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As we celebrate Stress Awareness Month in April, I know there is so much to stress about: mass shootings, wars across the world, the long-term effects of the pandemic, and stress everyday life and work in the 21st century. I’m sure you have your list.
Everyone experiences stress at different times in their lives. But when is stress a problem that requires our attention? What symptoms should people watch out for? What are the health impacts of long-term stress? What are healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms? And what techniques can help treat and prevent stress?
After dropping my child off at school late (sorry, kid, my fault), I was eagerly awaiting this advice from CNN medical analyst Dr. Leana Wen. Wen is an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. She previously served as Baltimore’s health commissioner and president of Behavioral Health Systems Baltimore.
CNN: Let’s start with the basics. What exactly is stress?
Dr. Leana Wen: There is no single definition of stress. The World Health Organization definition refers to a state of worry or tension caused by a difficult situation. Many people experience stress as mental or emotional tension. Others also have physical manifestations of stress.
Stress is a natural reaction. It is a human response that pushes us to respond to perceived challenges and threats. Some stresses can be healthy and cause us to fulfill our obligations. Perceived stress can prompt us to study for a test or finish a project by a certain deadline. Almost everyone experiences this kind of stress to some degree.
CNN: Why can stress be a problem?
Magnifying glass: The same human response that motivates us to work hard and finish a project can also lead to other emotions, like not being able to relax and becoming irritable and anxious. Some people develop physical reactions, such as headaches, stomachaches, and trouble sleeping. Long-term stress can lead to anxiety and depression, and it can worsen symptoms in people with pre-existing behavioral health issues, including substance use.
CNN: What are the symptoms of stress that people should watch out for?
Magnifying glass: In addition to feeling irritable and anxious, people under stress may also feel nervous, uncertain and angry. They often express other symptoms, including a lack of motivation; have trouble concentrating; and being tired, overwhelmed and exhausted. Often people in stressful situations will report being sad or depressed.
It is important to note that depression and anxiety are separate medical diagnoses. A person suffering from depression and/or anxiety could see their symptoms exacerbated when they go through times in their life with additional stress. Long-term stress can also lead to depression and anxiety.
One way to think about the difference between stress, anxiety, and depression is that stress is usually a response to an external problem. The external cause can be good and motivating, such as the need to complete a project. It can also be negative emotional stress, such as an argument with a romantic partner, worries about financial stability, or a difficult situation at work. The stress should disappear once the situation is resolved.
Anxiety and depression, on the other hand, are usually persistent. Even after a stressful external event has passed, these internal feelings of apprehension, unworthiness and sadness are still there and interfere with your ability to live and enjoy your life.
CNN: What are the health impacts of long-term stress?
Magnifying glass: Chronic stress can have long-term consequences. Studies have shown that it can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. It is associated with a poorer immune response and decreased cognitive function.
Stressed people are also more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking, binge drinking, substance use, lack of sleep, and physical inactivity. These lifestyle factors can in turn lead to poorer health outcomes.
CNN: What techniques can help with stress?
Magnifying glass: First, awareness is important. Know your own body and your reaction to stress. Sometimes anticipating that a situation may be stressful and being prepared to deal with it can reduce stress and anxiety.
Second, identifying symptoms can help. For example, if you know your stress reaction includes an increased heart rate and restlessness, you can detect symptoms as they arise and become aware of the stressful situation as it unfolds. it occurs.
Third, know which stress relief techniques work for you. Some people are big fans of mindfulness meditation. These, along with deep breathing exercises, are good for everyone.
For me, nothing beats stress relief like exercise. For me, what helps is exercise, especially swimming. Aerobic exercise is associated with stress relief, and mixing it with high-intensity diets can also help.
Many people have other specific techniques that help them. Some people clean their house, tidy their closets or work in their garden. Others spend time walking in nature, writing in a journal, knitting, playing with their pets or riding bicycles.
My advice is to experiment with what works, take stock of existing techniques that help you, and incorporate some of these practices into your regular routine. Then, in times of stress, these are great tools to turn to that you know will help you.
CNN: What unhealthy coping strategies should people avoid?
Magnifying glass: Certainly. There are things that people turn to in an effort to feel better in the short term that can actually make things worse. Excessive alcohol consumption, drug use, and smoking are not healthy coping strategies. It’s the same with staying up all night, binge eating, and venting your frustration on your loved ones. These have far-reaching consequences, and you should reconsider them if they have been your coping mechanisms in the past.
CNN: When is it time to ask for help?
Magnifying glass: If the stress you’re feeling constantly interferes with your work, social or personal life or if you’re showing signs and symptoms of depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders, it’s time to seek help. .
Consider speaking with your primary care physician to get a referral to a therapist. Your workplace may have an employee assistance program that you can also contact. And the federal mental health crisis hotline, 988, is another resource.
In April, for Stress Awareness Month, I hope we can all assess our own level of stress as well as our reaction to stress. We need to recognize what helps us reduce and alleviate stress as we aim to improve our physical and emotional well-being.