Everyone experiences stress. Maybe it’s periodic – we experience stress caused by an assignment due date, or the knowledge that we’re meeting a potentially influential person for the first time. Or, stress might be caused by a promotion and the sudden increase of new responsibilities. Perhaps your feelings are due to a sudden life change, such as a move or loss of a loved one. Or, they might be caused by the aftermath of a traumatic incident like a car accident, or by something as simple as a full to-do list or the fear of letting someone down.
Regardless of the cause of stress, the definition remains the same. Stress is the body’s response to a change or adjustment in the environment; these responses may be mental, physical or emotional.
Stress – good or bad?
Good stress is positive, like a deadline motivating you to work harder. Known as eustress, this sensation is important for our well-being. A more familiar phrase might be “nerves” or “butterflies.” This sensation can present itself before going onstage for a performance or giving a presentation in front of a board of directors. Eustress actually promotes health and mental stability, giving you a feeling of excitement and accomplishment when you tackle the task you face.
On the other hand, distress qualifies as bad stress. Distress means feeling overwhelmed, sometimes rendering you incapable of handling the challenges you face. Without the proper tools to face these challenges, you can feel out of control, swamped or anxious. When in distress, your body can’t return you to a mentally healthy, balanced state; you’re left feeling mentally, and even physically, unwell.
Can stress make me sick?
Here’s the short answer to this question: yes, stress can contribute to the development of sickness. Certain factors play into whether or not you will experience sickness from stress and the severity of the sickness itself.
Acute stress comes and goes quickly; once the stressor is removed, your body is allowed to return to a state of rest. Think of this tendency in terms of a storm – acute stress is like the thunder, lightning and high winds which keep you on high alert. However, as soon as the storm drifts away and the leftover rain gently drops from the leaves, the earth returns to its peaceful state. Chronic stress, however, continues to keep your body in that state of high alert, producing a damaging effect not only on the system, but on the mind as well.
Is my sickness caused by stress?
If you constantly feel not quite right, but can’t identify anything causing your illness, it might be due to stress. Stress-induced illness can manifest in different ways.
Physically, you might experience headaches or stomaches, tight or strained muscles, trouble sleeping, disinterest in physical intimacy, chest pain, exhaustion and/or frequent colds.
Mentally, it’s possible to feel distracted, restless, anxious or constantly worried, easily irritable or frustrated, depressed and/or overwhelmed.
Behaviorally, you might see signs like an increase or decrease in appetite, an increase in the frequency of substance use habits, more nervous habits (like nail biting), social withdrawal or lack of motivation to exercise or accomplish daily tasks.
If any of these symptoms have presented themselves as a result of continued stress, it might be your body’s signal that you need to eliminate or better manage the cause of the stress itself.
How to manage stress
It’s a fact: stress puts the body into fight-or-flight mode; when the body remains in this state, it can wear out quickly. In order to restore balance, here are a few tips to keep in mind.
- Identify the stressor – Identifying and understanding the cause of your stress is a key in beginning to handle it. Perhaps your job is causing you constant stress. It might be time to have a chat with your supervisor or to begin searching for better avenues to manage feelings. If you can, knowing your stress and steering clear of those situations which trigger it will help you begin to eliminate stress in your life.
- Stay active – Sitting and watching TV or scrolling through a social media feed might provide temporary distraction, but it is more likely to increase stress long term. Try to spend time every day exercising, even if that means taking the time for a 15-minute walk or a quick jog around the block. Even cleaning the house can be therapeutic! Or, actively engage in breathing or meditation exercises to recenter the mind.
- Disconnect – We’re not meant to maintain 24/7 availability. Turning off your phone is a great way to live in the present moment. And to establish more of a long-term presence, turn off notifications for social media accounts, and set parameters around screen time.
- Dive into a new hobby – Whether it’s filling in an adult coloring book, learning an instrument, building a puzzle or planting a garden, having a new activity can give you that “me time” you so desperately need and deserve.
Reach out for the help you need
You don’t need to handle your stress alone. Reaching out to friends and family for support during stressful times can leave you better equipped to identify and manage stress as it comes. And if stress reaches an uncomfortable point, Mazzitti & Sullivan Counseling is always ready to help. Call 1-800-809-2925 today or reach out online, to begin putting concrete stress-management treatment in place today.