See below for a preview of what is covered in the “Stress and Your Health” course, offered by LocalGovU. The course goes into greater detail about various strategies to reduce and control stressors. We also offer several other Health & Wellness course topics including: “Understanding Nutritional Labels”, “High Blood Pressure — Reducing Your Risks”, and “Eating Right for Health and Fitness” to name a few. Click here to view the full list of Health & Wellness topics or contact us at 866.845.8887 for more information or to set up an account.
Stress and Your Health
The first thing to remember about stress is that it is normal. Stress happens to everyone. Our bodies are equipped to deal with stressful situations with the release of hormones that help fuel a “fight or flight” response. When those stressful situations are over, you are meant to return to a normal, restful state. However, constant stress is NOT normal. But with the go-go-go pace of many people’s lives, nonstop stress has become the standard. Keeping your body on “high alert” all of the time can have very real health consequences. The best thing we can do is to learn to manage our stress, either by removing sources of stress or by practical stress management techniques.
Stress is defined in many ways. By the broadest definition, stress is a change that causes physical or psychological strain. Let’s examine a few different types of stress.
- Eustress is the good kind of stress. It includes things that are fun and exciting, such as a scary movie or snow-skiing.
- Distress is the bad kind of stress. It elicits a similar physical response as eustress, but it is emotionally upsetting, rather than exhilarating.
- Acute stress is the most common form of stress. It can either be good or bad stress. The primary distinguishing characteristic of acute stress is that it is short-lived.
- Episodic acute stress involves repeated instances of acute stress, leading to feelings of loss of control and chaos.
- Chronic stress results from a constant source of stress in one’s life that is long-lasting, such as a bad marriage or high-pressure job.
Fight or Flight
Psychological stress causes a physiological fight-or-flight response in the body. When this happens, the body releases hormones that enable you to respond with aggression or to flee.
The hormones that are released—adrenalin and cortisol—increase your heart rate, slow digestion, and focus blood flow to the major muscle groups. As you might imagine, this response is helpful if you are being chased by a bear. Unfortunately, chronic stress puts a person in a constant state of fight or flight, which is damaging to the body.
Individual Responses to Stress
While “fight or flight” is frequently used to describe the universal physiological response to stress, each individual, in fact, will respond to stress in their own way. Psychologist Connie Lillas of the Interdisciplinary Training Institute in Los Angeles uses the following driving analogy to describe common responses to stress:
- Foot on the gas – An angry and restless response. Emotions run high. This is descriptive of a stereotypical “fight or flight” response.
- Foot on the brake – A withdrawn response. Energy is low and the individual shows little to no emotion.
- Foot on both – A tense and frozen response. Energy and emotions are high, but the individual “freezes” under the pressure.
Regardless of how an individual responds to stress, it still may have a strong negative impact on your physical and mental health, relationships and overall quality of life.
Causes of Stress
The causes of stress are called stressors. Stressors are typically viewed as negative occurrences, such as a chaotic work schedule or marital troubles, but they can also be positive events such as planning a wedding, buying a house, or starting a new job. Similar to the differences in how each individual responds to stress, each person perceives potentially stressful events very differently. For one individual, a public speaking engagement is a major stressor, but for another, it is exciting and motivating. Stressors may be external in nature or internal. External stressors come from outside sources, such as other people or work. Internal stress is self-generated.
Common stressors may include:
- Relationship problems
- Financial problems
- Children and family
- Uncertainty or a change in plans
- Perfectionism or unrealistic expectations
Health Consequences of Chronic Stress
While many of the milder, non-life-threatening health consequences of chronic stress are well-documented, researchers are still working to determine if there are more serious, life-threatening results as well. Determining the exact cause of these conditions is difficult, but at the least, stress is considered as a strong influencing factor. Some of the more known conditions include:
- Migraine headaches
- Increased susceptibility to colds
- Hair loss
- Anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Sexual dysfunction
- Heart disease
While our bodies are built to deal with stressful situations, constant and chronic stress can obviously lead to life altering problems. According to the American Psychological Association, one of the biggest challenges of chronic stress is that people get used to it and forget it’s there. People are immediately aware of acute stress because it is new; but they become so accustomed to chronic stress that it can become the norm. Because physical and mental resources are depleted through long-term attrition, the symptoms of chronic stress are difficult to treat and may require extended medical as well as behavioral treatment and stress management.
