The Long-term Effects of Stress & How to Cope
Stress is a normal emotion and will affect us all at some point in our lives, if not often. Perhaps you notice yourself becoming stressed when managing finances, coping with relationships, discipling your children, or during work. Stressors exist almost everywhere and in many ways. Although a little stress can be okay, too much stress is detrimental, can weaken your immune system and make you sick physically and mentally.
What is Stress?
Stress is a normal reaction to the pressures of everyday life, it is the body's reaction to harmful situations, wether they're real or perceived.
When we feel threatened our bodies release chemicals to kick in our "fight-or-flight" response which was evolutionarily created to help us fight off predators or protect us. During our stress response, our heart rate increases, breathing quickens, muscles tighten, and blood pressure rises.
Today we are often not fighting off lions or bears in the woods, however our body still processes the stressor at the office as the same as the threat of a lion.
Stress varies across people, what causes stress in one person may be different than for another person. Some people have better coping mechanisms for stress than others.
Generally, small doses of stress are not bad and can help you accomplish tasks and prevent you from getting hurt. For example, if you are driving and the car in front of you suddenly stops, you have a rush of adrenaline and slam your brakes to avoid a crash. That is a good thing.
Our bodies are designed to handle stress in small doses, however, long-term chronic chronic stress can lead to unhealthy consequences.
The Symptoms of Stress
The effects of stress can affect all aspects of your life, including your emotions, behaviors, thinking ability, immune system and physical health. Since people handle stress differently this means that symptoms vary from person to person. Symptoms may be vague and may be caused by medical conditions, so always consult your doctor.
Symptoms of stress include...
Emotional Symptoms: • easily agitated, frustrated, or moody
• feeling overwhelmed
• feeling like you are losing control
• feeling like you need to take control
• difficulty relaxing
• difficulty quieting your mind
• low self-esteem or feeling bad about yourself
• feeling lonely, worthless or depressed
• avoiding other people
• low energy
• upset stomach, diarrhea, constipation, nausea
• aches, pains, tense muscles
• chest pain and rapid heart beat
• frequent colds and infections
• loss of sexual desire 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
• constant worrying
• racing thoughts
• forgetfulness and disorganization
• inability to focus
• poor judgement
• being pessimistic
• changes in appetite - eating less or more
• procrastination or avoiding responsibilities
• increased use of alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes
• exhibiting more nervous behaviors like nail biting, fidgeting and pacing
The Consequences of Long-Term Stress
Long term stress can lead to serious health problems including:
• mental health problems - depression, anxiety, and personality disorders
• cardiovascular disease - heart disease, high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, heart attacks, stroke
• obesity and other eating disorders
• menstrual problems
• sexual dysfunction, impotence and loss of sexual desire
• skin and hair problems - acne, psoriasis, eczema, and permanent hair loss
• gastrointestinal problems - GERD, gastritis, ulcerative colitis and irritable colon
When to Get Help
If you are struggling with stress and do not know how to cope, you may want to seek help from a specialist. A primary care doctor may be a good starting point, they can help you figure out if the signs and symptoms you're experiencing are from a medical issue or an anxiety disorder. They can also refer you to a mental health expert and provide you with additional resources and tools.
Some signs you may want to get help:
• your work or school performance is suffering
• you're using drugs, alcohol, or tobacco to cope with stress
• your eating or sleeping habits change significantly
• you're behaving in ways that are dangerous to yourself, • including self-mutilation
• you have irrational fears and anxiety
• you have trouble getting through your daily responsibilities
• you're withdrawing from friends and family
• you think about suicide or hurting other people
If you are thinking of hurting yourself or someone else, go to the nearest emergency room or call 911, you can also call one of the free suicide prevention helplines, including the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
Methods to Cope with Stress
There are many ways to cope with stress and finding what best suits you takes practice and experimentation. Although there are ways we can immediate alleviate stress, such as a workout, time with a loved one, or a funny movie. In the long-term, stress can have a drastic effect and therefore long-term skills vary in terms of stress relief. Here are some long-term methods to handle stress.
1. Spend time in Nature
There is a Japanese term for nature therapy called 'Forest Bathing'. The term and therapy involves spending time in nature to ease anxiety and stress by bathing it away with sunlight, fresh air and plant life. Studies have shown that being in nature, even viewing photos of nature, reduces anger, fear, and stress while also increasing feelings of happiness. Vitamin D boosts from sunlight may elevate your levels of serotonin - the feel good neurotransmitter. Being in nature makes you feel good emotionally and also reduces blood pressure, lowers your heart rate, eases muscle tension and lowers stress hormones.
Any form of exercise can help relieve stress, even a simple easy walk to get the mail is helpful. Movement and exercise releases endorphins, helps regulate your sleep patterns, lowers symptoms associated with mild depression, boosts your energy, and helps you remain calmer and more focused. Activities like walking or jogging or anything that involves using a lot of muscle groups can really reduce stress and offer the same benefits as meditation.
Although it is easy to let your daily exercise routine slide when you are overwhelmed and busy, take steps to incorporate it into your day. For example pick an activity you love and will look forward to, get an exercise buddy to motivate you, or schedule it into your calendar.
