Roger S. Gil, MAMFT, about some of the less productive ways people cope with stress, and he highlighted that trying to escape without dealing with the actual stressor is more common than you may think. "Overeating, alcohol/substance abuse, displaced anger, denial, defensiveness, etc. All are signs of avoidance and coping strategies that are meant to protect the ego from the discomfort caused by the stressor…and none of them do anything about the stressor," he explained. "Withdrawing (i.e. checking out mentally) from the situation at hand is something I see A LOT of in my work with couples. For example a husband may withdraw into his own little world when his wife complains about something. Instead of hearing her concerns, he pulls away and encourages her to nag him some more…which causes more withdrawal."
These behavioral changes cut both ways though: the AIS notes that stress reactions can also lead to isolation, loneliness, and severe depression as well. If you've been suddenly feeling alone, forgetful, overly defensive, disorganized, uninterested in your everyday life, overwhelmed by what's going on around you to the point where you need to lie about them, and having difficulty communicating with others, it's possible that chronic, poorly managed stress may be part of the problem.
Physiological Effects of Stress: While stress is most often discussed in terms of how it changes our mental and emotional condition, stressors and stressful situations also have a profound impact on our bodies. Stressors, whether they're acute or chronic, immediately set off the body's fight-or-flight response, flooding your system with stress hormones like norepinephrine and cortisol that are meant to give you a needed boost in dangerous situations. Image via Wikipedia.
In short and small bursts, those hormones can make you more alert, more perceptive, raise your heart rate so your muscles get more blood to them, and raise your breathing rate so you get more oxygen into your lungs. Your digestive processes stop entirely so your body doesn't waste energy processing food when it needs all the energy it can muster to survive. It's a good thing if, say, you're dashing across a busy street or escaping a burning building, but keeping your body's fight or flight response turned on all the time and those stress hormones at high levels in your body is unhealthy, as this eHealth article explains.
If these hormones stay in your system for too long, they can eventually lead to high blood pressure and increased heart rate, stress-induced hypertension and stroke risk, ulcers and other gastrointestinal distress, a suppressed immune system, fatigue, sexual issues like impotence and decreased libido. After all, those stress hormones are meant to be in our systems for a short period while we deal with an acute stressor, at a time where we need all of our faculties about us. Over the long term, keeping the body on full alert is more of a detriment than a benefit.
What You Can Do About Stress
Once you recognize the effects of stress and understand the damage you're doing to your body by not coming up with ways to cope with the stress that you're under, it's time to do something about it. I spoke with clinical psychologist Jeffrey DeGroat, PhD about some of the ways you can reduce the impact that chronic stress has on you and how to cope with acute stressors.
Dealing with Acute Stressors: If the stressor is acute and temporary, Dr. DeGroat suggests applying simple relaxation techniques like deep breathing, to calm the mind and the body so you can get the clarity you need to address the situation. He proposes taking a 10-second breathing cycle: breathe in for four seconds, and then out for six seconds. "Works as a thought distraction," he says, "as well as physically slowing down heart rate. This is a good technique to use anytime and anywhere." Photo by Shawn Rossi.
Previously mentioned app CalmDown for Mac is a utility designed just for situations like this: it encourages you to take a deep breath (or a few) so you can step back from the stressor for a moment, gather your thoughts, and push through the fog of frustration and anger that often come with stressors.
I also spoke with Roger Gil about dealing with stressful situations and he reinforced the point: "Stressors like these can produce physical responses at first; so if you're heart is racing, you're short of breath, or you feel your muscles tightening somewhere in your body, know that you're feeling a physiological stress response. In those cases, channeling your awareness of your body can sometimes distract a person away from the area of the body having the stress response." Recognizing that you're having a physical reaction will help you calm down and deal with the situation the way you really want to, as opposed to letting it stew in your mind only to come up with what you wanted to say 15 minutes after you should have said it.
In that vein, Dr. DeGroat explains that figuring out what you wanted to say a few minutes after you said it is very common, and often a result of being unprepared for the stressful situation you're presented with. Aside from making sure to be ready for those situations in advance if you can be, he suggests acknowledging that you're stressed in the situation and telling the person or people you're dealing with that you'll get back to them later. Photo by Sasha Wolff.
"Rather than responding immediately with something we may regret later, or not saying anything at all," he says, "another option might be to indicate to the person that you'll talk to them later about the situation. For example, [imagine] you find out that a co-worker is dating an ex-boyfriend/girlfriend of yours. Rather than yelling at them and making yourself look out of control, or saying ‘oh, that's cool,' when you're really upset about it, you could say, ‘let's not get into this right now.' This will give you some time to collect your thoughts and approach them on your terms and on your time." Time, as Dr. DeGroat explains, is key to defusing acute stressors, letting your body and mind return to normal, and giving yourself the space to deal with them in a healthy way.
Dealing with Chronic Stressors: Stressors that you deal with on a daily basis or that are always hanging over your head are a different matter entirely. Usually they give you a little more time and space to deal with the thing that's making you stressed, and there are other relaxation techniques for stressors that may not require action on your part right away, or stressors that are always lurking in the background, like your boss, for example.
