Stress is a normal part of life. It's completely expected to feel stressed and overwhelmed when you're navigating a tense situation at home, managing a heavy workload, or struggling to find time for yourself. Sometimes, stress can have a cumulative effect, with each stressor building on top of each other.
When you're dealing with high stress levels, how you cope can have significant impacts on your physical and mental health. Although it might be tempting to ignore your stress and hope it goes away on its own, finding healthy ways to cope is key to protecting your overall health. Stress management is all about taking time to take care of yourself and re-evaluate, allowing your mind and body to rest, replenish, and heal from stress.
Whether you're dealing with a one-time stressful event or living with chronic stress, identifying your symptoms is the first step toward feeling better. Here's everything you need to know about stress management to live a healthier, more peaceful life.
What causes stress
Stress is a natural part of life, and it happens to everyone. In fact, human beings are designed to experience stress. The response actually stems from our ancient biology. At any sign of danger, the body's sympathetic nervous system is activated due to the sudden release of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, allowing us to escape from danger.
These fight-or-flight responses result in an increased heart rate, blood pressure spikes, and even difficulty breathing. Physical dangers still trigger our stress response in the same way. However, so can psychological dangers, such as a presentation at work or a heated argument. Our brains don't discriminate—when we sense danger of any kind, our ancient wiring kicks in.
For some people, this can happen due to compound stresses. Individual stressors might not cause a fight-or-flight stress response, but when they build up (as is common in our busy lives today), we feel overwhelmed. Sometimes, this makes it difficult to identify what our triggers are.
Countless situations can contribute to stress, from life transitions to tight deadlines. When someone experiences long-term stress, their body's continued activation of the stress response leaves the body on high alert, leading to physical and psychological symptoms.
What is stress management?
Coping with stress has two aspects: awareness and management. The first step to stress management is to step back, assess your situation, and identify the sources of stress. Once you identify your triggers, you can ask yourself, "Is this a factor out of my control?" Sometimes, that simple acknowledgment can give you a helpful (and healthier) perspective toward a stressful situation. Most of the time, it's not worth stressing over something you can't change.
In terms of management, there are plenty of ways to build and maintain a healthier relationship with stress, from simple self-care strategies to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Remember: your mind deserves better than to be loaded down with never-ending worries. And without the right stress management techniques, stress can sap your creativity, interfere with personal relationships, and disrupt your quality of life.
How can you identify the signs of stress?
Everyone experiences stress. When high levels of stress affect your daily life, health, and well-being, finding healthy stress management techniques can make all the difference in your quality of life.
Ongoing stress reactions can interfere with your productivity, personal relationships, and overall health. Many people describe chronic stress as "feeling stuck." Over a long period of time, stress can drain a person's capacity to function, and chronic stress may make people feel incapable of changing their situations.
Although stress affects everyone differently, most people experience a combination of psychological and physical symptoms. The psychological symptoms of stress include:
- Increased irritability, frustration, or agitation
- Feeling overwhelmed, as if you're losing control
- Having a hard time relaxing or quieting your mind
- Feelings of loneliness, worthlessness, or sadness
- Withdrawing from close friends and family members
- Procrastination, difficulty concentrating, or time management issues
- Negative thoughts or low self-esteem
The physical symptoms of stress include:
- Digestion issues, including nausea and upset stomach
- Unexplained aches, pains, and muscle tension
- Low energy or constantly feeling tired, even after getting enough sleep
- Sleeping problems, such as insomnia
- Chest pain and rapid heart rate
- Frequent illness
- Clenched jaw or grinding teeth
If left unchecked, chronic stress can negatively affect your mental and physical health. Physically, long-term stress can lead to serious issues, including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and a weakened immune system.
Psychologically, the long-term effects of stress can exacerbate mental health conditions, contributing to anxiety disorders, depressive symptoms, and burnout. Without healthy stress management strategies, many people turn to unhealthy behaviors, such as substance use, to cope with the effects of stress.
What should you do if you're feeling stressed?
Finding healthy, effective ways to manage daily stress is essential for our overall health. When we take care of our physical and mental health, we're better equipped to cope with the stresses and emotional strains of whatever life throws at us. Healthy stress management helps us build resiliency, protecting us against high stress levels, anxiety, low self-esteem, and other mental health challenges, according to the American Psychological Association.
Even if it seems like there's nothing you can do about stress in your professional or personal life, simple stress management techniques and lifestyle changes can help you relieve pressure, find strength, and gain a sense of control. Some healthy stress reduction strategies include:
- Get your body moving. Dedicate some quality time to yourself by making sure you get some physical activity each week. Whether you take up yoga or long runs, regular exercise is good for the mind and body, releasing feel-good endorphins that combat stress and boost self-esteem. Whenever you find your mind wandering, just focus on your breathing and remind yourself that you are enough.
- Get enough sleep. Sleep isn't just healing, but it's also necessary to human function. Adequate sleep allows the brain to recharge, and even slight sleep deprivation can drive up your stress levels. If you're struggling to get enough sleep, carve out some time to practice healthy sleep hygiene. Make an effort to wake up and go to bed at the same time each day, and find tech-free ways to wind down instead of scrolling through social media before bed.
- Incorporate mindfulness into your daily life. Mindfulness meditation is one of the simplest ways to start practicing mindfulness, and spending just a few minutes a day meditating can have major benefits for your psychological health. Mindful meditation involves sitting quietly and calming your mind by deep breathing and bringing awareness to different parts of your body. You can try it by yourself, but if you're new to it, meditation apps can guide you through the process.
- Try your hand at morning journaling. If writing a diary every night isn't your thing, try a morning diary instead. Start every day by writing your thoughts onto paper. This doesn't need to be perfect or censored—it's for your eyes only, so write whatever jumps into your mind. Expressive writing can help you practice gratitude and reset your mind for the day ahead.
- Reach out for support. One of the best ways to calm your mind is to share your problems. By opening up to a close friend or family member, you can quickly reduce your stress levels and gain a third-party perspective on your problems. Studies show that social support has wide-ranging mental health benefits, from building resilience to boosting longevity.
Remember: You don't have to deal with stress alone
We all experience stress, but what matters most is how you handle it. The best thing you can do to prevent unnecessary stress and protect yourself from the effects of stress is to recognize your symptoms.
If you're feeling overwhelmed by stress, don't hesitate to reach out for professional help. Many symptoms of stress can also be signs of other health problems, and your health care provider can evaluate your symptoms and rule out any underlying conditions, either physical or mental. If high stress is to blame for any mental health symptoms, working with a therapist or counselor can provide a safe space to identify your stressors and find healthy ways to manage stress.
At Charlie Health, we offer comprehensive mental health treatment for adolescents, young adults, and their families. Our virtual intensive outpatient program (IOP) combines one-on-one therapy, group therapy, family therapy, and can arrange access to psychiatric support as needed, with personalized treatment plans for your unique needs.
Our supportive, qualified therapists are here to help you every step of the way, from providing emotional support to helping you build a holistic stress management plan, so you can jumpstart your journey toward mental wellness.