Stress is a natural human response everyone has to different situations in their lives. It may cause worry about a past or future project, event, or circumstance. Stress may include feelings of overwhelm, sadness, or even irritation for some. It is common to experience these feelings or other ones, too, but stressors that are not effectively managed can lead to burnout, exhaustion, and physical, mental, and emotional effects both in the short and long term (Lehrer & Woolfolk, 2021).
Stress may cause your muscles to tense up over time. If it develops into chronic stress, your muscles may constantly or frequently be tensed, potentially causing further physical health effects like tension headaches, migraines, soreness, or other stress-related disorders. When your body is experiencing stress, it also releases the stress hormone cortisol into your bloodstream. Your body’s “fight or flight” response is activated, increasing your heart rate and blood pressure. These responses are helpful and protective when you’re faced with a real threat but become problematic when your body is frequently in this state.
Cortisol also helps regulate your immune system, blood pressure, blood sugar, and your body’s stress response, as well as reducing inflammation (Thau et al., 2022). When stress becomes chronic or prolonged, it may become damaging to your health and well-being as it can impede your immune system’s ability to communicate with what is called the HPA axis (American Psychological Association [APA], 2023; Dunlavey, 2018). It can also lead to decreased motivation and productivity, anxiety, depression, panic attacks, poor sleep quality, overthinking, cardiovascular problems, hypertension, or stroke (Lehrer & Woolfolk, 2021).
Have you noticed the increase in news about gut health and wellness lately? Well, stress may also impact the gut’s ability to communicate with the brain, triggering bloating or other pain and discomfort within the gut as there are millions of bacteria that live in there and stress levels impact them. Appetite may also be affected, with some people feeling a decrease and others an increase in their appetite with stress (Thau et al., 2022).
Moreover, when you experience increased or prolonged stress, it may also impact your relationship with yourself and others. It may cause you to feel different than you normally would, which for some means increased irritation, sadness, anger, and for others it could mean avoidance, shutting down, and not feeling like yourself. Stress impacts everyone in their own way, but it can be managed and helped!
How Can I Manage my Stress?
Well, that depends! Stress shows up in everyone differently, so how we manage it depends on you as an individual. Some people find talking about it with a loved one or a trained professional helps, while others like having an outlet like exercising, journaling, meditating, or practicing mindfulness. It may also help to break down larger tasks into smaller parts to make them seem less daunting or intimidating (Young, 2021). Mindfulness is a practice that focuses on being in the present moment, which can be a great way to manage stress when done consistently (Mineo, 2018). It may take some practice, but once you start living in the present moment, your racing mind and body are calmer, letting you slow down and ease into your day-to-day tasks and responsibilities, while also giving yourself some time to relax and do things you enjoy!
American Psychological Association. (2023, March 8). Stress effects on the body. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/topics/stress/body
Dunlavey, C. J. (2018). Introduction to the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis: Healthy and dysregulated stress responses, developmental stress and neurodegeneration. Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education, 16(2), 59–60. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6057754/
Lehrer, P. M., & Woolfolk, R. L. (2021). Principles and practice of stress management (4th ed.). The Guilford Press.
Mineo, L. (2018, April 17). Less stress, clearer thoughts with mindfulness meditation. Harvard Gazette. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2018/04/less-stress-clearer-thoughts-with-mindfulness-meditation/
Thau, L., Gandhi, J., & Sharma, S. (2022). Physiology, Cortisol. National Library of Medicine: National Centre for Biotechnical Information.
Young, M. (2021). Learning the art of helping: Building blocks and techniques (7th ed.). Pearson.