Stress. It’s a term that’s thrown around so much that it feels like it’s lost its meaning. Surprisingly, stress can actually be a good thing. In fact we need stress to get things done and stay safe. It can motivate us or allow us to be proactive about problems in our lives. However, when stress starts interfering with our ability to get things done (work, school), maintain relationships, or maintain our quality of life, it can lead to unhealthy habits and take a toll on our overall health and well-being. This includes serious health problems, like high blood pressure, autoimmune illnesses, digestive issues, depression and anxiety. So when stress becomes a constant, there’s cause for concern. That’s why understanding stress — the causes, effects, and how to deal with it, are so important.
What is stress?
It’s common to confuse stress and anxiety. Stress is usually a reaction to something we have control over or different aspects of our lives that we could potentially manage better. Anxiety is when feelings of worry do not have a clear cause or when the feelings are bigger or more disruptive than the situation seems to warrant. Anxiety can also be a response to situations we can’t control.
Like most aspects of mental health, our stress levels and how we manage it is dependent on a mixture of factors: genetic, cultural, physical, psychological, and environmental. The same stressor can cause different people to react in different ways depending on who they are, their personal history, what they’re going through, and the array of coping skills and support systems they already have in place. Chronic exposure to seemingly small stressors can also add up to significant stress or even anxiety over time. For example, marginalized people and groups are likely to suffer greater and more disruptive stress because of regular experiences with systemic inequity and other emotionally challenging experiences encountered as a part of daily life. Some other common stressors include:
- Pressures at school or work
- Relationship conflict
- Losing a job
- Financial worries
- Illness or injury
- Current events that are concerning
Managing our stress
While most of us have at least one or two healthy ways to deal with stress, most of us also have a few coping strategies that are less than healthy. These could include distracting ourselves without addressing the underlying causes of that stress, getting angry at other people, or using drugs and alcohol to try and temporarily numb the stress. Most of these coping strategies deflect or distract us from the actual underlying issue. While this can feel helpful in the short term, they are not helpful in addressing the underlying problem and can lead to even more stress. So, while distraction is an easy go to when we are stressed, it is much healthier to disconnect instead – at least while you regroup and figure out how to cope in more healthy ways. When we purposefully disconnect, we acknowledge we need a break and are using that time to heal, think, or create space before returning to dealing more directly with the source of stress. When we simply look for constant distractions, we’re avoiding the problem altogether and not dealing with the cause or trying out solutions. This only exacerbates the situation.
The good news is that there are proven ways to manage the stress in our daily lives. From mediation and movement to disconnecting (digitally) and connecting (with friends and family). Check out these Tips for Managing Stress for a few suggestions you can start implementing today. There’s no one-size-fits all solution. If you or someone you know is struggling with stress and can’t get a handle on it, please get help and talk to a professional.
Common signs that someone might need more support
While it’s true that some stress is healthy and necessary, stress that interferes with our ability to get things done, relationships, and overall quality of life needs to be addressed. Here are some signs that you or someone you care about may be suffering from chronic stress:
- Depression or apathy that interferes with their obligations or social activities
- Changes in eating or sleeping patterns.
- Having a hard time managing day-to-day tasks/challenges or has unusually strong reactions to minimally stressful situations
- Being quick to anger, frustration or agitation and/or lashing out at other people more than usual.
- Increased use of alcohol and/or drugs
Lead with compassion
Remember, stress and what triggers it are different for different people. Stress isn’t always easy to manage so we need to show ourselves or others compassion. It’s important to recognize what situations cause stress so that we can take healthy action to address them. When situations feel impossible to change or simply bigger than you can manage seek help from someone you trust or from a professional. For more information about stress, see these JED resources: