Stress is the way you react when you feel under pressure, threatened, or afraid. When stressed, your body goes into “fight or flight” mode, changing how your body functions and causing mayhem to your health. Stress can affect your health in many ways, from physical ailments to mood changes. Learning how to manage stress is key to decreasing stress levels and improving your overall health.
What are stressors?
There are two types of stressors: external and internal.
External stressors include major life events, physical environment (excessive lighting or sound), work demands, or toxic relationships.
Internal stressors occur within us. This can be negative self-talk, unrealistic expectations, worrying, or choosing an unhealthy lifestyle with excessive caffeine or alcohol intake and constant lack of sleep.
Over time, constant external and internal stress can lead to serious health problems.
What does stress do to the body?
When stressed, your body goes into “fight or flight” mode, which is called sympathetic nervous system activation (SNS). Your SNS is known for its role in responding to dangerous or stressful situations. When activated, it speeds up your heart rate, delivers more blood to areas of your body that need more oxygen, and turns on other responses to help you escape danger. In addition, your SNS improves your reflexes, endurance, and strength when needed for self-protection or when your body is under strain, like when you are sick or exercising.
While this is beneficial for your survival, when you experience constant daily external and internal stressors, your body shifts your sympathetic nervous system into overdrive leading to negative health outcomes. The negative symptoms and side effects of stress include:
- Physical: weight gain, fatigue, muscle aches, headaches, chest pains, or nausea.
- Behavioral: increased eating, crying, yelling, pacing, increased use of unhealthy habits (smoking, alcohol use, drug use), or fidgeting.
- Mental: trouble with memory, decreased concentration, confusion, mind-racing, or indecisiveness.
- Emotional: depression, anxiety, anger, frustration, irritability, impatience, nervousness, worry, or fear.
How to manage stress
The first step to managing stress is to bring awareness to the stressors and understand how you react to them. Journaling is a great tool to record your stressful moments: when you notice you are experiencing symptoms of stress or are in a stressful situation, write down what that stressor is and how you’re reacting to it (physically, behaviorally, mentally, and/or emotionally). Knowing what makes you react this way will help you gain more control over how you respond to stressful moments in the future and, over time, can even prevent you from being stressed from the same or similar situation. It’s best not to ignore these instances but to walk through what is causing you distress.
Recognize what you can control
Knowing your stressors will help you recognize that you have more control over the situation and your reaction than you think. For example, suppose you learn that physical environments like loud noises or groups of people cause you stress. In that case, you can now limit or avoid exposure to this stress by physically leaving the environment or avoiding a social gathering. Likewise, if your workload stresses you out, you can reduce the frequency of this stressor by taking breaks away from your computer. The goal is to not sit in the stress but know when a stressful situation is arising so that you can come up with a game plan and be prepared to handle it. We may not be able to control what’s happening around us, but we can control our reactions and what’s happening inside us.
Try relaxation tips
Finding a relaxation method that works for you is critical to reducing and managing stress. One of the most common stress-reducing tips is to do breathing exercises. Focusing on your breathing will not only settle your mind, but physiologically it will bring down your heart rate. Remember, when your sympathetic nervous system is activated, your heart rate increases, so controlling your heart rate can instantly calm you down and turn off that “fight or flight” response. Try taking slow, deep breaths: inhale for four counts, hold one count at the top of your breath, then slowly exhale for six counts and hold one at the bottom; repeat until you feel relaxed and notice your heart rate is back to normal. Some other tips to try for relaxation are:
- Yoga, meditation, or any physical activity.
- Get a massage or give yourself a shoulder/neck massage with heat to relax muscles.
- Music or art therapy (play an instrument, put on your favorite song, or create art).
- Aromatherapy (try scents like lavender, sandalwood, lemon, or clary sage).
Having a solid support group is very helpful for managing and minimizing stress, especially internal stress. If you find yourself getting caught up in negative self-talk or setting unrealistic expectations for yourself, try talking about these things with someone you trust. Talking about what’s bothering you might help you realize the stressor, and a supportive friend or family member will be there to listen to your worries and walk you through solutions.
Although stressful situations will show up in different forms in your life, you can feel at ease knowing that you have control over your stress levels and the way you react to stressors by finding stress management techniques that work for you. Learning to work through stress will improve your overall health and help you overcome future challenging life events.
If you find yourself struggling to lose weight, reaching out for a free consultation with one of our weight-loss clinics may be an option. Let us be your support group! With one-on-one counseling, we know we can help you navigate your weight loss journey with whatever life stressors come your way.