Whether it’s the political news of the day, money worries, or family drama, triggers for stress are all around you. And in addition to making you feel irritable or exhausted, stress can lead to a host of other physical and emotional complications, such as chest pain, headaches, insomnia, weight gain, anxiety, sadness, and much more. An estimated three quarters of Americans regularly experience such physical and/or psychological symptoms related to stress.
So how are you managing your stress?
Everyone responds to stress a little differently. Some people try to deal with it by exercising or meditating, while others choose unhealthy approaches, including using drugs or alcohol. Then there are those who do their best to ignore stress. They may feel that complaining about the stressors in life is a waste of time, or might even make them feel worse.
Psychiatrist Maren Nyer, PhD, with the Depression Clinical & Research Program (DCRP) at Massachusetts General Hospital, acknowledges that focusing too much on your stressors can be unproductive. “Worry makes stress worse,” she says. “There is a balance between too much emphasis on our problems, while on the other hand realizing that we have an opportunity to help manage things better. Why accept a life that’s overly stressful?”
What Is Stress?
Medically speaking, stress is a factor that causes tension in the body or mind—often both. Stressors can be external, such as a divorce or a traffic jam, or they can be internal, resulting from an illness or following a medical procedure. When you are stressed, your body releases various hormones to help protect your body. Your muscles tense and your heart and breathing rates increase.
Stress can also be positive. Your brain becomes more alert when you’re stressed. That can motivate you to finish a project by its deadline or it can help you avoid an accident. Quick bursts of stress can be harmless to your health. These episodes are examples of acute stress.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
- Surround yourself with positive people who give you energy and vitality.
- Avoid the stressors that really can be avoided, such as an annoying neighbor, an especially busy street during rush hour, or watching too much television news that gets you angry.
- Do a self-inventory to see whether you’re spending time on things that matter and bring you joy, satisfaction, and other rewards. If you’re not, look for ways to channel your time and energy into those pursuits
- Look for age-appropriate classes in yoga, meditation and fitness at your local health club or community center. Find a friend or relative to accompany you. That will make it more fun and help keep you motivated.
Chronic stress is a much different problem. It’s the one that can have long-term health consequences. Chronic stress, which occurs when you feel you have no control over the forces affecting your life, is linked to inflammation. That, in turn, can lead to a wide range of health issues, such as hypertension, depression, even cancer. This is why managing the the stressful periods in your life is so important.
Healthy Coping Mechanisms
The good news is that there are many ways to manage your stress healthfully. Getting enough sleep is among the most important steps you can take to reduce stress and improve your health, Dr. Nyer says. “We need to make sure we are well rested,” she adds. “Adequate sleep is very important.”
If you feel you’re not getting enough sleep, try these lifestyle changes for better sleep hygiene:
- Get seven or eight hours of sleep a night.
- Stick to the same bedtime and wake-up time each day to set your body’s clock.
- Practice a relaxing bedtime routine, such as reading a book in low lights.
- Avoid caffeine in the late afternoon or evening.
- Avoid naps in the afternoon, which may interfere with sleep at night.
- Keep your bedroom cool, dark and quiet at night. Blackout curtains, sleep masks, “white noise” machines, ear plugs and other aides may help.
- Make sure your mattress and pillows are comfortable and supportive.
If you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, consider seeing a sleep specialist. Your primary care physician may not know a lot about sleep health, but may be able to recommend a physician who can help.
Another way to help you manage your stress, as well as sleep better at night is to exercise during the day, preferably the morning. Regular physical activity can help reduce your stress levels, but it’s important to get your heart rate going and give your muscles a good workout. “Vigorous exercise, four to five times per week, can help mitigate the body’s stress response,” Dr. Nyer says.
For optimal health, engage in aerobic activity, such as brisk walking or jogging, swimming, tennis, or bicycling, as well as strength and balance training.
Dr. Nyer, who is also the director of Yoga Studies at the DCRP, recommends quiet, still moments to help reduce stress, too. Yoga classes, which are available for people of all ages and fitness levels, can be effective stress busters. Practicing meditation, even a few minutes a day at home, can also trigger a relaxation response to counter the body’s stress response.
Mindfulness, which focuses your awareness on the present moment (the sights, sounds, smells and other sensations around you) and allows you to accept and acknowledge your feelings and thoughts without judgment, is one of the best strategies to help manage and minimize stress. “Mindfulness helps us to explore our thinking patterns and ways of behaving,” Dr. Nyer says. “There are great (smartphone and computer device) apps that can be downloaded to integrate even brief mindfulness exercises into our daily lives.”
Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms
Ignoring your stress triggers isn’t always a wise approach. Your stress levels can build without you being aware, to the point where you develop serious health problems or act out in a reckless manner. Stress is also a common trigger for drug and alcohol abuse. If you feel that your drinking or drug use is approaching an unhealthy level or that it is affecting your daily functioning, work, or relationships, tell your doctor or seek out a therapist or program aimed at dealing with addiction.
Dr. Nyer notes that for many people, poor stress management is due to how they think about themselves and their problems. “Sometimes it’s a feeling of worthiness or rather unworthiness,” she says. “You have that feeling that you don’t deserve to take care of yourself due to unresolved issues.”
The truth, of course, is that everyone deserves happiness and the ability to enjoy a low-stress quality of life. But that means being proactive about your physical and emotional health.
“Thinking that you don’t have the time and not prioritizing yourself can keep you from managing your stress,” Dr. Nyer explains.
Stress Through Your Ages
Many of the things that cause you stress today probably are not issues that you gave much thought to when you were younger, let alone got stressed over. Chronic illness or caregiving for an aging parent or spouse is among the most common stressors among older adults. Interestingly, however, older adults (those at least 72 years of age) have traditionally had the lowest levels of stress, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). The APA routinely surveys thousands of Americans of all ages to determine stress levels as well as what issues are triggering stress.
In the 2017 survey, older adults reported a slightly higher stress level than they did in 2016. But it was the Millennials (ages 18 to 38), who continue to have the highest stress levels. Dr. Nyer explains that your ability to cope with everyday stressors can actually improve with age. You become less focused on “the little things.”
“As we get older, we practice these coping mechanisms over the years, and we generally get better at it,” she says, adding that advancing age can bring on stressors that present some difficult stress management challenges. “Developmentally, things change. There is more loss of friends and loved ones. Your role changes, in terms of becoming the elder in a family and in society.”
If you find that stress is becoming overwhelming, or that you’re experiencing unexplained symptoms that may be due to stress, don’t ignore those feelings. There is no stigma in seeking counseling to help you get your stress under control. Sometimes just having someone validate your feelings can help. In the meantime, a little more sleep, exercise and mindfulness meditation may go a long way in bringing down your stress and making you feel a lot better.