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The Distressing Side Effects of Stress — And How to Manage It All

Stress is a part of life. But it doesn't have to consume your life.

Woman closing her eyes with the words stress floating around her

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It’s an unfortunate fact of life. Family, money, work, health — they all stress us out. According to the 2014 Stress in America™ Survey, these are the things we stress about the most. But even smaller things like social media and technology cause stress, which might be one reason why younger generations are more stressed.

Millennials and Gen Xers report higher than average levels of stress across multiple categories. If they’re parents, it’s even worse. Stress takes a toll, affecting their emotional and physical health, and in turn, it begins to affect those around them.

Sounds familiar. So why does everything stress me out?

It’s wired into you. You’ve probably heard of fight or flight. It’s how your body reacts to danger — like when you walk upon an angry bear in the woods. That threat triggers the release of a hormone that activates your survival instincts.

The fight-or-flight response is also known as the acute stress response. The hormone your body releases to save you in a life-or-death situation is the stress hormone. But it works the same way for lesser threats. And even perceived ones. So your body reacts the same way to a bad day at work as it does to running into an angry bear.

Money, work and health relate to your ability to survive today and thrive in the future. It’s not life-or-death in most cases, but it’s about as close as you can get. When you have family responsibilities, stress is multiplied because you’re no longer just worried about yourself. You have worry about your spouse and children.

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That’s a lot to worry about. What does all this stress do to me?

The day-to-day demands of life wear on you. You might get anxious, irritable or depressed for a short period of time. Tense feelings make you tense up physically, too, leading to back pain, jaw pain, tension headaches and pulled muscles. Stress can also give you stomach problems and temporarily raise your blood pressure, speed up your heartbeat, make your palms sweaty or cause shortness of breath, dizziness and chest pains.

These symptoms typically fade with the stress. You move on, resolve the problem or deal with the issue, and it stops bugging you. Sometimes the passage of time is enough to make your stress appear trivial and disappear.

But not for everyone.

When you experience stress more frequently, all the troubling symptoms linger. Tension headaches lead to migraines. Irritability turns into anger and hostility. Constant worry becomes anxiety and depression. You go from being considered hot-blooded to developing hypertension and heart disease. Without proper help and lifestyle changes, your stress can become chronic and debilitating.

No thank you! How do I manage stress before I get to that point?

Acute stress is manageable. The sooner you learn to handle it, the better equipped you are to respond to difficult situations and prevent stress from consuming your life.

The way you handle it matters. Millennials and parents are more likely to deal with stress by engaging in unhealthy behaviors like watching a lot of TV or movies, surfing the web, napping, eating, drinking alcohol or smoking.

There are better ways to manage stress. The first step is to identify your stressors and your reactions to them. What triggers your stress? How do you cope with it? How do you feel different than the times where you’re stress-free? Understanding how stress affects your life helps you make positive changes.

Healthy Ways to Handle Stress

  • Seek emotional support. Simply talking to friends and family about your troubles can greatly reduce stress. Knowing you have help — or at least someone to talk to — can make you feel better about your situation. Get out and be social to improve your mood.
  • Get a good night’s sleep. Stress can keep you up at night. Good sleep habits like going to bed at a regular time, getting seven or eight hours of sleep and keeping screens out of the bedroom improve sleep and reduce the effects of stress.
  • Live an active lifestyle. Exercise helps reduce stress and improve your emotional well-being. It floods your brain with endorphins, which make you feel good — not depressed or anxious. Something as small as a daily walk can make a difference in your mental and physical health.
  • Listen to music. Classical music calms your mind and relaxes your body. Even natural earth sounds like rippling water help reduce the cortisols released by stress. Make a playlist of relaxing tunes and sounds or play your favorites to unwind.
  • Read a book. Reading is an escape from everyday life. It takes your mind off whatever’s stressing you and transports you to another world. Choose novels, not news, or books about hobbies you enjoy. Reading things that upset you can actually create more stress.
  • Laughter really is the best medicine! A good belly laugh is no joke. "Taking things less seriously" may be helpful, and good advice, but it’s even more than that. When we have a good laugh, stress hormones decrease, and good hormones/endorphins are released. Some humor and laughter not only decreases stress right at the moment, but it can also lessen stress the rest of your day!

Sometimes stress can make you feel lonely and isolated. But you’re not alone. Everyone around you is stressing about the same things. If you don’t have the emotional support system to work through your problems — or if your stress is overwhelming — talk to your doctor. They can help you understand and manage your stress to prevent it from causing long-term damage to your health and your life.

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