Stress: Recognizing and Managing When You Have Too Much of It

Stress: Recognizing and Managing When You Have Too Much of It

Most people think that stress is bad. But that is not necessarily true. Some stress, under some circumstances, is helpful. For example, if you are being chased by a large, human-eating carnivore, the stress caused by your fear of being eaten may help you to out-run the beast. Likewise, if you had a project due at work that could get you a promotion, the stress that you felt to finish the project and do a great job might just lead to a raise. These are instances where stress, for a short burst of time, can help you get important things done.

The type of stress that is not so helpful, and that can cause physical and mental health problems, is chronic stress that you cannot change or manage. Some of the symptoms of chronic stress include problems sleeping or eating, feelings of anxiety, trouble with memory and concentration, feeling sad, aches and pains, and getting frequent colds or other sicknesses. The Helpguide.org offers a comprehensive list of mental, emotional, physical and behavioral symptoms of stress.

Why is some stress ok and some negative?

Stress is designed to let your body know that it has to mobilize resources. You may have heard of the body’s “fight, flight, or freeze” response, also called the stress response. That is what stress triggers. Your body responds to the feeling of stress by pumping up the amount of adrenaline and getting you ready to do something, whether that is to run really fast, snarl at the source of stress, or just stand very still until the stressor goes away. If there really were a human-eating beast stalking you, any of these responses could be very helpful. And once the beast was gone, your body could calm down and go back to functioning as normal. That would be a once-in-a-while, “acute” stress response. As you might imagine, a response to stress takes a lot of energy and resources. So if your body constantly felt stress signals and you were often, or chronically, in a state of stress response, your body would begin to get worn down, causing a lot of the problems we mentioned above.  That is when stress is harmful rather than helpful.

What can I do if I am feeling chronic stress?

There are a wide range of sources of chronic stress, including family problems, difficulties at work, and ongoing health challenges. Some people may have experienced traumatic events whose memories cause chronic stress. If you think that you are experiencing symptoms of stress, there are some things that you can do to reduce it:

  • Get up and get moving! Physical exercise can help to reduce the effects of stress. It can also help with your appetite, sleeping and overall health. And types of exercise such as yoga can add another element of stress reduction through reflection.
  • Breathe. Deep breathing and other techniques are one of the best (and easiest to do) ways to relieve stress. One example is the 4-7-8 breathing exercise:
    • Exhale completely through your mouth.
    • Inhale through your nose to the count of 4, with your mouth closed.
    • Hold your breath for a count of 7.
    • Exhale completely through your mouth to the count of 8.

There are also a number of other breathing techniques that you can try.

  • Talk and spend time with family and friends. (But only if these people are not a source of stress.) Getting social support from others can be a really good way to ease stress. If you do things that you like to do while spending time, that can be even better!
  • Take the time to do things that you enjoy. There will always be household and work chores to do. If you are feeling overwhelmed, sometimes just getting away from the “must-dos” and doing something that you want to do, such as hiking, reading, or cooking, can really help to lower your stress level.
  • Talk with your doctor or a counselor. If you have tried a few techniques and your stress has not decreased or has gotten worse. Or if you are having symptoms but don’t feel particularly stressed, you should consult with a medical doctor. She can refer you to a counselor, if needed. A lot of people find that talking to a professional about what is causing their stress can help them to get useful ideas and techniques for decreasing their feelings of stress.

So while sometimes it is good to get a little “kick” in energy from stress, you don’t want to do it all of the time. Check back here in the next few weeks as we talk about particular sources of stress, like parenting issues, and things that you can do to help address those stressors.

Image: © Alan Lacroix | Dreamstime.com

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Katherine Pears
Dr. Katherine Pears is a senior scientist at Oregon Social Learning Center (OSLC). She earned her Ph.D in clinical psychology and has worked with OSLC since 1998. Katherine is the principal investigator and co-developer of the Kids In Transition to Schools (KITS) program. Currently, she oversees all the clinical and research activities for KITS. When she’s not in her office, you’ll find Katherine in the kitchen whipping up her latest creation or outdoors hiking a scenic trail.

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