3. Have a Routine
In times of stress having a comforting routine and consistent routine can help you sleep and ease stress. This could be taking a bath before bed, listening to your favorite playlist on your commute or journaling daily. "For some people, this helps because you'll have less idle time to sit around and ruminate about the things that are stressing you," Dr. Seawell says. "The key is to create a reasonable schedule and one that includes breaks, time for fun activities, time for meals and time for sleep so that the schedule itself doesn't become another source of stress."
4. Make Something with Your Hands
Being present and engaged is a great way to get out of your head. Stress often leads us to ruminate and overthink so doing something with our hands helps us stay present in the moment. This could be baking, painting, knitting, rock climbing, or other active things. According to Kathleen Hall, a health educator and the founder and CEO of the Stress Institute, as your hands and fingers begin to fall into those familiar rhythmic moves, it sends a signal to your brain that immediately relaxes you and makes you feel grounded.
Writing is a great way to slow your thoughts and improve mental health. Often our brains are running on a hamster wheel and we are blind to our thought patterns and writing can help us visualize our thoughts and make sense of everything. Here are some techniques:
• Gratitude Journal: Everyday write 5 things you are thankful for before you journal your issues or frustrations. Gratitude has been shown to relieve stress because it allows you to focus your thoughts on what matters in your life and what is positive.
• Write a Letter You Wont Send: if you ever have a personal relationship that gets iffy or stressful, you probably have had a lot of dialog building up in your head. Sometimes a real conversation is necessary and sometimes it is not. Writing a letter before hand can help get out your thoughts, feelings and all that extra energy that is overwhelming you. The best part, no one will ever see it or read it so you can say what ever you want, you can be honest, you can say mean things and it does not matter. Just make sure not to send it!
• Throw it Away: literally, throw it away. Write down all the things that are giving you stress and tension and throw it away or burn it. Symbolically this helps you understand that these thoughts and ideas are literal trash and do not need to exist. Bonus: write down positive thoughts and keep them somewhere you can read them daily. For example, your mirror so when you brush your teeth you can read them twice daily.
6. Limit Your Vices
Although alcohol, drugs or cigarettes can be temporarily calming and relieve stress, turning to vices too often sets you up to stress out more once the high wears off. This goes for sugar and caffeine as well. Sugar, caffeine, and alcohol can all exacerbate stress. Since these habits tend to increase the negative impacts of stress on your body - increased blood pressure, jitteriness, awake at night, etc - you enter a vicious cycle of feeling more stressed out and then returning to the vice repeatedly over and over again.
7. Get Adequate Sleep
When you are stressed, hiding under the covers seems pretty fantastic. However, sleeping isn't the answer. Research shows that the more you sleep, the more tired you actually feel. Studies have even shown an association between chronic oversleeping and diabetes, heart disease, and weight gain. Additionally, too little sleep can also make stress levels worse. Sleep deprivation and tiredness leads to a more negative outlook, things appear to look worse and less manageable. According to the National Sleep Foundation, seven to nine hours of sleep is recommended per night.
8. Confront Your Problems
Taking a pause or mental break every once and awhile is healthy, however consistently avoiding the stress in your life is counterproductive. The best way to understand and manage stress is to tune in and confront stress, rather than turn away. The more you ignore something or procrastinate, wether that problem is concrete like paying off bills or emotional like a break-up, the larger it is going to become. The best way to manage the stress is to reach out for help and make a plan of action that will handle the situation and alleviate your stress.
9. Recognize Rumination and Use Techniques to Stop It
Rumination is recurring thoughts that focus on how bad things are and how they will never change. When we focus on the negative, how bad things are and how they will not change, we produce feelings of depression. These feelings of depression promote more rumination. It becomes a vicious cycle. The key to stopping rumination is being able to recognize it. If you find yourself ruminating, take a deep breath in that moment to bring yourself into the present and try to think about how you'll view this stressor in the future, try talking to a friend. If this does not help, a counselor or professional focusing in cognitive behavioral therapy may be able to help.
10. Shift Your Perspective
Often we tend to stick with our assumptions because it is what we have learned and have assumed to be true. However, sometimes those ideas are not accurate. For example, do you ever have a fight with your partner and assume the relationship may be over? It is not uncommon to jump to worst case scenarios when we deal with stressful issues, however magnifying issues only adds to stress. When we are stressed it is easy to view ourselves in a negative light. Christy Matta, author of The Stress Response, recommends talking to yourself as if you were offering advice to your best friend and odds are you will have much more compassionate and positive things to say.
11. Maintain a Healthy Diet
Soothing stress with high-calorie, high-sugar, or high-fat comfort foods feels good in the moment but it can quickly spiral out of control when your mind and body begin to associate negative emotions with eating. When you start to feel stress, anger, or sadness, you'll instinctively reach for food rather than dealing with feelings. Focusing your diet on healthy foods in adequate portions helps feed the good bacteria in your gut microbiome and subsequently keeps your brain and body functioning properly.
Although stress varies from person to person, the effects of stress can affect all aspects of your life, including emotions, behaviors, cognitive ability, immune system and physical health. Long-term stress has even more detrimental effects, including mental disorders, cardiovascular issues, gastrointestinal issues, and more. However, you have the potential and ability to curtail stress and develop strong skills and tools to cope with it. Mindfulness is a great tool to help with stress and can be seen in time spent in nature, exercise, working with your hands, journaling, and many more practices.
What coping skills have you used? What have you found beneficial to help with long-term stress? What did not help?