A comprehensive guide to understanding and minimizing stress
Did you know that 79% of us struggle with stress?
It’s undeniable, learning how to manage stress is a crucial skill in today’s world.
So in this guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know about stress management.
1. What Is Stress?
While stress still affects many of us, our stress levels are declining overall, especially in the US.
However, it’s something everyone faces at some point in their life.
Stress can be described as:
“Emotional or mental tension in response to a stressor (e.g. work, school, relationship problems).”
According to CBS News, the average stress level surveyed among Americans is 4.9 on a scale of 10.
22% of individuals even mentioned that they aren’t putting enough effort into managing their stress.
In regard to these statistics, this tells us that many of us still struggle with the everyday effects of stress.
2. What Are The Symptoms Of Stress?
In the modern world, normal levels of stress are virtually inevitable, but there is a balance that has to be maintained.
Stress comes in a variety of different forms and it affects everyone differently.
However, too much stress can cause physical and emotional harm. It can also interfere with our social lives, especially if it’s not managed effectively.
2.1. Physical Effects Of Stress.
- Frequent headaches
- Nausea and vomiting
- Muscle tension or weakness
- Reduced libido
- Digestive troubles (e.g. diarrhoea, constipation, stomach pain)
- Reduced energy
- High blood pressure
- Dry mouth
- Tinnitus (ear ringing/whooshing/clicking)
- Decreased immunity
- Chest pain or heart palpitations
- Bingeing or eating less
- Insomnia or hypersomnia
2.2. Emotional Effects Of Stress.
- Decreased interest in activities or people
- Agitation and frequently snapping
- Low self-esteem
- Negative mindset
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Hopelessness or loss of control
2.3. Social Effects Of Stress.
The emotional and physical symptoms of stress can be unpleasant.
If you’re struggling with stress, you may find yourself drawing away from others, getting into frequent arguments with family or friends, or falling behind in work/school.
Unfortunately, stress can have an impact not just on your health and emotions, but also on your everyday decisions too.
In fact, one-fifth of individuals hesitated to go to the doctor when health problems arose because of financial worries.
3. Why Do We Feel Stressed?
3.1. Leading Causes Of Stress.
According to one survey, one of the leading causes of stress is due to money.
In fact, 64-percent Americans worry about their current financial situation. That can come down to their annual income, bankruptcy, bills or taxes, debt, or sudden emergency expenses.
A survey also found that about a third of adults faced relationship problems due to financial stress.
3.2. Other Causes Of Stress.
- Dealing with the death of a loved one
- Being unhappy with a current job, relationship, or home situation
- Too much work and little/no play
- Poor time management
- Strict expectations for yourself or from others
- Feeling unappreciated
- No support from loved ones
- Divorce, breakup, separation, or other relationship tension
- Dealing with discrimination, harassment, or bullying
- Unresolved conflicts or past regrets
- Pregnancy or the new arrival of a child
- Health complications or the declining health of a loved one
- Mental, emotional, behavioural, or learning disabilities
- Loss of a job or unemployment
- Major upcoming life events e.g. court, wedding, new job)
4. Benefits Of Stress.
4.1. Positive Stress.
Stress can actually be healthy in small amounts.
This is known as ‘positive stress’.
…And it can arise from situations you might feel excited about: weddings, pregnancy etc.
Depending on someone’s lifestyle and personality type, some may have little to no symptoms of acute stress even when placed in difficult situations.
Sometimes these individuals are referred to as having a Type B (laid-back) personality or Type H (motivated yet stress-hardy).
Even for Type A (high-strung, easily-stressed) individuals, there are benefits to healthy levels of stress…
4.2. Enhanced Memory.
Studies have shown that stress may reduce recall memory (e.g. people’s names, certain words, dates) but may enhance short-term and immediate recall memory.
Note: It’s important to note that ‘Chronic Stress’ can actually cause short – and long-term – memory decline. it can even cause issues with memorizing information in the first place.
…This study explains how and why this happens.
Stress can cause higher levels of motivation.
When someone is mild to moderately stressed, they are more likely to take action to reduce their stress.
Here’s an example:
If someone has mild stress regarding an upcoming exam, they are more likely to study as they exert worry towards their performance.
Therefore, they’re more likely get a successful score.
Individuals who go through occasional stress may also find that they become more resilient overtime.
Stress can create resilience both towards stress and its symptoms, as well as towards future stressors.
Many people find that after their stress about reaching a goal, they’re more confident in their own abilities once they’ve completed it.
In some ways, mild stress helps us become stronger in the long-term.
Note: Stress can also make us more confident and improve our ability to adapt.
Studies show that stress helps us to learn, grow, and appreciate the good times.
4.5. Caring For Others.
Stress can increase our empathy and compassion.
This is especially true when we’re raising children, mending relationships, and helping others.
Concern and stress play hand-in-hand.
Here’s a few examples:
- If a parent feels stressed about their child’s academic performance, they’re more likely to support their child.
- In relationships, stress creates the desire to change and improve the situation.
