I recently had a week of vacation with no plans, no schedule and nothing I HAD to do. There is power in this for adults and kids alike — especially with the year we have had. One might think we have had “nothing to do” for a whole year, but that was not the case for our minds, which have been on constant high alert. I didn’t realize how much I needed to shut down until I actually gave myself the time to do it.
Stress is everywhere — especially over the last year. And while some stress is actually beneficial — too much stress can wear you down and make you sick, both mentally and physically. The first step to keeping stress under control is to understand the effects it has on your mind and body. Surprisingly, recognizing stress symptoms may be harder than you think. Most of us are so used to being under stress, we often don’t know we are stressed until it is overwhelming and more than we can handle.
In short, stress is the body’s reaction to harmful situations — whether real or perceived. When you feel threatened, a chemical reaction occurs in your body. I’m sure you’ve heard of “fight-or-flight” — this is the stress response where your heart rate increases, breathing is rapid, muscles tighten, and blood pressure rises. Being in a constant state of this causes burnout.
What causes stress is different for everyone. Likewise, how much stress you feel and how you react to it is also individualized. Our bodies are designed to handle small doses of stress. But, we are not meant to handle long-term, chronic stress (say from a year long pandemic that flipped our routines and plans upside down).
Stress can affect all aspects of your life, including emotions, behaviors, thinking ability, and physical health. No part of the body is immune. Common effects of stress on the body are: headache, fatigue, chest pain, stomach upset, and sleep issues. Common effects on your mood include: anxiety, restlessness, lack of motivation, lack of focus, feeling overwhelmed, anger, or sadness. Common effects on behavior are: over or under eating, drug or alcohol misuse, exercising less, and social withdrawal.
If you recognize any of these in yourself or a loved one, taking steps to manage your stress can have many health benefits. Explore stress management strategies, such as:
n Getting regular physical activity
n Getting plenty of sleep
n Eating a healthy, balanced diet
n Practicing relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, meditation, yoga, tai chi or massage
n Spending time with family and friends
n Setting aside time for hobbies, such as reading a book or listening to music
n Finding the perfect travel companion and getting away with no plans other than to laugh and relax
I encourage you to take stock, evaluate your current state of stress, and take steps to take care of yourself — including just shutting down for a while. Maybe you don’t have the luxury of a week to do so, but even an hour a day can make a big difference. If you’re not sure if stress is the cause or if you’ve taken steps to control your stress but your symptoms continue, see your doctor who can look for other potential causes. You may also consider seeing a professional counselor or therapist who can see things from a different perspective and help identify sources of stress and help you learn new coping tools.