Visualization is one way to relax yourself when you're presented with a stressor that you don't need to respond to immediately. Dr. DeGroat suggests that if you can, take five to ten minutes to immerse yourself in the most relaxing environment you can possibly imagine, whether it's green fields, a chair by the sea, or your favorite easy chair at home. Focus on as much of that environment as possible, trying to manifest the sounds, smells, and details about it in your head. The more you do this, the farther away you'll get from the thing that's bothering you. It won't make that thing go away, but it will give you a little clarity of mind and distance from the stressor. Photo by Gabriel Pollard.
If you have additional time to relax and some space to be alone, Dr. DeGroat suggests progressive muscle relaxation to defuse some of the natural tension that comes with being stressed. "Systematically tense and relax muscle groups, beginning at your toes and working your way all to the top of your head. [This] serves as a distraction from current stressors and can help reduce physical tension that often accompanies stress."
Another tip Dr. DeGroat offers is to identify whether level of stress and your response to it is realistic or unrealistic when you're in the middle of it. If it's realistic, as in anyone would respond the same way and there's something you can do about it (like your computer froze or you just dropped something,) then address the situation and move on. If the response is unrealistic and others may not respond the same way (traffic isn't moving fast enough or security lines at the airport are too slow,) then address yourself: calm down, step back, and try to relax.
The first step to addressing yourself is to challenge the way you're thinking about the stressor. "Challenging these automatic thoughts that often hijack our minds and promote stress has been shown in research to be a great way to help break the patterns of thinking & behaving that are counterproductive/harmful," Roger Gil explained. "Once the 'mental battle' is won, the IRL battle is more easily handled."
Granted, none of these measures have to be practiced only in the context of chronic stress, but it is more likely that if your boss is getting on your nerves again today or the rent is due and you're worried about being able to afford groceries, you're more likely to take a few minutes and address how you feel so you can approach the issues in a clear manner than you are if you're stuck in a meeting and asked to speak on a topic you weren't ready for.
How to Deal with Stress In the Future
When I asked Dr. DeGroat how we could deal with certain kinds of stress that seem to crop up from time to time, like an overbearing extended family or an aggressive and disrespectful employer, he pointed out that while there are ways to deal with each situation on its own merits, much of the stress that gets to us the most comes from relationships. "Really, I believe stress in relationships (occupational, family, social), often includes difficulties with setting and maintaining boundaries. Others seem to expect too much from us. Rather than setting our own limits/boundaries, we allow others to cross these boundaries, and end up feeling irritated and resentful. One of the best ways to prevent stress in relationships is to identify our own limits/boundaries and hold to them," he says. Photo by Joel Mendoza.
In some cases, it may simply be better to remove yourself from chronic stressors if you're having difficulty adapting to them or minimizing them. After all, if your job is wearing you down and there's no improving it, it may be time to look for a new job. If your relationship is so stressful it's destructive for everyone in it, it may be time to break it off, and if your apartment is run down and your landlord won't fix it, it's time to move out. There are plenty of good reasons to learn to cope with stress, but there are other equally good reasons to remove the stress from your life when you can.
To that end, there's no real way to live a completely stress-free life. Remember, there are positive stressors as well as negative ones, and the positive ones are usually good experiences that we enjoy or seek out. The same applies for negative stressors: they're bound to happen eventually and avoiding them is a futile effort. The key is in knowing how to deal with them, and how to minimize their effect on you.
If the stress you're experiencing is chronic, consider other activities like taking up a hobby, meditating, or traveling—anything that can take your mind off of those stressors and provide a healthy outlet where you can relax. "Other helpful stressful coping mechanisms are exercise, doing an activity you're good at that won't worsen the stress (e.g. cooking, video games, etc), and watching a very engrossing movie/TV show," Gil said, "Sometimes interrupting the state of stress a person is in with an activity they enjoy is enough to keep them from losing control."
There's no magic formula for dealing with stress, but employing coping mechanisms that give you distance, helps you get through the moment, and at best minimizes the overall impact the stressor has on you are a good way to stay healthy, happy, and productive. Photo by Jacob Bøtter.
"It is how we approach it that can cause us problems, or allow us to grow. The more control we can find within a situation, or over ourselves, the more likely we will grow from the situation," Dr. DeGroat explained, "The more we are able to identify and act upon the control and choice we have in situations, the less debilitating the stress will be."
This is just a short introduction, but unsurprisingly, entire books have been written on the topic of stress, its medical and psychological implications, and how you can deal with it in healthy ways. While we hope we've given you some insight into how your body reacts to stressors and how you can manage them in the moment and on the long term, we know that this is by no means an exhaustive study into the topic. What are some of your most successful ways of dealing with stressful situations, both short and long-term? Share your suggestions in the comments.
Roger S. Gil, MAMFT works with families & individuals on issues related to relationships, parenting, and general mental health and was the host of LuvBuzd.tv.
Dr. Jeffrey DeGroat, PhD is a clinical psychologist.
Both graciously volunteered their knowledge for this post.
You can reach Alan Henry, the author of this post, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or better yet, follow him on Twitter or Google+.