- A student who feels a little stressed about their exams may be more likely to study harder and improve their results.
From these examples, we can see why some stress is important. It can cause us to think about others and to act selflessly.
However, there are also cases where individuals can exceed normal stress levels and actually draw away from others completely.
Balance is everything. Here’s why…
5. The Dangers Of Stress.
As too much of anything can cause problems, there are dangers of excessive and/or long-term stress…
5.1. Heart Problems.
Long-term stress is linked to cardiovascular disease as it can restrict the blood vessels.
Due to the fight-or-flight response in stressed individuals, decreased oxygen (hyperventilation) can have an effect on the heart and even lungs as well.
Highly-stressed or anxious individuals are also at an increased risk of a heart attack due to high blood pressure and weaker heart muscles, associated with heavy stress.
Even for those who are not predisposed to anxiety, stress can act as an initiator of an acute or chronic anxiety disorder.
Excessive stress can also cause panic attacks.
Panic attacks are intense periods of extreme fear, feelings of loss of control, and a series of physical ailments (e.g. chest tightness, breathing difficulties, pounding heart, nausea).
5.3. Digestion Problems.
Because stress causes a fight-or-flight response, digestion can either be halted, boosted, or both.
This article explains the link between stress and digestion problems in more detail.
This can result in not just occasional stomach aches and bathroom troubles — but also chronic digestive disorders such as:
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Stomach ulcers
Stress can also affect how your body breaks down food and absorbs nutrients based on numerous factors:
Poor diet, acid reflux, or overgrowth of bad bacteria in the gut.
A series of nutritional deficiencies whether due to malabsorption or from a finicky diet from stress can also arise.
Nutritional deficiencies such as low magnesium can in turn cause a variety of symptoms from heart palpitations to muscle weakness.
Additionally, low iron levels due to poor eating can initiate anemia.
5.4. Suppressed immunity.
For individuals who are chronically stressed, their immunity is reduced long-term.
Because the bodies of stressed individuals are focused on keeping the individual safe.
The body systems – including the immune system – temporarily go on “lock down” to give the individual energy to fight or escape if necessary.
This means that they are more susceptible to everyday illnesses such as the common cold, poor wound healing, infections (e.g. yeast infections, sinus infections), or diseases.
5.5. Different Gene Expression.
Your metabolism and risks of cancer can all be influenced by chronic stress – and often not in your favour.
Genes responsible for enzymes that assist in detoxifying the body can also be affected with chronic stress as well as a poor diet associated with such.
There is a branch of science called nutrigenomics that discusses the connection between diet and gene expression.
Since stressed individuals are more likely to over/under-eat or turn to unhealthy foods, a poor diet alone can disrupt the genes you express.
This may even act as a catalyst for conditions you a predisposed to.
6. How To Manage Stress.
It is possible to manage your stress levels, here’s how…
6.1. Change Your Mindset.
Mindset plays a significant role in our stress levels. This is because we can change our reaction to stress.
Sure, getting involved in a physical fight is a scenario where we’ll need a fight-or-flight response – and thus, stress.
However, situations such as needing to finish homework, babysitting for the day, or doing chores are ‘perceived stressors’.
…This means you can change your reaction to them.
It all comes down to how you view stressful situations:
If you teach yourself to enjoy chores rather than see them as annoying, you can train your brain to perceive chore-related tasks as less stressful.
This is called ‘stress response’.
You can associate positivity with a task or event. And as a result, the brain won’t see it as a stressor.
Getting a workout isn’t just good for the body. Exercise releases endorphins: feel-good chemicals.
As a result, better sleep, reduced stress and anxiety, and increased happiness can come out of a workout.
Just 5 minutes of aerobic exercise each day can benefit one’s stress levels. Additionally, working out is great for all systems and organs in the body.
With that said, this can improve the areas (e.g. heart, metabolism) that stress damages in the first place.
Try experimenting with different exercises, such as:
- Jumping jacks
- Dancing (e.g. zumba)
6.3. Take Time To Relax.
Stress means that the brain and body are overstimulated.
So allowing yourself downtime is important when dealing with stress.
A high-strung, always-on-the-go lifestyle can increase stress levels and related symptoms.
Some ways you can relax include:
- Taking a long bubble bath
- Reading a good book
- Watching your favorite movie
- Walking the dog
- Or sitting out in the yard and enjoying nature.
Meditation is one empowering mental activity to spiritually bring yourself back down to equilibrium.
Meditating for just 10 to 15 minutes each day can help eliminate your stress and physical symptoms.
If you’re new to meditation, try it with a friend or a group.
There are also videos online or meditation CDs that can teach you how to meditate and guide you through the process.
7. Negative Ways To Manage Stress.
7.1. Ignoring The Problem.
Some believe if they act like stress and its exasperaters don’t exist, things will resolve on their own.
While not dwelling on the things stressing you out may eliminate some tension, most stressors must be managed properly.
Ignoring stress is an avoidant way of fixing a problem. And if you’re stress levels are high enough, this can hurt you in the long run.
