According to the American Psychological Association (APA)’s annual stress survey in 2018, average stress levels in the United States were 4.9 on a scale from 1 to 10. The survey found that the most common stressors were employment and money.
Dealing with Stress – Top Tips
We know that too much stress can be bad for you. It can affect both physical and mental health. It is also extremely personal: different people find different situations stressful, and also find that different ways of coping may be more or less helpful to them.
1. Learn to recognise the signs that you are becoming stressed
There are a wide range of possible signs and symptoms that may be associated with stress. These include headaches, stomach upsets and indigestion, and sleep problems. Many people also find they become very emotional and have trouble regulating their emotions.
Unfortunately, most of these signs are fairly non-specific: that is, they may be associated with many different illnesses and conditions. It can therefore be hard to identify when your symptoms are the result of stress. You should always consult a doctor if these symptoms last any length of time.
2. Identify your personal ‘stress triggers’
We all have particular situations or people that make us more stressed. Some of these are easily identifiable and may be avoidable. However, sometimes stress may build up over time, and result from a pattern of incidents or events, rather than a single trigger.
What are the behavioural and emotional effects of stress?
You may experience periods of constant worry, racing thoughts, or repeatedly go over the same things in your head. You may experience changes in your behaviour. You may lose your temper more easily, act irrationally or become more verbally or physically aggressive. 14 These feelings can feed on each other and produce physical symptoms, which can make you feel even worse. For example, extreme anxiety can make you feel so unwell, that you then worry you have a serious physical condition.
Stress may be caused either by major upheavals and life events such as divorce, unemployment, moving house and bereavement, or by a series of minor irritations such as feeling undervalued at work or arguing with a family member.16Sometimes, there are no obvious causes.
Tip 2: Practice the 4 A’s of stress management
While stress is an automatic response from your nervous system, some stressors arise at predictable times: your commute to work, a meeting with your boss, or family gatherings, for example. When handling such predictable stressors, you can either change the situation or change your reaction. When deciding which option to choose in any given scenario, it’s helpful to think of the four A’s: avoid, alter, adapt, or accept.
When you’re stressed, the last thing you probably feel like doing is getting up and exercising. But physical activity is a huge stress reliever—and you don’t have to be an athlete or spend hours in a gym to experience the benefits. Exercise releases endorphins that make you feel good, and it can also serve as a valuable distraction from your daily worries.
While you’ll get the most benefit from regularly exercising for 30 minutes or more, it’s okay to build up your fitness level gradually. Even very small activities can add up over the course of a day. The first step is to get yourself up and moving. Here are some easy ways to incorporate exercise into your daily schedule:
The stress-busting magic of mindful rhythmic exercise
While just about any form of physical activity can help burn away tension and stress, rhythmic activities are especially effective. Good choices include walking, running, swimming, dancing, cycling, tai chi, and aerobics. But whatever you choose, make sure it’s something you enjoy so you’re more likely to stick with it.
While you’re exercising, make a conscious effort to pay attention to your body and the physical (and sometimes emotional) sensations you experience as you’re moving. Focus on coordinating your breathing with your movements, for example, or notice how the air or sunlight feels on your skin. Adding this mindfulness element will help you break out of the cycle of negative thoughts that often accompanies overwhelming stress.
This type of stress is short-term and usually the more common form of stress. Acute stress often develops when people consider the pressures of events that have recently occurred or face upcoming challenges in the near future.
Ongoing poverty, a dysfunctional family, or an unhappy marriage are examples of situations that can cause chronic stress. It occurs when a person can see no way to avoid their stressors and stops seeking solutions. A traumatic experience early in life may also contribute to chronic stress.
A constant state of stress can also increase a person’s risk of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), can develop when stress becomes chronic.
Chronic stress can continue unnoticed, as people can become used to feeling agitated and hopeless. It can become part of an individual’s personality, making them constantly prone to the effects of stress regardless of the scenarios that they encounter.
People react differently to stressful situations. What is stressful for one person may not be stressful for another, and almost any event can potentially cause stress. For some people, just thinking about a trigger or several smaller triggers can cause stress.
There is no identifiable reason why one person may feel less stressed than another when facing the same stressor. Mental health conditions, such as depression, or a building sense of frustration, injustice, and anxiety can make some people feel stressed more easily than others.
Those who work in stressful jobs, such as the military or the emergency services, will have a debriefing session following a major incident, and occupational healthcare services will monitor them for PTSD.
Diagnosing stress can be challenging because it depends on many factors. Doctors have used questionnaires, biochemical measures, and physiological techniques to identify stress. However, these may not be objective or effective.
Some insurance providers cover this type of treatment. However, it is important for people to check coverage with their provider before pursuing this treatment. Knowing the details about a potential treatment can help prevent it from adding to any ongoing stress.
In such cases, they may prescribe an antidepressant. However, there is a risk that the medication will only mask the stress, rather than help the person deal with it. Antidepressants can also have adverse effects, and they may worsen some complications of stress, such as low libido .
- Exercise: A 2018 systematic review of animal studies found that exercise can reduce memory impairment in subjects with stress, although studies on humans are necessary to confirm this.
- Reducing the intake of alcohol, drugs, and caffeine: These substances will not help prevent stress, and they can make it worse.
- Nutrition: A healthful, balanced diet containing plenty of fruit and vegetables can help maintain the immune system at times of stress. A poor diet can lead to ill health and additional stress.
- Priority management: It may help to spend a little time organizing a daily to-do list and focusing on urgent or time sensitive tasks. People can then focus on what they have completed or accomplished for the day, rather than on the tasks they have yet to complete.
- Time: People should set aside some time to organize their schedules, relax, and pursue their own interests.
- Breathing and relaxation: Meditation, massage, and yoga can help. Breathing and relaxation techniques can slow down the heart rate and promote relaxation. Deep breathing is also a central part of mindfulness meditation.
- Talking: Sharing feelings and concerns with family, friends, and work colleagues may help a person “let off steam” and reduce feelings of isolation. Other people may be able to suggest unexpected, workable solutions to the stressor.
- Acknowledging the signs: A person can be so anxious about the problem causing the stress that they do not notice the effects on their body. It is important to be mindful of any changes.
Noticing signs and symptoms is the first step to taking action. People who experience work stress due to long hours may need to “take a step back.” It may be time for them to review their working practices or talk to a supervisor about finding ways to reduce the load.
Most people have an activity that helps them relax, such as reading a book, going for a walk, listening to music, or spending time with a friend, loved one, or pet. Joining a choir or a gym also helps some people relax.
Those who often feel as though they do not have the time or energy for hobbies should try some enjoyable new activities that make them feel good. People can turn to their support network if they need ideas.