"Stressful" might be a perfect adjective to describe our current lives. We’ve been through a lot in the past year. In fact, research from the American Psychological Association indicates that overall levels of stress in this country increased throughout the last year.
While everyone handles it differently, stress has common roots. It's the physical and emotional sensation you have in response to challenging situations (say, a global pandemic). Of course, the experience of stress is normal; up to a certain point, stress can actually be helpful for motivating you or ensuring you respond appropriately in life-threatening situations.
However, when stress becomes chronic, persistent and long-lasting, serious problems can arise. SIU Medicine wants to help you better understand your stress levels with these facts.
1. Chronic stress isn't just a state of mind or a feeling; it has a specific physiological effect on the body.
Stress triggers the "fight-or-flight" response controlled by your nervous system and expressed through measurable changes in your body: increased blood pressure, higher cortisol levels, reduced blood flow to the stomach, etc. But fight-or-flight is meant to be a short-lived phenomenon. Think of our ancestors having to suddenly outrun a saber-toothed tiger. In the face of acute danger, they needed a quick burst of energy to flee or attack, and after the danger was passed, their nervous and hormonal systems could gradually return to normal.
In the modern day, we're surrounded by perceived "dangers" that persist day after day, and whose headlines reverberate in news feeds and social media around the clock. This can lead to a longer-lasting stress response in the body—the "chronic stress" problem.
Other than simply making you feel bad, chronic stress raises the amount of inflammation in your body, damaging your cells, tissues and organs and aging you more quickly. Chronic stress also increases the risk of chronic health problems, including:
- Heart disease
- Depression and anxiety
- Autoimmune disorders
In the short-term, chronic stress can lead to changes in appetite, headaches, jaw pain (often from clenching the jaw or grinding the teeth), acid reflux, difficulty sleeping, and aches and pains.
2. Worried about your job? Family issues? Money? That’s not unusual.
Organizations including the American Psychological Association have found that money, work, family, relationships, politics and the economy are consistently ranked as the most stressful factors in a person's life. Other highly stressful events include divorce, the death of a loved one, receiving a chronic disease diagnosis and accidents.
Even events that are generally considered to be pleasant can increase an individual’s stress. The Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory, a scale used to measure stressful life events occurring within the last year, lists several joyous events among its stressors. In fact, marriage, generally considered to be a celebratory occasion, is listed seventh on the scale.
While these are universal experiences, not everyone gets chronically stressed because of them. Individual factors including your health, genetics, support systems and beliefs can influence your stress response and aptitude for coping.
3. There's a large toolbox for alleviating stress.
No matter what is going on in the world, our response to stress is essential for determining our well-being. Fortunately, many effective ways exist to alleviate stress that are low-cost, safe and effective. Try:
- Deep breathing exercises
In addition to these techniques, working with a psychologist or other mental health professional can be helpful for mastering your stress response and finding the tool or tools that work best for you.
Most importantly, if you develop persistent, uncontrollable anxiety or depression, you may have a mental health condition that requires treatment. Many effective treatments are available, ranging from psychotherapy to medications to a combination of the two. A mental health provider can help you choose the treatment that’s best for you.
SIU Medicine is home to some of the region’s leading physicians and mental health professionals who study well-being. Call 800-342-5748 if you're ready to schedule an appointment and talk to someone about your mental health.