That’s because neither the situation you are in nor how you deal with stress in general will improve.
7.2. Drinking & Smoking.
Drinking, smoking, and general drug usage may all seem like adequate go-tos when dealing with stress.
But not only do these substances harm your health, they can also lead to bad habits.
Often this creates unhealthy habits long-term, and never really deals with the underlying problem.
7.3. Avoiding Others.
Keeping away from loved ones is another negative way of coping with stress.
Instead of mending problems with others or turning to others for emotional support, some push people out of their life.
In worst case scenarios, stressed individuals may even consider ending relationships or avoiding friends in the process, only causing more stress in the long-run.
7.4. Dwelling On The Negative.
A negative mindset when dealing with stress only exacerbates the pre-existing problem – as stress and emotions are related to one another.
When someone is already dealing with stress and falls into the trap of negative thinking, they are:
1) More likely to continue struggling with chronic stress.
2) Less likely to take action to reduce their stress.
7.5. Emotional Eating.
Emotional eating is a harmful habit that often worsens physical symptoms, stress levels, and can cause weight fluctuations.
Emotional eating often consists of leaning towards rich, fatty, salty, and sugary foods as a way of comfort.
However, the someone chooses food for dealing with stressful situations, the more they will rely on it for future problems.
This creates a stronger bond between emotional distress and food in the long run.
If you have difficulty eating under stress, consider the following:
- Consult a doctor and ask for support.
- Instead of three large meals, opt for several smaller meals throughout the day.
- Consume meal replacement drinks (e.g. protein, smoothies) for the times you find difficulty eating solid foods.
- Carry snacks with you. Try to eat a few bites here and there when you feel you can.
8. Tips For Managing Stress.
Learning how to manage stress now can really empower you in the future.
Here’s a few tips to get you started…
8.1. Get Some Sleep.
Try to aim for 8 to 10 hours of sleep each night. Consider taking short naps as needed, as stress can drain the body quickly.
Never feel guilty for sleeping longer than usual. The body repairs itself while sleeping, and you need it more than ever when stressed.
8.2. Try Relaxation Techniques.
Partaking in deep-breathing exercises and mindfulness techniques everyday can improve the effects of stress long-term.
I’ve actually created a list of my 15 favourite relaxation techniques here.
8.3. Keep A Stress Diary.
Because stress is emotion-based, it can help to write down your frustrations, worries, and other thoughts in a diary.
This can be a physical diary or an online one.
If you’re frustrated about a specific person, consider writing a letter in your diary to this person (without sending it, of course) to help give you peace of mind.
By doing this, you may discover a new perspective or improve your ability to manage the situation.
8.4. Learn How To Manage Your Time.
Time management is an important part of maintaining a proper work-life balance.
But sometimes, that’s easier said that done!
So consider taking a time management course or consult a counsellor to help maintain a better balance in your life.
8.5. Say No To Unimportant Tasks.
If your schedule or to-do list keeps stacking up higher than you can handle, something’s got to give.
If your emotional and mental health is on the line, it’s not selfish to turn away clients, refuse friends’ offers to hang out, or even put off household chores for a few days to catch the break you deserve.
8.6. Treat Yourself.
After a long day of work, school, caring for children, or running errands, be sure you take the time to unwind afterwards.
Treating yourself to a small treat, a manicure, or some quality time with your friends, can really help to alleviate your stress.
8.7. Listen To Soft Music Or ASMR Videos.
Especially before bed, listening to music or ASMR videos can be relaxing for the nerves and help you fall asleep.
However, it’s not recommended to listen to extremely relaxing music or sounds when driving or using machinery as they may cause drowsiness.
9. Stress Management FAQs.
9.1. How Do I Cope With Stress?
It’s really important to try not to let stress overwhelm you.
Most stressful situations are out of our control, however, we can change our reaction to stressful situations.
Check out my guide here if you’re looking for ways to deal with stressful situations.
9.2. How Can I Make Stress My Friend?
You can befriend stress by changing your relationship with it.
A small amount of stress can be a positive influence in your life – but it starts by understanding the benefits of stress and why we feel it.
Tip: Want to understand more about changing your relationship with stress? Check out section 4.1 on ‘positive stress’ above.
9.3. How Can You Stop Stress?
Stress is a very natural part of life, we’re hardwired as humans to feel stressed from time to time.
And because of this, you can’t really stop stress. However, you can reduce and minimise stress with relaxation techniques.
If you’d like some tips, check out my guide to relaxation techniques.
9.4. How Does Stress Affect The Brain?
Here’s a few ways stress affects the brain:
- In a study by Yale University, research revealed that chronic stress can actually shrink the brain.
- Stress can also kill brain cells, and affect your cognitive learning abilities (study by Rockfeller University)
- Stress can suppress your concentration levels, memory and impair your rational thought process (research by University of Maryland Medical Center)
>You may also enjoy reading Adrenal Fatigue: Diagnosing the Burnout Epidemic, by Aviva Romm, MD