Knowing the symptoms of stress is vitally important to preventive health, and learning good stress management skills is one of the hallmarks of a good preventative health care plan. While a little stress in life is normal, and can actually boost motivation and concentration, chronic stress contributes to lowered immune system function, addictive behaviors, and many chronic and degenerative illnesses. In our modern era, we are confronted with ongoing societal and workplace stress in ways we are not biologically designed to cope with. The fight or flight response is meant to be intense, brief, and then regulated as the body returns to homeostasis, but we are often exposed to a near constant stream of potential stressors that take their toll on our physical and mental health over time. Here are some of the top signs that stress is negatively impacting your health and well-being, and what you can do about it.
Managing stress well takes a two-pronged approach: we do what we can to structure our lives in such a way that we prevent stress where we can, and when confronted with stress we cannot control, we can develop skills that help ourselves process events in healthier ways. We are aiming to minimize the stress burden on our minds and bodies as much as possible. Here are five stress management techniques that will help:
Diaphragmatic breathing helps to quickly reset your parasympathetic nervous system (the stress regulating part of your nervous system) after stress induced fight or flight mode. When we are under stress our breathing tends to be tight, shallow, and centered in the chest. By taking some conscious deep breaths from your diaphragm for a few minutes, you will reduce your stress hormone (cortisol) levels, and help your body regulate back to a state of calm.
Meditation is one of the most efficient stress reduction techniques we know of. Regular mindfulness meditation reduces the amount of neurons in the amygdala, which is the area of the brain associated with fear, stress and anxiety. A regular meditation practice helps train you to release negative thought patterns while changing the brain on a structural level as well.
Regular exercise releases endorphins which help you relax and feel good, it boosts your mood, and increases feelings of calm while lowering symptoms of anxiety, stress and depression. Regular exercise also improves sleep, which is key to good stress management.
Practicing gratitude is shown to increase optimism and reduce the harmful effects of stress. A simple gratitude list or journal that you work with each day is a powerful way to boost your resilience against stress and hardship. In the face of life’s challenges, it is helpful to remember the things in our lives that are good, however simple they may be. Try this: each night before bed, jot down five to ten things you feel grateful for in your life. Take the time to feel, not just think about, why you are grateful for this person or aspect of your life. With time and practice the benefits to your mood and stress resilience will increase.
Social support is key to good mental and emotional health. Being able to talk to a trusted friend or advisor about our troubles helps us feel connected to others, and reduces feelings of isolation. People with higher levels of social support report lower levels of depression and anxiety, higher self-esteem and are better able to cope with stress. Many people need more emotional support than they have access to, so it may be necessary to consciously work to build a better support network in your life. Reach out to a colleague or friend, take a new class where you will meet others with common interests, or seek professional therapy when needed. Community support groups can also be an invaluable resource for connecting with others for specific problems such as illness, addiction recovery, or other stress related life events. In sum, the demands placed on us in life can be overwhelming at times, but with practice we can develop greater stress resilience and problem solving skills. While we cannot avoid all the stressors that we encounter, we can develop healthier responses for coping with life’s inevitable hardships. Not only will skillful stress management increase your mental and emotional health, it is part of an overall preventative care lifestyle that will help you avoid many chronic and degenerative illnesses, and increase your longevity and quality of life for years to come.