Prevention is Best
While there are ways to help the body minimize the physiological effects when chronic stress is unavoidable, the best remedy is to take preventative action and minimize excess stress from the start. Let’s look at a few strategies for reducing stress in your life.
Own Your Stress
Stress is all about control. Balancing your career, family responsibilities and finances will never be easy, but it is important to realize that you are in control. Take charge of your emotions, your schedule, and how you deal with problems. What are the primary sources of stress in your life–your triggers? This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Of course, work deadlines are a common stressor, but you may find that your own procrastination is the real trigger for feelings of stress. Do you make excuses and explain away stress as temporary although the truth is that you can’t remember the last time you didn’t feel stressed? Do you define stress as an inescapable part of your work life or your personality? Until you accept responsibility for your role in creating or maintaining it, your stress level will not improve.
Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms
Unhealthy coping strategies can end up being more detrimental to your health than the stress itself. Consider the following list of unhealthy common coping strategies and evaluate which, if any, apply to you.
- Smoking, drinking, or drugs (recreational or prescription) to relax
- Watching hours of TV
- Lashing out at others
Dealing with Stress: The Four A’s
If you find yourself taking comfort in any of the unhealthy stress relief options previously mentioned; it’s time to find healthier ones.
The key is change. You must either change the situation that is triggering the stress, or you must change your reaction to it. Since there is no “one size fits all” approach, consider the following possible responses to stress.
The four A’s:
- Avoid the stressor
- Alter the stressor
- Adapt to the stressor
- Accept the stressor
Avoid the Stressor
It’s not always possible or healthy to avoid facing a stressful situation, but some sources of stress can be eliminated simply by making different choices.
- Saying “yes” to something new means saying “no” to something else. Learn how to say “no” and quit piling it on.
- If there is a person in your life that causes stress, limit the time that you spend with them or end the relationship.
- Consider your environment. If traffic stresses you out, take a less-traveled route. If shopping gets your blood pressure going, shop online. If discussions of politics and religion upset you, don’t participate.
- Distinguish between the “shoulds” and the “musts” on your to-do list. Drop low-priority tasks to the bottom of the list or eliminate them entirely.
Alter the Stressor
If you can’t avoid a situation, what can you do to alter it? While it’s important to face our problems head-on, there may be action that we can take to make sure that the problem doesn’t happen again.
- Is time management the problem? A little planning ahead can reduce a lot of stress in the end.
- Speak up for change. Don’t allow resentment to creep in. Express your concerns in an open and honest way.
- Look for opportunities to find middle ground. While you may perceive that someone/something else is to blame for your stressful situation, be willing to strike a compromise. Seek out a win/win.
Adapt to the Stressor
If you can’t avoid or change a stressor, keep control of the situation by changing your own attitude and expectations. Negative thinking can have a profound effect, not only on your emotional health, but on your physical health as well.
- Search for the positive. Is traffic unavoidable? Reframe it as an opportunity to reflect on your day, listen to your favorite music or enjoy audio books.
- How do your problems fit into the big picture? Prioritizing based on long-term impact will allow you to focus your time and energy on the things that matter the most.
- Perfectionism is a major source of stress for many people. Give yourself permission to be “good enough” on the things that are lower on the priority list.
Accept the Stressor
Some stressors are out of our control, such as serious illness, job loss, or the death of a loved one. While it may be difficult at first, long-term acceptance is healthier than fighting something that you can’t change.
- Don’t waste your efforts on things you can’t change. You can’t change the actions of others, but you can control how you react to them.
- Consider the wisdom of “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” When bad things happen, challenge yourself to find in them an opportunity for personal growth.
- Confide in a trusted friend or therapist to help you through the hard times. Even if something is out of your control, considerable relief can come from simply acknowledging the situation and moving on.
Tame Your Tension
With any of the four A’s previously mentioned, a key to success is the proper frame of mind. Tension-taming techniques are more than just positive thinking. The body’s relaxation response is quite literally the opposite of the fight-or-flight response. Putting your body in a state of calm can have a very real, very quick impact on your ability to handle stress.
“Stress and Your Health;” LocalGovU course excerpt.
“The Different Kinds of Stress.” 2014 American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-kinds.aspx
Click here to view the full list of Health & Wellness topics covered by LocalGovU or contact us at 866.845.8887 for more information or to set up an account.