April is Stress Awareness Month and a good time to check in on the stressors in your life and how you’re coping with them.
Stress is a natural, adaptive, and built-in response that is intended to help us. The Mayo Clinic describes the natural stress response as the following upon encountering a threat:
…your hypothalamus, a tiny region at your brain's base, sets off an alarm system in your body. Through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, this system prompts your adrenal glands, located atop your kidneys, to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain's use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues.
Cortisol also curbs functions that would be nonessential or harmful in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with the brain regions that control mood, motivation and fear.
Many people are not aware that stress comes in two common forms. First, the moderate or “good” kind of psychological stress is called eustress. Eustress is meant to help us perform better, like when we feel pressured by a work deadline and so we stay super-focused and up very late making sure we get the work in on time and in great form. Eustress is what keeps us going late night as we finish prepping and packing for a two week vacation. It helps kids do well on math tests and athletes win competitions.
Humans are extraordinarily well-prepared to cope with eustress. First, it is a short term type of stress and it ignites our motivation and productivity, and gives us a rush of increased energy that helps us get things done. Since there is time in between episodes of eustress, it allows us to rest, recuperate, recover, and heal.
Next, there is chronic or long-term stress, otherwise known as the “bad” kind of stress that can be harmful to our physical and mental health. Examples might be struggling financially and living in poverty, being a single parent with no emotional support or child care assistance, or working 80 hours a week in a job you hate.
Since there is no break or respite from chronic stress, we cannot properly recuperate and we can end up feeling exhausted, drained, depressed and overwhelmed. The result of continually being beaten down in this manner is linked to both physical and psychological issues. Some of the results from the long-term, continual activation of our “stress response system” include anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, muscle tension and pain, heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure and stroke, sleep problems, weight gain, and memory and concentration impairment.
So what can we do about it? First we have to take the time to reflect on how we know we are stressed. Take a moment to think about what things happen to you when you are stressed. Are you impatient or snappy with others? Do you feel fatigued? Does your heart race? Does your mood change?
Next, I like to use the analogy of reducing stress like grabbing a handful of candy out of a candy jar. Generally, we pull from the top of the candy jar. Only if there’s a reason that we need to go deeper to get a certain piece will we fish deeper. Likewise, when looking to reduce stress, we can “pull from the top.” Easy little efforts first—Can you go to sleep a bit earlier tonight or sleep in later the next morning? Can you ask for help from a family member to make dinner or do the laundry? Can you say “no” to an added work task your boss has dumped on you last minute? Small things do make a difference, so it’s always a great idea to “pull from the top” first.
Another important thing to notice is whether the efforts you usually make to reduce stress actually work. For example, sometimes people may take up drinking to “relax” after stressful days, but the result may be only very temporary. If the outcome of the drinking is exhaustion, feeling sick or hungover, perhaps that stress coping strategy isn’t really working.
For smaller chronic stressors, smaller changes might be effective such as changing routines, organizing one’s home, catching up on tasks, asking for help more regularly, etc. However, for larger chronic stressors, larger interventions may be required--things like changing jobs, consolidating debts, or selling a home.
Since April is also “Counseling Awareness Month,” it’s the perfect time to remind people that seeking the services of a therapist or counselor can be a wonderful way to get support and assistance in reducing or coping with stressful times in life. Additionally, therapists and counselors can offer strategies (like “cognitive reframes”) that can help with stress.
Lastly, there is a model of therapy called Internal Family Systems (IFS) that we can pull from when looking at coping with stress. IFS posits that each of us has a “self” that houses our many “parts.” Each “part” is intended to help us. For example, our “stressed out part” (the one that keeps us up worrying at night, tossing and turning, and unable to fall asleep) is trying to help us think and stress and figure out how to budget our money better or find a way to pay an overdue bill. Recognizing your stressed-out part as intending to help can be a good fist step. Next, reflect for a moment with gratitude at the wiring inside of you that is so effective in pushing towards solution-focused strategies. And finally, let that part know that you’re grateful for the pressure it is putting on you, but that you’ll prioritize figuring it out in the morning – give that “stressed out part” permission to go to sleep.